Category: Archive

Trad Beat: The Harte of the matter

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Earle Hitchner

1798: THE FIRST YEAR OF LIBERTY, by Frank Harte, Hummingbird Records, HBCCD0014.

Eleven years is far too long a wait for another solo album from Frank Harte, whose "Daybreak and a Candle-End" in 1987 was one of that year’s finest recordings. Happily, his new album, "1798: The First Year of Liberty," is well worth the wait. It’s a memorable bicentennial evocation through 17 songs of the events and personalities centered on the epic rebellion by the United Irishmen, founded in Belfast eight years earlier to pursue parliamentary reform and Catholic emancipation in Ireland.

A resident of Chapelizod village, lying by the Liffey in Dublin, Harte is a singer of rare sensitivity and cumulative storytelling power, a vocalist who places his talent in service to the song, not vice versa. For him, history is not an excuse to belt out chest-thumping or hand-wringing ballads that, in less capable hands, can become merely manipulative. Instead, it is the real blood and bone and familial bond on which a republic is built and a national identity formed.

This certainly comes across in "Croppy Boy," betrayed by a cousin and condemned to hang by the Crown after the 1798 Rebellion. Like many of the songs Harte sings here, this one focuses on the individual as a prism through which the larger events of the day can be better seen and understood. Less is more, and the magnitude of the struggle and its often cruel aftermath are distilled in such spare, sentiment-ladened images as "My aged father did grieve full sore / And my tender mother her hair she tore." It’s a narrative told simply and quietly, with the deft, delicate guitar picking of Dónal Lunny underscoring the tragedy without flourish or fanfare.

On "Wind That Shakes the Barley," Harte approaches the lyrics with a similar respect and reverence, and the light touches of synthesizer by Lunny enhance, not encumber, this tale of two lovers, one of whom is killed by a yeoman’s bullet, stirring revenge in the survivor. Just how malleable this ballad is for a truly skilled singer can also be heard in the strikingly different arrangement Solas gave it on their "Sunny Spells and Scattered Showers" album last year.

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But don’t be misled into thinking that the mood of this recording is off-puttingly solemn or somber — a "downer," as they say in MTV-speak. The unique interpretive ability of Harte transforms even the most tragic ballad into vocal art that is, at core, invigorating and inspiring. And there’s an unmistakably quickening spirit displayed in his singing of "Shan Van Vocht" and "General Munro," the latter ending with this rather stinging quatrain: "All you good men who listen just think of the fate / Of the brave men who died in the year ninety-eight / For no doubt poor old Ireland would be free long ago / If her sons were all rebels like Henry Munro."

Working with the singer for the third time, Dónal Lunny is the perfect accompanist, so secure in the skills he honed through celebrated stints in Planxty, the Bothy Band, and Moving Hearts that his playing is utterly egoless here.

As for Frank Harte himself, his impact and importance as a song preserver and narrative singer remain monumental — and will undoubtedly grow stronger in the wake of this superbly realized album.

Frank Harte in New York

Singer Frank Harte will make several New York-area appearances next week.

At 9 and 10:30 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 11, he will be in concert at the Blarney Star, 43 Murray St., lower Manhattan (212-732-2873).

From 9 a.m. to noon on Saturday, Sept. 12, he will be appearing on Kathleen Biggins’s "A Thousand Welcomes" radio show, WFUV-FM, 90.7, Bronx, N.Y.

From 2:30-5:30 p.m. that same day, Harte will be giving a song workshop at the Irish Arts Center, 553 W. 51st St., Manhattan (212-757-3318 or 718-441-9416).

Later that evening, at 7:30, he will give a lecture with song on "1798: The First Year of Liberty" at the Irish Arts Center

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