By Earle Hitchner
When you think of great céilí bands from County Clare, both the Tulla and the Kilfenora immediately pop to mind. Also, for those with longer memories of shorter-lived céilí bands, the Laictin Naofa, formed in 1955, is fondly remembered. It featured such legendary musicians as uilleann piper Willie Clancy and fiddler Junior Crehan.
Out of Lisdoonvarna, Co. Clare, in the mid-1980s emerged another céilí band of notable musicianship: Four Courts. It features fiddler Joe Rynne, accordionist Peter Griffin, flute and tin whistle player Séamus Hynes, keyboardist Padraic O’Reilly, drummer Brendan Vaughan, and concertinist Chris Droney.
From Bellharbour, Droney won no fewer than 10 All-Ireland titles on concertina, including a staggering nine in a row from 1959 through 1967. His superb solo album on Topic/Free Reed Records in 1975, "The Flowing Tide," strengthened his growing reputation as one of Ireland’s finest players ever — in the same rarefied league as Noel Hill and Paddy Murphy.
The Four Courts Céilí Band is now making its first tour of America, concentrating on the Northeast. With them is the Tulla Céilí Band’s J.J. Conway, who’s replaced Séamus Hynes just for this tour. Remaining dates are Friday, June 9, from 7:30-11:30 p.m., Commodore Barry Irish Center, 6815 Emlen St., Philadelphia ( 428-4546;  468-3617), and Saturday and Sunday, June 10-11, Stonehill Irish Festival, Stonehill College campus, North Easton, Mass. ( 821-8291, 1  GO-IRISH, or www.irishculture.org).
Sponsoring this Four Courts Céilí Band tour is Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann. For further information, call CCÉ’s Paul Keating at (201) 722-0059 or email@example.com.
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Other acts scheduled to perform June 9-11 at the 10th annual Stonehill Irish Festival include Clare-born fiddler Séamus Connolly, Boston button accordion master Joe Derrane, Bronx-born fiddler Eileen Ivers, and rock band Black 47.
Claddagh’s stateside reissues
The new album by the Chieftains, "Water from the Well" (RCA Victor/BMG), is a blissful return to unalloyed Irish traditional music from the band. But for those interested in the hard-core Irish traditional recordings from their early days, look no further than the recent crop of Claddagh reissues on CD by Atlantic. The latter inked an exclusive, long-term North American licensing agreement with the 41-year-old, Dublin-based label in the fall of 1999.
Since then, the Chieftains’ reissues have included "From the Beginning: The Chieftains 1 to 4," a box set containing their first four recordings, originally released between 1964 and 1973. These hard-core traditional albums were deservedly acclaimed in their time and preceded the tremendous media boost the Chieftains received in 1975 from Stanley Kubrick’s "Barry Lyndon," for which the band provided a great deal of the music.
A new, superior color print of the movie has recently been shown in a few major U.S. cities and, since Kubrick’s death, has undergone a reevaluation by some critics, who feel it’s much better than the harsh reviews it received a quarter century ago. (I disagree. The film is often lovely to look at, it’s even better to listen to — thanks to the Chieftains, but the acting and action have the pace of a hippo in mud.)
The second album ever released by Claddagh was the first album ever released by the Chieftains. It seems fitting, then, that Claddagh/Atlantic has separately reissued just last month the initial Chieftains’ recording from 1964, along with their next album from 1969, marking fiddler Seán Keane’s recording debut with the band. "The Chieftains’ Collection: The Very Best of the Claddagh Years," a single-disc compilation drawn from the band’s first five albums, is also available on Claddagh/Atlantic.
Of the label’s other reissues on CD, three merit special mention: "There Was a Maid," the superb 1978 solo debut by Caherlistrane, Co. Galway, singer Dolores Keane that captures her in full vocal glory; "Tin Whistles," a 1973 recording by Paddy Moloney and Seán Potts, and "Carolan’s Receipt," a 1975 album by harper Derek Bell that celebrates the distinctive, baroque-flavored music of blind Irish harper-composer Turlough O’Carolan (1670-1738).
The Chieftains, by the way, will be touring the U.S. from June 13 through July 3, with either Los Lobos or Jethro Tull (yes, "Locomotive Breath" buffs) opening for them. On June 27 at 7:30 p.m., the Chieftains and Los Lobos will appear at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, One Center St., Newark ( 507-8900 or 1  GO-NJPAC).
Ashley in ashes?
Lawyers for Cape Breton "bad boy" fiddler Ashley MacIsaac, who’s toured in the past with the Chieftains, reportedly filed bankruptcy papers on his behalf in April.
Anyone who read Rebecca Mead’s chilling article on the Creignish-born musician in the New Yorker magazine some months back won’t be shocked by this latest development in MacIsaac’s seemingly steepening decline. As Mead disclosed in her article, he has been a notorious spendthrift, dabbled in drugs, been prone to Keith Moon-like antics in motels and hotels, been confrontational in his dealings with record labels, and exhibited often outrageous behavior in performance (e.g., the infamous episode on "Late Show With David Letterman," where he kicked up his kilt without apparent benefit of underwear).
As a fiddler, stepdancer, and pianist, Ashley MacIsaac is a tremendous talent, yet, sadly, his seamier excesses have wreaked havoc with his professional and now personal life.
In a bit of a surprise to many followers of traditional music, Waterson Carthy’s "Broken Ground" (Topic) took top honors in the Celtic/British Isles category of the 2000 "indie awards" sponsored by the Association for Independent Music. Such strong candidates as Lúnasa’s "Otherworld" and Niamh Parsons’s "Blackbirds & Thrushes" were among the other four nominees. The previous three awards (1997-99) in this category were all won by the same group: Solas.
The backup vocalist in Carly Simon’s current band may look familiar: Heather Rankin. A member of Cape Breton Island’s Rankin Family, who broke up professionally last year, she is the sister of John Morris Rankin, who died last January in a car accident. Heather has been appearing on various TV shows with Carly Simon in support of the latter’s new album, "The Bedroom Tapes" (Arista). Also in Simon’s band are former "Saturday Night Live" house band member T-Bone Wolk, who co-produced Eileen Ivers’s "Wild Blue" solo album, and harpist Andreas Vollenweider.