By Earle Hitchner
John Whelan, a seven-time All-Ireland button accordion champion living in Milford, Conn., has just finished mixing a new album, his fifth, for Milwaukee-based Narada Records, an imprint of Virgin. This time out, though, the 41-year-old box player shifts the spotlight to a younger generation of musicians: 16-year-old fiddler Patrick Mangan from Brooklyn, 17-year-old uilleann piper Elliot Grasso from Baltimore, 18-year-old flutist Aaron Olwell from Virginia, 20-year-old fiddler Jim Eagan from Baltimore, and 20-year-old percussionist Paddy League from Virginia.
"The kids were incredible," Whelan said. "At least, they’re kids to me."
On the album, due for release in February, they play in various combinations with members of Whelan’s own band, featuring Tom Wetmore on bass and Flynn Cohen on guitar. At least two of these "kids," Mangan and Eagan, have performed with the John Whelan Band as recently as the summer.
"We toured Spain, England, and Ireland," Whelan said. "Pat did Spain with us, and Jim did the rest."
The band also appeared on European television and radio and guested on RTÉ’s "Céilí House."
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Besides this still untitled new album for Narada, Whelan has remixed his superb 1990 solo CD, "From the Heart" (Oenoke Records), and expects to reissue it with some bonus tracks and updated liner notes.
Also, for those in a video-renting mood, check out Ang Lee’s "Ride With the Devil," a 1999 movie about the Kansas/Missouri border skirmishes during the Civil War. In the opening credits, you’ll see a close-up shot of Whelan wearing period clothes and playing the button accordion.
Altan coming to Manhattan
Fresh off their Irish Music magazine readers’ poll award for best traditional album ("Another Sky" on Virgin), the Irish quintet Altan are already in the midst of a two-week tour of the U.S.
This Friday night, Sept. 22, at 8 o’clock, they’ll be in a concert sponsored by the World Music Institute at Town Hall, 123 W. 43rd St., in midtown Manhattan. For tickets and information, call (212) 545-7536 (WMI), (212) 840-2824 (Town Hall box office), or (212) 307-4100 (TicketMaster).
Remaining tour dates for Altan include the Irish 2000 Music and Arts Festival in Albany, N.Y., on Sept. 23, and Bad Abbots in Quincy, Mass., on Sept. 24.
Solas on tour with new guitarist
Oct. 10 is the official launch date for the fourth Shanachie CD by Solas, "The Hour Before Dawn." It will feature, for the first time with the band in the studio, Tipperary-born vocalist Deirdre Scanlan, who sings six of the album’s seven songs. The remaining song, "A Miner’s Life," is sung by guitarist John Doyle.
Though he’s on the new album, Doyle will not be with Solas on their current American tour. The last performance he gave as a band member was Aug. 20 at the Folks Festival in Lyons, Colo.
"John wanted to do other creative things and maybe go in a different direction," said Seamus Egan, a founding member of Solas. "Being in a band is like being in a marriage. Occasionally people drift apart, and that’s part of our mutual decision to part company."
Living now in the Smoky Mountain city of Asheville, N.C., Doyle spoke to me last Saturday from Chicago, where he was slated to perform with the Eileen Ivers Band. He essentially confirmed the reasons Egan gave for his departure.
"I’m going to be working a lot with Eileen and a bit with [Chicago fiddler] Liz Carroll," he said, "and I’ll be doing my own stuff. I’m also doing a solo album for Shanachie, and I have about half of it done. The rest I hope to finish by the end of the year, and I think it will come out in February-March."
Though Doyle is now playing with the Eileen Ivers Band, and her guitarist, Dónal Clancy, is now playing with Solas, both Doyle and Egan were adamant that this apparent switch of guitarists was unintentional.
"I didn’t leave Solas to play with Eileen’s band," Doyle said. "It just happened that way. I left Solas, and they picked Dónal to replace me. And after they picked Dónal, I thought I’d help out Eileen, who’s a friend, by playing with her for a few months. I enjoy playing with Eileen. I’ve played with her for years and on her solo albums."
So how did the remaining four Solas members — Egan, Scanlan, Winifred Horan, and Mick McAuley — choose Clancy? "Everyone put together a list of guitarists who might replace John," Egan explained, "and at the top of everyone’s list was Dónal."
Son of Liam Clancy, one of the world-famous Clancy Brothers from Carrick-on-Suir, Tipperary, Dónal Clancy performed with the Eileen Ivers Band during the last two years and also played on occasion with father-and-daughter musicians Mike and Mary Rafferty. After fulfilling his remaining commitments to Ivers’s band, Clancy joined Solas full-time and is now on tour with them. His stage debut with the band came Sept. 15-16 at Greenwich Village’s Bottom Line, where Solas shared an impressive bill with alt-country performers Buddy and Julie Miller, plus surprise guest Emmylou Harris, in a concert I’ll be reviewing shortly.
The experience of seeing concertina/button accordion player John Williams leave in 1997, vocalist Karan Casey leave in 1999, and John Doyle leave in 2000 has steeled Solas to the sometimes volatile dynamics of sustaining a band over the long haul. Fact is, almost no band of
appreciable longevity — Chieftains, De Dannan, Altan, Cherish the Ladies — can boast today of the same lineup they had at the outset of their professional careers.
"We’ve been blessed with fairly smooth sailing for the better part of four years," Seamus said philosophically. "These things happen, and everyone — our record label, our new booking agency in the U.S. [Fleming, Tamulevich and Associates in Ann Arbor, Mich.] — has been very supportive of us. We’re all committed to making Solas work."
