Category: Archive

Trad Beat Sounds for the season

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Earle Hitchner

Two weeks ago, in my unenthusiastic review of "A Thistle & Shamrock Christmas Ceilidh," I mentioned a preference for "Noëls Celtique" on the Celtic traditional side, and "A Child’s Christmas in Wales" and "Bing Crosby: The Voice of Christmas" on the nontraditional side.

Through the easy access of e-mails, some of you took me to task for touting Crosby or, as one correspondent noted, "Ba-Da-Bing, Ba-Da-Who Cares?" Ouch.

I refer my critics to "Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams, The Early Years, 1903-1940," a Little, Brown biography by Gary Giddins that should be out in January. Carefully researched and cogently argued by the best jazz writer alive, the book should go a long way to refurbishing the reputation of the Irish American crooner not just as the most popular singer of the 20th century (38 No. 1 hits, 400 million records sold by 1980, three years after his death) but as a deft, perceptive vocalist with jazz roots dating from his tenure in the Paul Whiteman Band.

Now, to the task at hand. Here are 10 holiday releases, in alphabetical order, of Irish and other Celtic music that should keep you infinitely warmer than TV’s yule log.


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(RCA Victor, 1998)

Waterford-born singer/guitarist Robbie O’Connell and London-born piano accordionist Jimmy Keane are the core of ‘ngus, a band they formed a few years ago. On this musical journey through Ireland, Scotland, Brittany, Wales, England, and America, they provide a rich mix of sounds linked to Christmas.

Some are original, such as O’Connell’s "Three Kings," featuring three-part harmony with Kathleen Keane and Click Horning, and Jimmy Keane’s "On the Eve of Christmas," a tribute to his late Connemara father, Jimmy "Horse" Keane.

Also praiseworthy are a rousing medley of a fling and four reels, "How We Spent the Christmas/Winter’s Apples/The Nutcracker/Snow on the Hills/Drops of Snow," and O’Connell’s moving cover of John McCutcheon’s "Christmas in the Trenches," inspired by a brief, miraculous break in fighting on a World War I battlefield.


The Chieftains

(RCA Victor, 1991; also available as hour-long videocassette)

The Chieftains have often been flayed for bringing into the studio a whole host of pop and rock stars that, some critics believe, are there solely to boost an album’s commercial appeal.

There are a few pop/rock stars here — Elvis Costello, Marianne Faithfull, Rickie Lee Jones, Jackson Browne — but the songs they sing quirkily fit the overall scheme of the album. Faithfull’s rendition of "I Saw Three Ships," for example, succeeds precisely because of her craggy, weathered voice.

"The Wren! The Wren!" medley is another highlight, with guests Brendan Begley on button accordion, Kathryn Tickell on Northumbrian pipes, and Kevin Conneff singing with the Voice Squad.


Nóirín Ní Riain and the Monks of Glenstal Abbey

(Gael-Linn, 1980; also titled "The Virgin’s Lament," Sounds True, 1996)

If the first syllable in "Christmas" is what this season should be about, then you can find no better way to mark the occasion than with this album. It was recorded inside Glenstal Abbey, Limerick, in 1979, well before the commercial trend of "chant" recordings crested during the last decade.

These 11 Irish traditional religious songs are sung in Irish, Latin, and English by Limerick-born soprano Nóirín Ní Riain and a dozen Benedictine monks with a reverence and radiance that come as close to prayers from the heart as you can get. It is some of the finest singing, in any language, ever captured on disc.


(Windham Hill, 1996)

The presence of Phil Cunningham and Manus Lunny, Carlos Núñez, Seamus Egan, Capercaillie, Deiseal, Kevin Burke and Mícheál Ó Domhnaill, and Maighread Ní Dhomhnaill, perhaps the finest traditional singer in Ireland today, prevents this compilation from wending into the New Age wispiness this label is still best known for.

Not everything here is strictly Christmas-related, but hearing Burke on fiddle and Ó Domhnaill on guitar reunite for a song melody and two reels, "The Star of the County Down/Sweeney’s Buttermilk/Jenny’s Chickens," is alone worth the price of the CD.


The Boys of the Lough

(Lough, 1994; also titled "Midwinter Night’s Dream," Blix Street, 1996)

This pan-Celtic band has been around almost as long as the Chieftains, and this first-rate recording attests to their staying power.

