This CD review page is a new addition to the site, and I must say upfront that I am an enthusiastic student of Irish and Celtic music - I'm not an authority on music in general or Celtic music in particular, by any means!
Irish (and Scottish and Scots-Irish) immigrants have influenced American music for over 200 years, growing our bluegrass and folk ballads, and affecting contemporary rock and country music. Their descendants have continued to contribute - John Denver, John Fahey, Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, Mark O'Connor, Jean Ritchie, Bruce Ormsby, Tim McGraw, John Fogerty - and countless more. Even those who only visited had a massive influence - John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Sinead O'Connor, U2, Loreena McKennitt, Donovan. From Ireland, Scotland, Canada and Australia, they still come to enrich our musical experience. And the influence has gone in both directions; American R&B and rock flowed eastward across the ocean, and country music is apparently very popular in Ireland.
Maura O'Connell was born in County Clare, Ireland, into a musical family - in particular, a singing family. She was blessed with a strong, expressive voice, and added her singing to the Irish traditional group De Danaan in her early career. She says that she never truly felt at home there, however, and soon went on her own, to follow her own musical inclinations as a solo performer. Like many artists and performers, she prefers to stay clear of categories and labels, and cross multiple genres. She chooses her songs by their lyrics and quality, tending to stay close to songwriters who haven't yet made a name for themselves. Some whose songs she has recorded include John Prine, Jenny Orenstein, Mindy Smith, Kim Richey and Hilary Lindsey. Now in her 40's, O'Connell says she looks for songs that express the mature adult's emotional struggles in life and love.
About 20 years ago, she moved to America, settling near Nashville, Tennessee - the country music capital. The area and its musicians feel like home to her. Her music has great affinities with American country music, but in particular the more contemporary country whose reach has now extended to jazz and roots music. Her label, Sugar Hill, specializes in roots music and alternative country, and produces such musicians as Willie Nelson, Front Range, and many others not as well known.
Her new CD, Don't I Know, was recorded in Nashville, and is another collaboration with her producer, Jerry Douglas. Studio musicians on the album include Jonathan Trebing, Bryan Sutton, Russ Barenberg and Gerry O'Beirne on guitar, Gabe Dixon on clavinet and keys, Viktor Krauss and Edgar Meyer on bass, Shannon Forest on drums, Gabe Witcher on violin, and Jerry Douglas on lapsteel and dobro. Carmella Ramsey, Cheryl White, Harry Stinson and Don Johnson perform background vocals. The photos in the liner notes show O'Connell surrounded by stone fences and structures in Ireland.
The CD has a strong flavor of less commercialized country music, with its guitar sounds of dobro and lapsteel, its plaintive ballads and catchy tunes. But the intensely somber lyrics and tone of some of the songs help to separate her music from this category, as well as her emotional vocals. Her voice is earnest and full, yet in this CD also tends toward a sophisticated spareness as well. In Going Downin Flames and Hold On, her voice occasionally reminded me of Joni Mitchell's early country-to-jazz period, and there is even a hint of Bonnie Raitt on Didn't I and Up and Flying. Contemporary country music has been expanding greatly from its early sources; it is hard to imagine the banjo being used in jazz, but this is being done in contemporary alternative country, such as by Bruce Ormsby and others.
My favorite songs on the CD are the last two - Phoenix Falling (a song about suicide), and Time to Learn (about losing a loved one to death). These are more spare musically, and venture into more serious territory lyrically and emotionally. Overall the album deals with sadness and the bittersweetness of experience, however this adds depth to the music, rather than being a downer. It may be why the CD still has an Irish quality, rather than sounding like American country music. I haven't seen O'Connell in person, but I did see her perform in Gael Force, a concert with many performers produced in Ireland, which was shown on U.S. public television. She sang Maggie alone, and joined three other vocalists (including Mary Black and Tommy Fleming) in singing Hard Times - Come Again No More. This last song was written by Stephen Foster, the 19th century American songwriter; its sentiment seems to fit in very nicely with the Irish experience. O'Connell has a very impressive stage presence, and an obviously great effect on the audience with the warmth and strong emotion of her voice and persona.
