By Earle Hitchner
Best children’s recording: "Seal Maiden" (Music for Little People), featuring former Solas member Karan Casey singing and narrating, plus Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, Niall Vallely, Iarla Ó Lionáird, Michael McGoldrick, Dezi Donnelly, Mick Daly, Mel Mercier, Martin Hayes, and Dennis Cahill.
Best concert: Fiddler Dezi Donnelly at Manhattan’s Blarney Star on Sept. 22 (despite ill-suited guitar support from Tyrone’s Eamon McElholm). Runners-up: Liz Carroll and John Doyle at Pequot Library Hall, Southport, Conn., on May 14; the Chieftains and Los Lobos at Prudential Hall, New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Newark, N.J., on June 27; Moving Cloud at Towne Crier Cafe, 130 Rte. 22, Pawling., N.Y., on Aug. 27; Solas and Buddy and Julie Miller at Bottom Line, NYC, on Sept. 16, and the Windbags at the Turning Point, Piermont, N.Y., on Sept. 17.
Best outdoor Irish festival in U.S.: Washington Irish Festival, Montgomery County Fairgrounds, Gaithersburg, Md., Sept. 2-3.
Best radio program and host: "A Thousand Welcomes," presented by Kathleen Biggins on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 12 noon EST on WFUV-FM, 90.7, a National Public Radio affiliate based in the Bronx. Her program has been a Saturday morning fixture since October 1987, bringing traditional music of high quality and up-to-the-minute news of regional events to its devoted listeners. Biggins’s congenial personality and discerning taste make this show go.
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Best "greatest hits" compilation: "Journey: The Best of Dónal Lunny" (double CD on Hummingbird; to be released in U.S. on Jan. 23 by Rounder). Runners-up: De Dannan’s "How the West Was Won" (another double CD on Hummingbird, grandfathered in from 1999) and the Poozies’ "Raise Your Head — A Retrospective" (Compass).
Best non-Irish CD with Irish music on it: Steve Earle’s "Transcendenta Blues" (E Squared/Artemis), recently nominated for a Grammy as best contemporary folk album. "Steve’s Last Ramble" and "The Galway Girl" are shot through with Irish traditional instrumentation, led by Clare-born accordionist Sharon Shannon, who included the second Earle song on her own solo recording, "The Diamond Mountain Sessions" (Grapevine). Runner-up: Richard Shindell’s "Somewhere Near Paterson" (RSR/Signature), which ably employed Siobhan Egan and Cherish the Ladies’ Joanie Madden in the song "Spring" and its spirited coda, "Summer Reel."
Most accomplished young talent: Fiddler Patrick Mangan from Brooklyn and pianist Thomas Bartlett from Westminster, Vt., who now resides in New York City. Both have extraordinary chops, fertile ideas, and driving curiosity. What a treat to watch them grow.
Most enjoyably perverse (or perversely enjoyable) album: Bill Laswell’s "Emerald ‘ther/Shape Shifting" (Shanachie), all remixes of previously recorded music by Solas, Jerry O’Sullivan, Matt Molloy, Karan Casey, and Cathie Ryan. A gonzo gotcha exercise by Laswell, who earlier gave Miles Davis, Bob Marley, and Sting the same knob-twirling treatment.
Special remastering kudos: Dublin’s Harry Bradshaw, a perennial, and Rochester’s Ted McGraw, whose careful work can be heard on "The Great Céilí Bands, Vol. 1" (Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann).
Most intriguing idea not quite fleshed out yet: Dublin-born jazz guitarist David O’Rourke’s attempt to bridge jazz and Irish traditional music. The concerts he gave at Manhattan’s Jazz Standard last May featured bassist Peter Washington, drummer Lewis Nash, pianist Fintan O’Neill, percussionist Steve Kroon, violinist Regina Carter, flutist Joanie Madden, concertinist Niall Vallely, fiddler Marie Reilly, button accordionist Martin Reilly, and uilleann piper Paddy Keenan. With more rehearsal to integrate the different styles and instruments, O’Rourke’s self-described "Celtic Jazz Collective" could find that elusive firm footing between genres.
Five worst albums: Alphabetically, they are "A Day Without Rain" (Reprise) by Enya, who is to Celtic music what Thomas Kinkade is to painting; "Méav" (Hearts O’Space), 1999 solo debut by Enya-esque clone from the choral group Anúna who shamelessly duplicated Karan Casey’s setting of Jean Ritchie’s song "One, I Love" without acknowledgment; "Riverdance on Broadway" (Decca), a déjà vu release not different or fresh enough to warrant another market flog and PBS premium; "A Thistle & Shamrock Christmas Ceilidh" (Green Linnet), a compilation whose actual connection to the yule season was tinsel thin; and De Dannan’s "Welcome to the Hotel Connemara" (Hummingbird), instrumental covers of rock and pop songs ("You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling," "A Whiter Shade of Pale") that, tongue-in-cheek or not, make me pine for the more honest musicmaking of Milli Vanilli.
FUSED, by Michael McGoldrick (Vertical in U.K., Compass in U.S.): The soaring brilliance of this Manchester-born Irish multi-instrumentalist loses altitude on this follow-up album to his breathtaking solo debut in 1996, "Morning Rory" (Aughrim). "Fused" sounds confused, with too much meandering, Capercaillie-ish atmospherics and not enough of the scintillating trad playing for which McGoldrick is celebrated.
THE DIAMOND MOUNTAIN SESSIONS, by Sharon Shannon (Grapevine): The guest list is impressive: besides Steve Earle, there are John Prine, Jackson Browne, Liam Ó Maonlai and the Hothouse Flowers, Dónal Lunny, Richie Buckley, Carlos Núñez, Triona Ní Dhomhnaill, Jesse Smith, Maurice Lennon, Lúnasa’s Seán Smyth and Donagh Hennessy, and her ownWoodchoppers band. But the recording is uneven. "The Pernod Waltz" is every bit as appealing as Relativity’s rendition in 1985, but Jackson Browne’s lead vocal on the bluegrass staple "Man of Constant Sorrow," as reworked by Bob Dylan, is woeful. This "Diamond" is still in the rough.
DANCING ON DANGEROUS GROUND: Its U.S. première came on March 8, 2000, at Manhattan’s Radio City Music Hall, where both "Riverdance" and "Lord of the Dance" made their stateside debuts. The London reviews of this new Irish dance show, starring Jean Butler and Colin Dunne and featuring a score by Seamus Egan, had been harsh, but a lot of work went into improving it for Radio City. The New York reviews were largely positive, including an absolutely glowing one from the New York Times. Then, inexplicably, the show went dormant. Mutterings about mounting debt and the need for more revamping ignored one glaring question: why bother bringing the production from the Big Smoke to the Big Apple if you aren’t prepared to succeed?