Category: Archive

Waterford singer has five solo albums

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

“Stop what you’re doing and get out there to hear this singer,” my wife repeated, not taking “later” for an answer. So I did, and I was spellbound. Atlantic Bridge had impressive instrumental talent who provided a setting conducive to Casey’s two-and-a-half-octave range and extraordinary interpretive ability. Both commanded attention with the same unshakable force of a Dolores Keane or Maighread Ni Dhomhnaill. From the first time I heard Casey sing, I instantly recognized that she was unique, a vocalist who inhabits, not visits, the lyrics and emotions of songs.
In 1994-95 Karan Casey left Atlantic Bridge to join Solas, and in 1996 the band issued their self-titled debut recording. How could any album live up to the feverish hype surrounding this quintet, who included multi-instrumentalist Seamus Egan, guitarist John Doyle, accordionist and concertinist John Williams, and fiddler Winifred Horan? “Solas” not only met expectations but also exceeded them. (In the CD insert, I wrote a liner note to that effect.) It is a bona fide masterpiece, produced by Johnny Cunningham (1957-2003), and amid the album’s 13 tracks were five songs sung by Casey, led off by a Munster-rooted rendition of “Nil ‘Na La” that quickly became a Solas signature.
The next two Solas CD’s, “Sunny Spells and Scattered Showers” in 1997 and “The Words That Remain” in 1998, packed a comparable punch. Like “Solas,” each opened with a powerful Casey-sung song, “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” and “Pastures of Plenty,” respectively.
In 1997 Karan Casey recorded her solo debut, “Songlines,” to which I contributed a blurb and helped with her song notes. The album title was inspired by “The Songlines,” Bruce Chatwin’s 1987 book describing how Australian aborigines partly orient themselves in the isolated outback by singing songs rooted in and linked to pathways they walk through. It’s a perfect metaphor for how Casey orients herself in the world through song.
With the expert studio help of Solas bandmates Seamus Egan, John Doyle, and Winifred Horan, Casey made a stunning solo debut. It blended songs of challenged love, riven heartache, and fragile beauty, such as Jean Ritchie’s “One, I Love” and “She Is Like the Swallow,” and songs that stung the conscience and goaded action, such as Leon Rosselson’s “The World Turned Upside Down” and Ewan MacColl’s “Ballad of Accounting.” Of the five solo albums Casey has made to date, “Songlines” may be her most exhilarating vocal achievement.
All of her solo recordings since “Songlines” have been produced by Donald Shaw, a piano accordionist and keyboardist in the Scottish band Capercaillie. His sometimes overly precious production can be irksome, but it in no way diminishes the magnificence of Casey’s singing. She gives coruscating interpretations of Spillane and De Paor’s “You Brought Me Up” and “The Song of Lies,” “Strange Fruit” (voted the greatest song of the 20th century by Time magazine), her own songs “Quiet of the Night” and “When Will We Be Free,” and all ten songs on her latest album, “Ships in the Forest.”
Among her accompanists on “Ships in the Forest” are Caoimhin Vallely on piano and Kate Ellis on cello, who give Casey the sonic space to stretch not by shouting but by submerging. Traditional folk standards such as “Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye” and “Black Is the Color” are carefully and imaginatively reshaped by Casey, with inspiration for the latter song drawn from Nina Simone’s smoldering version in 1959. Five other songs are traditional, with another, Robert Burns’s “Ae Fond Kiss,” often categorized as traditional. Two more songs are modern: “Town of Athlone,” written by Martin Furey (Finbar’s son), and “The Fiddle and the Drum,” written by Joni Mitchell.
Casey is that rare Irish traditional singer who is formally trained in jazz and, for a time in Dublin, sang with a jazz group. So she understands the effect of holding a note, eliding another, varying dynamics, and singing slightly ahead or behind the beat. (I suspect Casey has listened closely to Ella Fitzgerald and Cassandra Wilson.) All are part of her large vocal toolbox, heightening tension to intensify meaning.
“Ships in the Forest” is dark both in material and in mood, and some consider the album depressing. In contrast, I find it liberating, and so does Karan Casey, because it confronts rather than cowers from tough times and predicaments, whether past or present.
A year ago in Manhattan’s Highline Ballroom, I saw Casey weave a long narrative arc out of four songs stitched together with instrumental ligatures. The sum was greater than the parts and added to the weightiness of those skillfully bundled musical dispatches. Hearing one of the great voices and song interpreters in Irish music on stage is a summit experience, one that should not be passed by.
Karan Casey and her touring band of pianist Caoimhin Vallely, cellist Kate Ellis, and guitarist Ross Martin will perform on March 19 at the U. of Hartford, Hartford, Conn. (800-274-8587) and March 21 at the Lyceum, Alexandria, Va. (800-404-9049). The singer and her band will wrap up their current U.S. tour with a concert sponsored by the Shamrock Traditional Irish Music Society for 7:30 p.m. on Sun., March 22, at Fairfield Theatre Company’s Stage One, 70 Sanford St., Fairfield, Conn. (203-259-1036 or 203-256-8453).

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