This popular five-member group based in Indianapolis, Indiana is known as a high-energy celtic rock band. As I listened to their latest CD, Peace by Peace, I also sensed their accomplished musicianship. Husband and wife musicians Rufus and Claudia Campbell started the group in 2005 because of their Scots-and-Irish roots, and also prompted by their young daughter's Irish step-dancing lessons. Claudia is the lead vocal and plays accordion, keyboards, the celtic drum called the bodhran, and shaker. Rufus Campbell plays guitars, highland and fireside bagpipes, and whistles, and does backing vocals. Cory Carleton plays the driving bass guitars, Nathan Klatt plays violin, electric fiddle, mandolin, mandola, and does backing vocals, and Bryan Meyers plays drums and handsonic on this CD. Siochain (in the Irish language it means peace) is pronounced Shee-uh-kawn. In the brief liner notes is expressed the hope that each of us will create our own sense of peace, leading to universal peace. The band plays mostly in and around Indiana in pubs and music festivals, with some further traveling as well. They have developed a large following that anticipates their arrival in the band's regular venues.
The CD features traditional songs such as the spirited Rocky Road to Dublin, Rare Old Times, Wild Mountain Thyme, and Amazing Grace, as well as tunes including Billy Sullivan's and King of the Fairies. Keg of Brandy was written by Irish songwriter Robbie O'Connell. The five musicians produce a very full sound with their various instruments on most of the tracks, but the ballad Rare Old Times is performed with a soft guitar, tin whistle, and Claudia's voice. There is a lot of upbeat dance music here, and I can tell that it comes across even better in front of a festival or pub crowd, a little like The Elders band effect. It is based in the Irish/Scots music tradition, but not too far away from classic and contemporary rock. (I hear a 60's guitar sometimes, reminiscent of George Harrison, for instance.) Many of the tracks are accompanied by a standard rock drum beat, but a few have the more traditional bodhran rhythm.
An energetic fiddle tune (Billy Sullivan's) comes first, followed by Love and Freedom, an accordion and pipe track with some vocal harmonies. The ballad Keg of Brandy is a mix of contemporary and traditional, with accordion and a prominent electric guitar and fiddle dialogue. The slow-tempo tune King of the Fairies consists of bass, fiddle and power electric guitar. The stirring Wild Mountain Thyme uses electric guitar in a contemporary and unusual effect, and has a strong finish with the full sound of instruments and voices. Lady Maryanne is an upbeat Scottish number with rock drum and accordion that is great for dancing. The closing track is an extended Amazing Grace that uses modern sounds to re-create a trad ceremony with highland bagpipes and a sharp-sounding fiddle that at times carries the melody.
Band members bring varied backgrounds to the group - including drummer Bryan Meyers with jazz, Rufus with bluegrass and rock, and Nathan with urban hip-hop, according to my web research. Claudia's voice sounds like it has been trained; it is less common for contemporary celtic bands to have a female lead vocal. Nathan's stand-out fiddle sounds at times like a horn (perhaps this is due to it being electric).
Some purists don't like the idea of combining trad and rock music. It is true that a selfless spirit accompanies trad music, but celtic rock also has its pluses, which include fan enthusiasm, making the music accessible to a much wider audience (which guarantees its future), and the excitement of bringing the beat to what's closest to our hearts - our heritage. Plus it's unbelievably fun! To me, the very definition of traditional music (or folk music) is that it has been constantly changing for centuries - and this is how it has survived. Plus, many celtic rock groups include bagpipes, an instrument native to Ireland, whereas many trad groups feature the fiddle, which I have heard was introduced by the English. When I see a good celtic rock performance, it is just as powerful and meaningful as a good trad performance. If you like celtic music, and you like to dance and hear the pipes as much as I do, you will enjoy this album.