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Trad Beat: Clare musical legend passes away

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Earle Hitchner

Worn, veined, mottled with age spots, the hands of Martin "Junior" Crehan are starkly — and beautifully — photographed by Christy McNamara in the 1997 book "The Heartbeat of Irish Music." Another photo in the book shows Crehan, sparse white hair atop a weathered face, looking almost expressionless, yet his concentration is obvious as he rakes his bow across the horsehairs of his fiddle. A third snapshot shows Crehan, hair tousled, fiddling in the kitchen while his wife, Cissie, knits in a nearby chair.

Those images now take on more import as news spreads internationally of Crehan’s death at 4 p.m. Irish time this past Aug. 3 at his home in Bonavilla, Mullach, Co. Clare, at age 90. A venerable, venerated figure in Irish traditional music, Crehan played the fiddle and concertina, was a singer and storyteller, and composed tunes, such as "The Mist-Covered Mountain," that are still performed and recorded around the world. Scully Casey, father of well-known fiddler Bobby Casey, provided much of the early musical tutelage for Crehan, who saw the rise, fall, and rise again in respect and popularity of Irish traditional music during the course of his life.

He certainly did his part to keep it alive and thriving. Besides his estimable gifts as a performer, composer, and céilí band member (notably the Clare-based Lactin Naofa), Crehan was president and treasurer of Scoil Samhraidh Willie Clancy, more familiarly known as Willie Week, a celebration in early July of traditional music in Clancy’s hometown of Miltown Malbay.

A great gentleman of Irish music, Junior Crehan is survived by his wife and four children: son Pat and daughters Margaret, Ita, and Angela.

Ossian founding member dies

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Back in the 1970s, the Scottish traditional counterparts to Ireland’s Planxty and the Bothy Band were the Battlefield Band, Silly Wizard, and Ossian. Of that troika, Ossian arguably made the most impressive music, drawn from a deep, varied repertoire and graced by deft, intricate arrangements and superb harmonies.

Founding member George Jackson, whose family came from a Donegal Gaeltacht, where he often spent his summers, died from primary pulmonary hypertension this past July 9 in Glasgow, Scotland. Just 44 years old, he was an arts officer and had been teaching music in local schools at the time of his death. A fine multi-instrumentalist, George played guitar, cittern, mandolin, fiddle, viola, tin whistle, and flute, and he also sang.

Formed in 1976, Ossian comprised George and Billy Jackson as well as fiddler John Martin from the folk-rock group Contraband, plus singer Billy Ross from the folk band Dapplegrim. Together this quartet made two albums, "Ossian" and "St. Kilda Wedding," before Ross departed. The band jelled as never before when former Alba and Jock Tamson’s Bairns singer Tony Cuffe joined them. The four albums they made together for Iona Records, "Seal Song," "Dove Across the Water," "Borders," and "Light on a Distant Shore," the last three featuring Iain MacDonald on highland pipes and flute, rank among the best recordings of Scots traditional music ever made. ("Seal Song," the first Ossian album featuring Cuffe, is an indisputable classic.)

But by 1989, the wear and tear of touring had taken its toll on Ossian, who decided to disband. Eventually Iona Records, the label George Jackson ran in Glasgow, was sold to Lismor Records, which has maintained it as an imprint for other artists to record on, but with uneven ‘sthetic results.

In 1997, the three members of the Scots band Smalltalk (Billy Ross, Stuart Morison, and Iain MacInnes) joined with Billy Jackson for a recording on the Greentrax label, "The Carrying Stream," under the band name Ossian. This new lineup, despite the well-intentioned and capably performed album they made, paled beside the prior group. But at least the new lineup and recording sparked a memorable reunion of Ossian members past and present at "Celtic Connections" in Glasgow last January.

A linchpin in the Scots traditional revival scene of the 1970s and early ’80s, George Jackson was laid to rest in Glasgow, where 600 people, many of them musicians, attended his funeral.

Come to the Fairgrounds

On Labor Day weekend, Sept. 5 and 6, the 22nd annual Washington Irish Folk Festival — one of the best in North America — will be held not at Wolf Trap in Vienna, Va., but at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds in Gaithersburg, Md. Music and dance will run from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday.

At the new site, there will be six concert stages featuring more than 200 performers during the two-day event, sponsored by the National Council for the Traditional Arts. Among the artists will be Altan, Solas, Beginish, Mary Bergin, Chulrua (Paddy O’Brien, Tim Britton, and Pat Egan), Craobh Rua, the Green Fields of America (celebrating their 20th anniversary), Frank Harte, P.J. Hernon and Swallow’s Tail, the John Whelan Band, the Next Generation (Jim Eagan, Elliot Grasso, Patrick and Seán Mangan, Seán Callahan, and Dan Gurney), and Turas, a young band from Clare that made quite a stir last year with its debut album, which finished in the Irish Echo’s top 20 trad list.

