By Earle Hitchner
BEGINISH, Inish Records 001, Cuas, Ballydavid, Co. Kerry, Ireland; 011-353-66-55399 (fax).
A sense of connection matters in Irish traditional music. Among musicians completely comfortable and in sync with each other, it often manifests itself nonverbally — a nod, a glance, a shoulder dip — and the players instantly know what to do and when to do it.
Such a connection can be heard to impressive advantage on "Beginish," the self-titled debut recording issued last year by a quartet comprising accordionist/singer Brendan Begley, fiddler Paul O’Shaughnessy, flutist Paul McGrattan, and bouzouki player Noel O’Grady. O’Shaughnessy and McGrattan often play together in the thriving session scene of Dublin, and in 1997 they cut a superb duet album, "Within a Mile of Dublin." Begley and McGrattan share a different but no less important background — that of teacher and pupil — demonstrating there’s a fourth R to be pursued after reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic: reels (and other dance tunes).
In a marvelous mix of mostly Kerry and Donegal repertoires and styles, Beginish, who are named after one of the Blasket Islands off the West Kerry coast, play with exceptional verve and touch. It’s impossible to remain still when the band leans into the reels "The Plough and the Stars/The Kilfenora/Maids of Galway/McGoldrick’s" or "Miss Patterson’s Slippers," the most visceral and stunning performances on the album. Accordion, fiddle, and flute spark off each other in a dazzling display of tight, hard-driving musicianship, with Colm Murphy’s bodhrán adding spot-on percussion underneath.
Kerry-flavored slides come bounding out of Begley’s box on "O’Keeffe’s No. 1/O’Keeffe’s No. 2/Thadelo’s," all learned from the playing of Maulykeaveane, Co. Kerry, accordionist Johnny O’Leary. The forceful, Scots-tinged style of Donegal fiddling can be heard in the expert playing of O’Shaughnessy, ex-member of Altan, on the march/reels medley of "Kitty in the Lane/The Hawk/The Templeglentaun." Some tasty barndances written by McGrattan, "The Taylor’s/Ansty’s," are played at a tempo and with a lift that are exemplary, as are the jigs "A Night at the Fair/Bill the Weaver’s/Síos Chun na Trá."
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The only disappointing track comes not from Beginish per se but from guests Maighread and Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill, two otherwise brilliant vocalists. Their harmony on "I Courted a Wee Lass," with Tríona plumbing a lower register, shows a groping strain that does neither the song nor the singers justice. Brendan Begley’s expressive singing of "The Rose of Aranmore" and his fine sean-nós vocal on "Iníon An Fhaoit Ón nGleann" will make listeners wonder why he didn’t undertake all three songs on the album.
But in the bigger picture, this is like picking on Da Vinci for painting too small a smile on his "Mona Lisa." Fact is, this initial recording by Beginish, one of the most talented traditional bands to emerge from Ireland in recent years, will provide plenty of mile-wide smiles.