And work they will. The tour, which will feature guests Chico Huff on bass and Steve Holloway on percussion, will keep the three-time Association for Independent Music award winners on the road until just before Thanksgiving.
Here are some upcoming Solas concert dates: this Friday, Sept. 22, 9 p.m., Towne Crier Cafe, 130 Rte. 22, Pawling, N.Y. ( 855-1300); Sept. 23, Irish 2000 Music and Arts Festival, Albany, N.Y.; Sept. 30, Somerville Theater, Somerville, Mass.; Oct. 1, Celtic Fest, Grand Pavilion, Bethlehem, Pa.; Oct. 4, Keswick Theater, Easton Road and Keswick Avenue, Glenside, Pa. ( 572-7650); Oct. 7, Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria, Va. ( 549-7500); Oct. 13, Park West, Chicago; Nov. 7, Millard Auditorium, West Hartford, Conn.; Nov. 8, Community Theater, Morristown, N.J.; Nov. 9, 8 p.m., Symphony Space, Broadway at 95th Street, Manhattan ( 864-5400); Nov. 10, Regina A. Quick Center, Fairfield U., Fairfield, Conn.; Nov. 12, Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, Troy, N.Y., and Nov. 18, Urban Art Institute, Chattanooga, Tenn.
Dazzling Dezi at Blarney Star
In an embarrassment of musical riches, New York residents will face a tough choice this Friday night: Altan at Town Hall, Solas at the Towne Crier Cafe, or Dezi Donnelly at the Blarney Star.
I finally caught this Manchester-born, multiple All-Ireland champion fiddler in action at the 1998-1999 Frankie Kennedy Winter School in Dunlewy, Co. Donegal, where Donnelly performed with guitarist Steve Cooney and Altan button accordionist Dermot Byrne. Their concert was the sensation of the entire week and sparked a tour of Ireland for the trio.
Echoing the brilliantly idiosyncratic style of Belfast fiddler Seán Maguire, but wholly his own man musically, Dezi Donnelly is, in today’s parlance, a phat fiddler, with a verve and virtuosity few of his contemporaries possess. He has it all: technique, control, passion, imagination, openness to risk, and respect for the past. His long-awaited solo debut, "Familiar Footsteps," finished fifth in the Irish Echo’s top-10 list of traditional albums last year.
Accompanied by native Ulster singer-guitarist Eamon McElholm, who’s toured and recorded with Stocktons Wing, Donnelly will be giving his first New York City performances ever at 9 and 10:30 p.m. on Sept. 22 at the Blarney Star, 43 Murray St. (near Church Street).
Now that Donnelly’s making his stateside debut, my hope is that sometime in the future he’ll come over with his childhood chum, fellow Mancunian Mike McGoldrick, as stunning a flute player as Donnelly is a fiddle player.
Shindell’s shine for Irish music
Confession time: The majority of singer-songwriters today in the so-called "folk" genre bore me to tears. Too often, their lyrics tend toward navel-gazing, Oprah-ogling angst on the cheap, and the music set to those lyrics and the actual playing of instruments frequently border on banality. In addition, more and more of these folkies have strayed from the genre’s acoustic roots and gone largely electric, adopting an approach and mentality that would have been labeled "pop" 20 years ago.
Sure, times have changed, and styles with it. But is there any folk singer-songwriter out there now who can write honest, literate, challenging songs without the New Age babble and back-of-cereal-box insights?
Richard Shindell is one of those few, extremely talented exceptions. (Bill Morrissey is another.) Born in Paterson, N.J., and raised on Long Island, Shindell writes incisive, thoughtful songs about life that never degenerate into self-importance, and he sings them in a flinty,
fervid baritone perfectly matched to the experiences and emotions he chronicles. He, too, mixes electric with acoustic instrumentation, but he understands how to keep them balanced, making his points without amping up.
I’m not alone in this assessment. Ann Powers of the New York Times went so far as to speculate: "OK, maybe he is the best." In 1998, Shindell raised his public profile considerably through "Cry, Cry, Cry" (Razor & Tie), a recording he made with fellow folksingers Dar Williams and Lucy Kaplansky that also became the name of the trio on a highly successful tour.
Before "Cry, Cry, Cry," Shindell released three solo albums on Shanachie — his 1997 CD, "Reunion Hill," is the best singer-songwriter album of the ’90s, in my opinion — that feeature such Irish-music guest as Seamus Egan, John Whelan, and Winifred Horan. Shindell’s new recording, "Somewhere Near Paterson" (RSR/Signature Sounds), has Cherish the Ladies’ Joanie Madden playing flute and former Cherish the Ladies member Siobhan Egan playing bodhrán on it.
One of the tracks, "Summer Reel," is clearly inspired by Irish traditional dance music and has the impact of a rousing session tune. Composed by the album’s producer, Larry Campbell, a member of Bob Dylan’s band, the reel is layered into Shindell’s singing of his own song, "Spring," and also acts as its coda. Besides Madden’s flute and Egan’s bodhrán, the instrumentation includes Campbell’s fiddle, cittern, and mandolin and Shindell’s acoustic guitar.
Among other standout tracks on Shindell’s latest CD are the brooding "Wisteria," the bluegrassy "Waiting for the Storm," and the wittily astringent "Transit," drawing perhaps on the perspective this 40-year-old musician gained as a former seminarian.