CD Reviews: Tommy Peoples' Waiting for a Call

Tommy PeoplesWaiting for a CallShanachie (CCF35CD)Tommy Peoples gracefully occupies a prime authoritative position on the top shelf of traditional fiddle players. He’s not easily labelled, but you’ll find him somewhere between the established living...

Tommy Peoples
Waiting for a Call
Shanachie (CCF35CD)

Tommy Peoples gracefully occupies a prime authoritative position on the top shelf of traditional fiddle players. He’s not easily labelled, but you’ll find him somewhere between the established living legends and the more elusive grand masters of the craft of fiddle playing and tune-making. He holds a unique place among living traditional instrumental musicians – he is one of the few traditional players whose music regularly elicits from his listeners words such as passion, tension, ferocious, dark, emotion, grip, electric, friction, tautness, rawness, beauty. His music is analysed and parsed, dissected and imitated, explained and argued over by enthusiasts the world over. Peoples prefers to explain his music by playing it.

He continues to leave his mark through concert performances, informal session-playing, teaching, composition and a series of solo recordings alongside his recorded work with seminal musical forces such as the Bothy Band and Paul Brady. His precise contribution to the store of tunes that musicians love and play remains ambiguous and even disputed, although Tommy himself has set the record straight in the notes to his album The Quiet Glen with a terseness and punch that equal the impact of the best of his fiddle music. And he’s not afraid to disclose his own experiences and emotions in his sharply chosen few words. For example, on that album his note on the tune ‘Don’t touch that Green Linnet’ (referring to the Green Linnet traditional music label in the US) alludes to ‘a small bird, to which innocent children got too close, unaware of it’s voraciousness.’ Peoples’ words are strangely absent from this latest Shanachie album Waiting for a Call.

As I listened to and considered this Shanachie recording, these words of Peoples’ kept coming to mind, principally because of the confused messages this production sends out. On the one hand we have two recognised master musicians, Peoples and Alec Finn, recorded around 1985, a prospect initially thrilling enough to hold my curiosity and attention. Then there is the added attraction of more recent recordings, this time Peoples being paired with John Doyle in 2002. And there’s also something of a curiosity track featuring an undated recording, presumably from the 1980s, with Seán Óg Potts on uilleann pipes. On the other hand what we get is something rather less than the sum of its parts, which in my view is more indicative of unclear artistic intent on the part of Shanachie than of any shortcomings on the part of the musicians.

To begin with, the production values involved here are minimal, and the scant information provided in the track listing suggest to me a hurried if not insensitive approach to the production. The fact that the contributions of Finn, Doyle and Potts are unacknowledged on the track listings strikes me as at least discourteous. The contrasting acoustic textures of the earlier and more recent recordings do jar, to my ear, and I can’t help feeling that this album is less a clear musical statement by and about Peoples, and more a case of Shanachie finding some gold in the vault and stretching it out with a few handy recent recordings.

On reflection, were this presented upfront as archive recordings of Peoples then my expectations would have adjusted accordingly. Even then, a player of Peoples’ status would surely deserve more considered and sensitive treatment and production, notwithstanding Don Meade’s warm and respectful comments on Peoples’ music. As to the music itself, in many ways there are few surprises here with Peoples. There is his unmistakable tone, ability to inject tension into a tune, his complex use of bowing and finger ornamentation to disorder the rhythmic pulse of tunes. His often quirky and richly embellished approach has a rock solid artistic foundation based on an impressive command of the instrument and ability to imbue simple dance tunes with levels of feeling and emotion that are quite uncommon and that still surprise.

On listening to the tracks with Finn which account for the majority of this album, my strong impression remains that there is something of a musical mismatch, despite the evident high quality of Peoples’ and Finn’s playing. I don’t feel that Finn’s accompaniment fits snugly with or even responds actively to Peoples’ playing. The flowing, legato – often complacent – effect of Finn’s hallmark style to my ear often misses the point of Peoples’ rugged, dynamic, highly punctuated playing.

The overall effect is softly pleasing rather than arresting, competent and able accompaniment rather than an impression of two highly gifted musicians playing together, musically and psychologically aware of each other, alert to the deviations from ‘the plan’ that make for really great traditional music.

The more I listened the stronger was the image that came to mind of Finn’s immaculately manicured lawn being grafted on to the wild harsh rugged mountainy landscape of Peoples’ playing, with all its quiet peaceful places, all of its dark nooks and all its commanding energy. I find it interesting to contrast this album with Peoples’ recorded work with Dáithí Sproule and with Paul Brady, players who take a more responsive and even aggressive approach to playing music actively and emotionally along with Peoples. I felt here that Finn offers something more formulaic which, elsewhere, works effectively and brilliantly.

John Doyle’s guitar playing on the other hand seemed to me to be much more closely attuned musically to where Peoples playing is coming from – alert, probing, curious and ambitious. An album of Doyle and Peoples, on this form, makes much more sense artistically and, bluntly, with deference to the status Peoples rightly enjoys. At a time when the business of making albums has never been more accessible, it is really perplexing that a musician of Peoples’ repute and status can be presented in the manner that Shanachie have decided to do with this album. That said, I recommend you get this and listen hard to the fiddle music.

Published on 1 May 2003

Dermot McLaughlin is a fiddle player and currently Chairman of the Irish Traditional Music Archive.

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