By Earle Hitchner
On May 16, German-owned entertainment behemoth BMG, intent on consolidating its music divisions and boosting its bottom line, placed BMG Classics, of which the world-music imprint Wicklow Records had been a part, and Windham Hill Records into the newly formed RCA Music Group.
On May 26, some Wicklow acts (Tarika, Värttinä, Yat-Kha) who had albums slated for summer release were informed that the label was suspending its plans for recording, touring, and releasing until further notice.
The first artist-created joint venture label for BMG Classics, Wicklow Records was co-founded by the Chieftains’ Paddy Moloney in the fall of 1997. Initially, the label was called Unisphere, under which "The Long Journey Home" soundtrack was released, but that name was later changed to Wicklow, the county in which Moloney lives. The three principals who started Wicklow — Moloney, Steve Mackham, and Sam Feldman — together owned 50 percent of the label, while BMG owned the other 50 percent. The original goal of Wicklow was to issue at least a dozen albums annually for three years.
Artists facing an uncertain future with Wicklow include Cape Breton singer Mary Jane Lamond, British-based Irish band Sin É, singer Laurel MacDonald, and producer/composer Bill Laswell. Among the Celtic-music CDs released by Unisphere or Wicklow were "Fire in the Kitchen," a compilation of Cape Breton artists; "Close to the Floor" and "Fine, Thank You Very Much," two early recordings by Cape Breton fiddler Ashley MacIsaac; and "Silent Night: Christmas in Rome," a holiday release featuring the Chieftains, Clannad vocalist Máire Brennan, and Galician piper Carlos Núñez.
The suspension of Wicklow apparently will not affect the future prospects of Moloney’s Chieftains on RCA Victor, the BMG imprint to which they’re signed. As of June 17, "Water From the Well," the band’s latest release for RCA Victor, had been on Billboard magazine’s "Top World Music Albums" chart for 15 weeks.
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Industry-wide, Celtic-music sales, though not as robust as they were five years ago, are still solid. Restructuring and downsizing, however, have hit other labels, such as Universal, and taken their toll. Many Celtic (and non-Celtic) acts signed to major commercial labels are under new scrutiny, and, in certain cases, recording budgets have been scaled back to better fit sales expectations.
These major-label shakeouts sometimes bring "I told you so" smiles to smaller, indie labels, but they’re not exactly blameless, either. Some have trimmed artist rosters and album budgets, too, forcing a number of talented, deserving musicians into limbo, vanity projects (many now are quite good, perhaps because of the upsurge in musicians taking this recording route), or onto the Web for self-marketing.
And I’ve said nothing about the ramifications of MP3 and Napster, or the Congressional movement to amend the 1976 copyright act so that sound recordings would become "works for hire," a change that could deny artists their intellectual-property rights.
In music, Irish or otherwise, it’s becoming a whole new ballgame, with the central question: who owns the ball?
Fly like the Eagles
New York uilleann piper Jerry O’Sullivan has made a number of guest appearances on the U.S. tour of Don Henley, a founding member of Southern California rock band the Eagles. The 52-year-old singer is on the road to promote his first solo album in 11 years, "Inside Job."
Traveling with Henley’s core band are Tyrone Tibbett and the Anointed, a 12-member choir from Camden, N.J.; seven horn players; four string players; and three Irish musicians. Besides O’Sullivan, Chicago fiddler Liz Carroll and New England flute and tin whistle player Mark Roberts, formerly of Touchstone and more recently with the Red Clay Ramblers, have joined Henley on stage for such songs as "Lilah" and "Not Long Ago." (On occasion, uilleann piper Kieran O’Hare has filled in for O’Sullivan.)
Playing with rock musicians is nothing new for Jerry O’Sullivan. He appeared on Sinéad O’Connor’s "Am I Not Your Girl?" album in 1992. The piper also guested on country singer Dolly Parton’s 1994 album, "Heartsongs."
Bogle at TCC
Eric Bogle, one of the greatest songwriters ever, immigrated from his hometown of Peebles, Scotland, to New South Wales in 1969 because the cost of passage to Australia was far cheaper than that to America. Scotland’s (and America’s) loss was Australia’s gain.
Many of Bogle’s songs are unquestioned classics: "And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda," a chilling, poignant account of the Anzacs’ involvement in the ill-fated military campaign of 1915-16 at Gallipoli; "No Man’s Land," sometimes mistitled "The Green Fields of France" or "Willie McBride"; "All the Fine Young Men," recorded by De Dannan; "My Youngest Son Came Home Today," covered by Mary Black; and "Leaving the Land," recorded by Black and Jean Redpath.
The 55-year-old singer-songwriter also has a nimble wit and a passel of humorous compositions. (Personal favorites: "Do You Know Any Dylan?" and "The Aussie Bar-B-Que Song.")
