By Earle Hitchner
LONG EXPECTANT COMES AT LAST, by Cathal McConnell. Compass Records CD 742872, (615)320-7672, www.compassrecords.com.
Céilí bands aside, the Chieftains certainly deserve their status as Celtic music’s longest-running act, now approaching 37 years, but the Boys of the Lough have been at it nearly as long, 33 years. Throughout that period, Cathal McConnell has been a constant and, in fact, the only remaining original member. This native of Ballinaleck, Co. Fermanagh, plays flute and tin whistle with a riveting buoyancy or poignancy, sings with an engaging earthiness, and, in concert, tells anecdotes of skewed logic and humor that perhaps only Yogi Berra could fully fathom.
Though his trademark impish anecdotes on stage are understandably absent on this studio recording, "Long Expectant Comes at Last" amply delivers on McConnell’s other talents. Surprisingly, it is only his second solo album, arriving 22 years after his first, "On Lough Erne’s Shore" (Topic), and taking more than three years to complete.
The wait has been worth it.
McConnell’s breathy style of flute playing, partly inspired by Fermanagh flutist John Joe Maguire, is best served with spare accompaniment. On the reels "Johnny Loughran’s/Kathleen Marie" and "The Cocktail/Johnny Wilmot’s," he’s backed by De Dannan bodhrán player Colm Murphy, and on the jigs "Big John’s Hard Jig/Mama’s Pet," Solas guitarist John Doyle sits in with him. Those tracks are gems, as is the medley of "Crowley’s/O’Rourke’s" reels, where it’s just McConnell on tin whistle and Pat Kilbride on cittern.
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Another Solas member, fiddler Winifred Horan, also provides expert accompaniment. She’s unerring in finding the spine of a tune or song and then expertly playing off it, creating a harmony that deepens the listening experience. This happens in the song "The Banks of Strathdon," tenderly sung by McConnell, and in the reel of the air-reel medley "The Flower of Fin’/Farewell to Waverly Park," where McConnell’s flute playing is a model of subtly shifting tempo.
The best song on the album is "The Hurricane of Reels," a Paddy Tunney composition that amusingly uses an array of tune titles to tell a story, all spliced together with choruses that lilt the last reel named in the verses. Joining McConnell on this cleverly written song are John and Valerie McManus, both residents of Aughakillymaude, Co. Fermanagh.