For ticket information, contact ProTix at (800) 955-5566 or (703) 218-6500.

Musical chairs

Two of the finest Irish flute players in the world, Michael McGoldrick and Kevin Crawford, have made significant moves in recent months.

Toss the Feathers and Flook are two bands with whom Manchester-born McGoldrick has played in the past, and he now leaves Lúnasa, his current band, to join Scots-based Capercaillie, on whose latest album, "Beautiful Wasteland," he guests.

Still performing and recording with Ennis-based quintet Moving Cloud, Kevin Crawford has occasionally filled in for McGoldrick and/or John McSherry in Lúnasa. (McSherry also tours with the Dónal Lunny Band, whose new album, "Coolfin," will be out on Blue Note in early fall.) When McGoldrick left Lúnasa, the rest of the band (McSherry, Seán Smyth, Donogh Hennessey, and Trevor Hutchinson) asked Crawford to come on board full-time.

Reavy riches

There was no greater composer of Irish traditional music in this century than Ed Reavy (1898-1988) from Barnagrove, Maudabawn, Co. Cavan. He wrote such enduringly popular tunes as "The Hunter’s House," "Maudabawn Chapel," "Never Was Piping So Gay," and "The Wild Swans at Coole."

Happily, a nonprofit foundation headed by his son Ed Reavy Jr. has made important headway in making Ed Reavy’s music more readily available to anyone interested in it. "The Collected Compositions of Ed Reavy, Vols. 1-3," is a three-cassette set featuring 126 tunes performed on fiddle by Ed’s son Joseph, with guitar backup from Joe Reilly. Two books, "The Ed Reavy Collection of Irish American Traditional Tunes, Vol. 1, The Music of Corktown," and "The Collected Compositions of Ed Reavy," with an introduction written by Mick Moloney, contain 100 and 127 tunes, respectively. ("Music of Corktown" offers seven Reavy originals amid traditional favorites, while the other book has Reavy originals only.)

To acquire these three items, all indispensable to a fuller appreciation of Ed Reavy’s music, write or call Ed Reavy Jr. at 2004 Aspen Circle, Springfield, PA 19064, (610) 543-3295. They can also be purchased from Green Grass Music, Carrick Road, Drumshanbo, Co. Leitrim, Ireland, 001-353-1-78-41236 (fax: 001-353-1-78-41237). All proceeds go directly to the nonprofit foundation that preserves Ed Reavy’s music.

Altan revisit

The Dublin-based quintet will be in concert for at least two upcoming East Coast dates: Wednesday, Sept. 2, at the Iron Horse, 20 Center St., Northampton, Mass. ([413] 584-0610), and Thursday, Sept. 3, at 8 p.m. at the Towne Crier Cafe, 62 Rte. 22, Pawling, N.Y. ([914] 855-1300). It’s been three years since Altan last performed at the Towne Crier Cafe, which has stepped up its bookings of Celtic-related acts in recent years.

Solas, Ivers updates

The eagerly anticipated third Shanachie album by Solas, entitled "The Words That Remain," features guest performances by Arkansas-born singer-songwriter Iris Dement and NYC-born five-string-banjo wizard Béla Fleck. Hearing Fleck and Solas’ Seamus Egan blaze away on their respective banjos, something they did a while back at a festival in Telluride, Colo., is an unabashed joy, and the same is true of Dement and Solas’ Karan Casey trading verses on a song. And Solas’ arrangement of Woody Guthrie’s "Pastures of Plenty," sung by Casey, is a knockout. The album is expected to be out on Shanachie before the end of this year.

On stage, Solas will be at Symphony Space, Broadway at 95th Street, NYC, on Friday, Nov. 6, at 8 p.m. ([212] 545-7536), and at the Iron Horse in Northampton, Mass., on Friday, Nov. 13.

A former bandmate of Seamus Egan, fiddler Eileen Ivers should have her major-label solo debut out by the beginning of next year. This Sony Classical release will feature such guest artists as Solas’ John Doyle and Seamus Egan, Cherish the Ladies’ Joanie Madden, jazz musicians Eddie Gomez and Randy Brecker, and Bakithi Kumalo, who played on Paul Simon’s "Graceland."

Next week, Ivers can be heard on the follow-up soundtrack "Back to Titanic," calculated to coattail the home video release of the Oscar-winning film "Titanic" on Sept. 1. This second soundtrack will also feature Gaelic Storm, the West Coast band heard in the movie but not on the initial soundtrack, as well as further vocals by Norway-born singer Sissel. Skyedance uilleann piper Eric Rigler is another musician appearing on "Back to Titanic," which was recorded at Air Studios in London.

McNamaras’ band

"Leitrim’s Hidden Treasure" is an apt title for the self-produced recording by the McNamara Family of Aughavas, South Leitrim. The music made by these six talented family members is simply exceptional. I’ll be reviewing their album, another one of those impressive surprise mailings that have been coming with increased frequency from Ireland, in a future issue.

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