A living legend whose down-to-earth style has won over audiences worldwide, Eric Bogle will be in concert at 9 p.m. on Friday, July 21, at the Towne Crier Cafe, 130 Rte. 22, Pawling, N.Y. ( 855-1300; www.townecrier.com)
Farewell at Flannery’s
On June 26, one of the last Irish music sessions by long-time regulars and invited guests took place at Flannery’s. At 205 W. 14th St., this Manhattan pub attracted, in years past, some of New York’s finest musicians (notably, Donegal melodeon player Tom Doherty) on Mondays and set dancers on Wednesdays (Cherish the Ladies’ flutist Joanie Madden often played for them). The free Monday night session has lasted an impressive quarter century.
Bodhrán player Kevin Brooks, a Monday night fixture and organizer at Flannery’s for many years, is hoping to revitalize and relocate the session before it becomes a historical footnote — if some enterprising proprietor or publican is interested. Brooks can be contacted at (203) 328-5721 or (718) 768-0191.
Upcoming album by Solas
The quintet are finishing up their fourth album for Shanachie Records and first with new lead singer Deirdre Scanlan in a Philadelphia recording studio. Entitled "The Hour Before Dawn," it should be out before the end of the year.
After much prodding from fans, Solas has also decided to record their own version of "I Will Remember You," a song that founding member Seamus Egan wrote with Sarah McLachlan and Dave Merenda for the 1995 hit film "The Brothers McMullen." Based on Egan’s tune "Weep Not for the Memories," the song has enjoyed a remarkable shelf life so far, with two separate pop hits made of it by McLachlan, who won a Grammy this year for her live recording of it, as well as an ASCAP songwriting award and a rendition by actors playing high-school students in the Susan Sarandon-Natalie Portman movie "Anywhere But Here."
"String Sisters" was the name given to Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, Natalie MacMaster, Annbjørg Lien, Catriona MacDonald, Liz Carroll, and Liz Knowles at the last Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow, where they all performed together. Hopefully, this grouping of traditional fiddlers from Ireland, Cape Breton, Norway, the Shetland Islands, and the U.S. will eventually perform here in the U.S.
"Transcendence is about being still enough long enough to know when it’s time to move on," writes alt-country singer-songwriter Steve Earle on his latest album, "Transcendental Blues" (E-Squared/Artemis), which is surprising everyone with its sales and country chart strength.
Two "transcendent" reasons for this release’s appeal are a pair of tracks recorded at Totally Wired Studios in Galway, where gruff-voiced Earle occasionally retreats to replenish his muse. Part trad, part Waterboys, part Pogues, and all Earle, "Steve’s Last Ramble" and "The Galway Girl" are original songs performed with Clare-born button accordionist Sharon Shannon and three members of her Woodchoppers band: sister Mary on banjo, and Liz and Yvonne Kane on fiddles.
This kind of cultural exchange, of course, runs both ways. On Lack, Fermanagh-born flute and tin whistle player Laurence Nugent’s new solo album, "The Windy Gap" (Shanachie), is bass and cello player Larry Gray, who also forms part of Nugent’s touring band. Gray comes not from the world of Irish music but jazz. He has toured with pianist Ramsey Lewis and is a member of Lewis’s trio on their new album, "Appassionata."
Last year, I selected Tim O’Brien’s "The Crossing" solo album on Alula as the 10th-best "Irish" traditional recording of 1999. I took some heat for this pick, especially in Ireland. Well, guess what? O’Brien, who toured as leader of the Bluegrass Dukes with Steve Earle and appears on "Transcendental Blues," has been further affirming his musical (and ancestral: his great-grandfather, Thomas, came from Cavan to America in 1851) connections to Ireland through a tour with his Crossing band.
They performed recently at the prestigious Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado — and were a smash hit. In the group were two names familiar to anyone who enjoys first-rate Irish traditional music: Chicago button accordion and concertina master John Williams, formerly of Solas, and uilleann piper and low whistle player Paddy Keenan, once a linchpin of the fabled Bothy Band. When O’Brien takes his Crossing band on an upcoming tour of Britain, playing button accordion for him will be John Whelan.
Finally, "Appalachia Waltz," a new, neo-classical ballet choreographed by Miriam Mahdaviani that premiered on June 20 at Manhattan’s New York State Theater, featured small-group dancing onstage to two Irish traditional reels, "The Green Groves of Erin/The Flowers of Red Hill." Though the musical performance and dancing were inspired by "Appalachia Waltz," the best-selling album from Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, and Mark O’Connor in 1996, the actual source for the trio’s recording of those two reels was the Bothy Band’s 1975 debut album.