By Earle Hitchner
Seven-time All-Ireland button accordion champion John Whelan doesn’t let the grass grow under his feet. The Irish Echo’s Traditionalist of the Year for 1998, he performed a track with Lovin’ Spoonful founder John Sebastian and former Fiddler Fever members Jay Ungar and Molly Mason on "Song of the Hills" (Shanachie), a new slant on some Appalachian classics.
Whelan also has a new solo album out, "Come to Dance," his sixth overall and fourth for the Virgin imprint of Narada. It was recorded live last November in Whelan’s home parish church of St. Gabriel’s in Milford, Conn., with fiddler Jim Eagan, bassist Tom Wetmore, guitar/cittern/mandolin player Robin Bullock, uilleann pipes/low whistle player Cillian Vallely, and guitar/mandolin player John McGann.
The Ang Lee-directed movie Whelan both plays and appears in, "Ride With the Devil," is now scheduled for a fall release, and Whelan has been approached by Gaelic Storm, the steerage band in the blockbuster film "Titanic," to produce their next album.
Departing from the John Whelan Band in recent months are Liz Knowles, who’s been performing in "Riverdance," and Robin Bullock, who’s decided to pursue more classically oriented music. Replacing those two instrumentalists in JWB have been either Baltimore’s Jim Eagan or New York City’s Marie Reilly on fiddle, and Silver Spring, Maryland’s Zan McLeod or Wantage, New Jersey’s Bruce Uchitel on guitar. A banjoist and mandolinist as well, Uchitel has performed in the past with such artists as Bruce Springsteen, Phoebe Snow, and Bette Midler.
Upcoming concerts by the John Whelan Band include the Community Christian Church, 4601 Main St., Kansas City, Mo., at 8 p.m. on Feb. 27 ( 374-6731); San Francisco Irish Festival, Fort Mason Festival Pavilion, San Francisco, Calif., on March 6 at 6 p.m. ( 490-5115); Laura Belle Club, New York City, on March 12 at 8 p.m., along with the Wolfe Tones and Gaelic Storm ( 853-4183); Paramount Center for the Arts, 1008 Brown St., Peekskill, N.Y., on March 13 at 8 p.m., along with guests Jerry O’Sullivan, John McGann, and Maureen Berry from Footworks ( 739-2333, ext. 25); Mars 2112, 1650 Broadway, NYC, on March 17 at 6:30 p.m. ( 489-2112); and St. Mary’s Church, 70 Gulf St., Milford, Conn., on March 20 at 8 p.m. ( 878-6683).
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Though fiddler Séamus Connolly and button accordionist Joe Derrane have performed together before, and Derrane and guitar/mandolin player John McGann have performed together before, and Connolly and McGann have performed together before, they have never performed together as a trio.
That will change on Sunday, Feb. 28, at 6 p.m. at The Turning Point, 468 Piermont Ave., Piermont, Rockland County, N.Y., where they will make their concert debut as a threesome. It’s an exciting combination of two outstanding Irish traditional musicians, Connolly and Derrane, and a superb American roots musician, John McGann, whose bloodline runs back to Mayo (father’s side) and Waterford (mother’s side).
Connolly, a 10-time All-Ireland fiddle champion, and Derrane, whose "The Tie That Binds" (Shanachie) finished No. 2 in the Irish Echo’s Top 10 list of traditional albums for 1998, are well known to Irish audiences.
McGann, who was the guitar accompanist on the first Celtic Fiddle Festival tour and album and has also recorded with Kips Bay, is perhaps better known to newgrass, No Depression-country, and free-form acoustic music followers. "Rust Farm" (Daring), the latest recording on which he appears, features 10 tracks he co-wrote, including a fleet-fingered instrumental, "Belfast." In 1985, McGann won the prestigious National Mandolin Championship in Winfield, Kansas, and there’s no better live example of his mandolin prowess than on the medley of five reels he played on "Gaelic Roots" (Kells Music).
