Record companies put much of the blame for this decline on the downloading, file sharing, and pirating of copyrighted music. Not surprisingly, the Recording Industry Association of America has increased its efforts to monitor these activities and prosecute transgressors. But you have to wonder how successful the RIAA will be when just recently hackers broke into its website and posted fake messages such as this: “Government bans music as final desperate attempt to control piracy.”
Ironically, as mainstream music market woes deepened last year, the number of Irish traditional recordings I received for review grew exponentially. In 2001, I got roughly 300. In 2002, more than 1,000 arrived from all points of the globe (farthest: from a tenor banjoist in New Zealand). Though there was inevitable mediocrity and dross among these CDs, the overall quantity of quality was encouraging.
The vast majority of the recordings I received were self-released, and half of my top 10 picks were self-released as well. It’s a clear sign that established record companies, major or indie, are no longer the only recourse for musicians who know how to slap Sonex on the walls of a spare bedroom and use affordable recording equipment and computer software to create a home studio.
In this brave new world of technological advances and marketplace regresses, these 10 Irish traditional albums stood out. Over the years I’ve been warned many times that a top 10 list “really only sends one artist home happy.” I accept the risk, partly because I dislike critical copouts and partly because I’m confident these choices pose no risk at all aesthetically. They’re the cream of an abundant crop and belong in your music library.
(1) FIRST THROUGH THE GATE
By Brian Conway
(Smithsonian Folkways SFW CD 40481)
Since its release in early August, this album, produced by Conway and Edward Haber, has been the benchmark against which I’ve compared every other Irish traditional release in 2002. Strip away the impressive packaging (29-page booklet of essays, tune descriptions, and discography), and you still have the best Irish traditional music recorded last year. This long-anticipated solo debut from one of Irish America’s most accomplished, if sometimes overlooked, fiddlers was well worth the wait. The production is clean and defined, the concept and execution are masterful, and the spotlighted playing by Conway is stirring throughout.
Born in the Bronx and now living in Ossining, N.Y., this three-time All-Ireland champion fiddler applies his New York Sligo-style skill with utmost taste and conviction. Conway’s playing of “The Mullingar Lea/Dowd’s No. 9/The Lass of Carracastle,” for example, illustrates how respectfully, not slavishly, he sticks to tradition. He strikes an ideal balance between upholding the integrity of a melody and enriching it with a prodigious, never-over-the-top technique.
A further measure of his sway with the bow can be heard in the performances he inspired from both his mentor and his pupil: Andy McGann and Patrick Mangan. Those tracks are priceless, but then, everything about Brian Conway’s “First Through the Gate” is an unabated pleasure. This album goes beyond mere recommendation. It’s essential.
(2) THE WELL TEMPERED BOW
By Liz and Yvonne Kane
(Dawros Music DM001)
Charting their own course after three years in Sharon Shannon’s Woodchoppers band, these sisters from Letterfrack, Galway, came up with an assured, beautifully realized recording.
The siblings focus on the composing talent of Paddy Fahy, a fellow Galway musician from Kilconnell, through expert renditions of his richly melodic tunes, unnamed as is his wont. Also on the album are compositions by Ed Reavy (his “In Memory of Coleman” reel follows James Hill’s “The Bee’s Wing” hornpipe in a standout Kanes’ medley), Paddy O’Brien, and Brendan Mulvihill, plus three by Liz Kane herself. The sisters perform them with consummate grace and soulfulness, qualities that carry over to their tender treatments of “The Valley of Knockanure” waltz and the “K