Christy O’Leary sings "That Night in Bethlehem," a carol in Irish, with impassioned simplicity, backed by Cathal McConnell on flute and Henning Sommerro on piano. Like the Chieftains on "The Bells of Dublin," the Boys of the Lough include a stirring selection of tunes, "Wren Polka No. 1/Wren Polka No. 2/The Wren Chase/The Wren’s Escape," in honor of the Wren Boys, a costumed group bringing music and poetry to houses in Ireland on St. Stephen’s Day.


The Voice Squad

(F’tain LP, 1987; Tara CD, 1995)

Though never intended as a Christmas recording, this superb debut by Gerry Cullen, Fran McPhail, and Phil Callery offers enough carols and songs of holiday cheer to justify its inclusion here.

The vocal arrangements and unaccompanied harmony singing by this Irish trio, who would later adopt the name Voice Squad, are nothing less than brilliant on "The Holly She Bears a Berry," "Kilmore Carol," "Shepherds Arise," "Oh, Good Ale," and "The Parting Glass." Also, their version of "Annan Waters" rivals that of England’s Nic Jones, from whom they learned it, and more recently Kate Rusby.



(Narada, 1997)

Blending Irish traditional and baroque music, Galway-based Dordán comprises Kathleen Loughnane on harp, Dearbhaill Standún on fiddle and viola, Martina Goggin on vocals, guitar, and percussion, and Mary Bergin, Ireland’s most celebrated tin whistle player and an accomplished flutist and fiddler as well.

The quartet are joined by accordionist Johnny Óg Connolly on the sprightly "Christmas Eve Reel (Tommy Coen’s Reel)," and the classical setting given "Ding Dong Merrily on High" provides some impressive braiding of instruments.

As a singer, Martina Goggin leaves much to be desired, but when her modest voice is bolstered by those of her bandmates, as on "Polly in the Holly," the sum becomes greater than the parts. Best vocal track of all is "Don Oíche Úd í mBeithil," where the dozen voices of the Spiddal Girls Choir remind us that Christmas began with a child and belongs to children especially.


(Claddagh/Atlantic, 1999)

Accuracy in advertising? Not quite. At least, not with a track from the Whistlebinkies, an undistinguished Scoottish band formed in the lat 1960s.

Still, that’s just one track in 15, and with musicians like Skylark, Cran, Leo Rowsome, John Doherty, Tommy Potts, Willie Clancy, and Paddy Taylor occupying the remaining tracks, this compilation holds up quite well. Whether it reflects a "real" Irish Christmas is anyone’s guess, but it’s nonetheless a welcome stocking stuffer, culled from the music-rich, 41-year backlog of Claddagh Records. One track, "The Old Man Rocking the Cradle," comes from Leo Rowsome’s "King of the Pipers," a 1959 album that was Claddagh’s first.


Thomas Moore

(Upaya/Tommy Boy Music, 1997)

The spirit and spirituality of this two-CD release, packaged into a 72-page hardback book, are somewhat dampened by the sententiousness of best-selling author Thomas Moore ("Care of the Soul") on the page and on the second disc. His recollections and musings take up most of that disc’s 55 minutes and take on the pallor of a lengthy Sunday sermon that has parishioners glancing at their watches in the pews.

Stick with the first disc. It’s almost 55 minutes of fine Christmas music, Celtic and otherwise, performed by Seamus Egan, Jerry O’Sullivan, Cathie Ryan, Susan McKeown, Johnny Cunningham, Liam Tiernan, John Whelan, and, on "Christ Child’s Lullaby," country singer Kathy Mattea with Dougie MacLean on guitar.


Susan McKeown and Lindsey Horner

(Prime CD, 1997)

If you’re looking for something edgier and more provocative to celebrate Christmas, this album by Dublin-born vocalist Susan McKeown and American jazz bassist, guitarist, and clarinetist Lindsey Horner, her Chanting House bandmate, should do the job. It’s a baker’s dozen of tracks offering Irish traditional, rock, folk, jazz, and quasi-classical arrangements of freshly written and long-established material.

Favorite among the new is "Song of Forgetting," a Horner composition with just McKeown’s vocals and Horner’s bass in a stark jazz setting.

Favorite among the old is Robert Burns’s classic "Auld Lang Syne," given new vocal varnish by McKeown as Horner plays bass and harmonium underneath.

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