The phone number at The Turning Point is (914) 359-1089.
In the Feb. 6 issue of Billboard magazine, Jah
Wobble, former bassist for Public Image Ltd., a post-Sex Pistols band featuring Johnny Rotten, discusses his new solo album, "The Celtic Poets," and Celtic music in general. According to the article, his recording, due out on March 12 in the U.S., is an exploration of "Celtic concepts."
But one "Celtic concept" Wobble has yet to grasp properly is traditional music. Here’s what he says: "A lot of Celtic music that I’ve heard tends to be too much on the light, folky side. I wanted to convey something in the idiom that I would call Celtic that’s very heavy and unapologetically deep — very bass and drums and not too light and ‘diddley-diddley-dee-dee’ in a clichéd fiddle approach."
Had Wobble done his musical homework and listened to the real rather than surreal thing, he would have quickly realized that traditional music antedates by many centuries any other sound labeled "Celtic" today. This supposedly hackneyed music has far outstripped in longevity, quality, and vigor such anti-rock-and-roll bands as Public Image Ltd., many of which faded like mayflies in a moshpit. Besides, would anyone in his or her right mind refer to the traditional music of De Dannan, Altan, Solas, or Martin Hayes as reflecting "’diddley-diddley-dee-dee’ in a clichéd fiddle approach"?
Jah wobbling in your logic, fellow.
Open House closes its door
The West Coast-based quartet Open House, headed by fiddler Kevin Burke, have decided to call it a day. After three recordings on Green Linnet, including "Hoof and Mouth" two years ago, Burke, Mark Graham, Paul Kotapish, and Sandy Silva will be going their separate ways.
Playing a mixture of Celtic, American, European, and original music, it was a hydra-headed group that never really broke through. One cheery note: Burke is planning to cut his first solo album since "Up Close" in 1984. His recording and touring with Patrick Street, whose seventh album, "Live From Patrick Street," is now out, will continue.
The Boston Globe has cited a few albums of Irish music
and/or by Irish artists in its year-end, best-of lists for 1998. They are "Peter and Wendy" (Alula), by Johnny Cunningham, et al.; "The Irish Volunteer" (Rykodisc), by David Kincaid; "The Gift" (Shanachie), by Jerry O’Sullivan; "No Mermaid" (Interscope), by Sinéad Lohan; and "The Words That Remain" (Shanachie), by Solas. The last recording was also the only Irish album cited by Jon Pareles of The New York Times in his best-of-world-music article recently.
Poozies push stateside
Finally, one of the most talented acts to emerge from Britain, the Poozies, has a distributor in the U.S. and will be touring here sometime in 1999. Compass Records, the independent label run by banjoist Alison Brown and bassist Garry West in Nashville, has issued "Infinite Blue," the band’s third album, released last year on Pure Records in Sheffield, England. The fourth recording they did, "Come Raise Your Head," was a four-track CD on their own Poozies imprint in 1997.
The Poozies are Patsy Seddon and Mary MacMaster, both fine singers who also make up Scotland’s premier harp duo, Sileas; ex-Equation vocalist Kate Rusby, who plays fiddle and guitar and whose solo album, "Hourglass," has garnered raves in Britain, and former Kathryn Tickell Band member Karen Tweed on piano accordion and backing vocals. A former accordion student of John Whelan, Tweed also performs with guitarist Ian Carr in a duo, with The Two Duos Quartet (the other duo are button accordionist Andy Cutting and fiddler Chris Wood), and with the Irish-Swedish-British quartet Swap.
Excellent instrumentalists all, the Poozies positively shine on intricate vocal harmonies. Each of their four recordings features a knockout a cappella song. "Another Train," a Pete Morton composition, was among the highlights of "Chantoozies," their debut album, while the traditional "Sorrows Away" is the unaccompanied vocal track distinguishing "Infinite Blue."
Compass Records is at 117 30th Ave. South, Nashville, TN 37212; (615) 320-7672.