Good Listeners

New albums by The Tap Room Trio (Jesse Smith, Harry Bradley and John Blake) and Mick O'Brien and Caomhín Ó Raghallaigh.

For me, music made by good listeners always stands out. And that’s what we get with The Tap Room Trio and Kitty Lie Over, two recent recordings of Irish traditional music that explore some of the more formidable bodies of repertoire, style and approach – the music of Sliabh Luachra which lies at the Cork-Kerry-Limerick borders and the tradition of fiddle and flute playing of counties Sligo-Leitrim-Roscommon.

There are also plenty of little winks and smiles on these albums towards other great influences from the past, such as Patrick Kelly, Néillidh Boyle, Micho Russell, Tommy Reck, Séamus Ennis, Willie Clancy, the Flanagan Brothers and the whole spirit of Irish traditional music in the United States of America in the early twentieth century. And yet, for all of its resonances with the past, the music on these CDs is unambiguously and authentically today’s music; its energy is contemporary, its approach to sources and repertoire assured, commanding and distinctive. Both albums are produced to high standards and are generally well documented in an informative and entertaining way with graphic design in both cases light-handed and effective.

Kitty Lie Over features Mick O’Brien on uilleann pipes and Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh on fiddle. There are also performances on whistles by, I assume, both players, but the album notes remain silent on this point. Flat pipes and fiddle make for a strong ensemble sound that to my ear opens up the music in ways that are different and rich with possibilities, providing a welcome relief from the timbre of the more dominant concert pitch uilleann pipes. On this recording, the musicians take full advantage of the range of dark, fat, buzzy sounds that flat pitch makes possible.

The pace and variety of the music draw heavily on a style of playing that has not really benefited from any major revival of interest in performance until recent years. Despite the far-reaching influence of Sliabh Luachra music on recent and current repertoire (helped along to a significant extent by the revival in set dancing), I think it is true to say that the distinctive fiddle sound of the area has not been that widely heard in the playing of younger generations, and while it has not been silenced entirely, it has carried a much lower profile than, say, the Donegal or Sligo ‘brands’. That could yet be a saving grace. Time will tell. On the other hand, the Sliabh Luachra accordion tradition seems to have fared much better, probably because of the influence of Johnny O’Leary whose musical influence has been equal in magnitude to that of the late fiddle masters O’Keeffe, Murphy and Clifford.

One remarkable thing about the pipes-fiddle duet playing here is the ease with which O’Brien and Ó Raghallaigh reach their level, and the musical correspondence between both players is of the highest standard. I was curious to know if the occasionally idiosyncratic rhythmic and dynamic approach that Ó Raghallaigh uses would sit well with O’Brien’s more orthodox playing, and indeed with the relatively limited dynamics of the uilleann pipes. Based on the evidence here, it sounds to me like they have achieved something special and at no artistic cost to their highly developed individual styles.

The musicians have selected tunes that are grounded either in their direct personal experience and contact with people who influenced them or, in the majority of cases, learned from or inspired by sound recordings, radio broadcasts and television programmes. What I found refreshing about the album notes was the enthusiasm and zeal that the musicians use when describing this mix of sources and that sense of delight and respect comes across in their duet playing.

The Tap Room Trio is an energetic and uplifting recording featuring Jesse Smith on fiddle, Harry Bradley on flutes and piccolo and John Blake on guitar, flute and piano along with guest contributors John Carty on fiddle and Seosamh Ó Neachtain who we hear dancing during a set of schottisches. The ensemble arrangements are spirited and given a solid underpinning on guitar and piano by the excellent John Blake who brings great colour to the mix.

What impresses me most about The Tap Room Trio is not just the mastery that all of the players demonstrate over their instruments, but also the depth of musicianship and creativity that they bring to the repertoire. Repertoire here includes many old familiar tunes (‘The Blackberry Blossom’, ‘Mickey the Mauler’) as well as unusual and colourful versions of some occasionally threadbare standards such as the ‘Sligo Maid’ which is refreshed here in a quirky setting that comes from the playing of the late Danny O’Donnell from Cruit Island in the Rosses in north Donegal. O’Donnell spent time in the United States where he tapped into the wealth of Irish emigrant traditional music, rescuing many versions of tunes which he transcribed and, occasionally, recorded.

The repertoire on the album also includes tunes that are often politely or otherwise set aside as being hackneyed. I’m thinking here of the highland tune ‘Music at the Gate’ (a.k.a. ‘Phil the Fluter’s Ball’) or the polka ‘My Aunt Jane’ where the Trio just get stuck in and repatriate the spirit and humour of the music to great effect. But this music is not just about putting a smile on the listener’s face. There is some remarkable solo playing here as well – just listen to the quality of Jesse Smith’s performance of ‘The College Groves’ and ‘Wellington’s Reel’ as an example of a genuine, fresh, gimmick-free personality in fiddle playing. Smith uniquely, in my opinion, even manages to break through the ‘Morrison barrier’ which has both inspired and impeded fiddle players for years. James Morrison is a figure whose music continues to present challenges and inspiration to fiddle players. In capturing the spirit and ‘lift’ of Morrison’s music, Smith avoids the easier and more usual imitative approach that draws on simply replicating Morrison’s phrasing, variations or dynamics. Instead, Smith seems to tap into something else, driven as much by his own musical voice as by a deep understanding of and feeling for Morrison’s music and Morrison’s times. Harry Bradley also turns in an impressive hand with his solo performance of ‘The Sailor on the Rock’ and the ‘Fisherman’s Lilt’, a set of reels inspired and steered to some extent by the great John McKenna.

The Tap Room Trio come to this music with the benefit of having heard and absorbed a huge range of influences in terms of repertoire and language of performance. I would even go as far as saying that they have had the benefit of broader listening than any of the iconic figures that they acknowledge on this recording and I think it shows in their command of the musical territory. At the same time Smith, Bradley and Blake are not captive to any single musical accent nor do they moderate their own individual and collective creativity in any reverential way.

Like Kitty Lie Over, this album is a great example of the rewards performers can get from listening closely to and understanding music rather than simply learning tunes. Hearing these people play reminds us that the weight of tradition, the need for individual expression and the relative limitations of the musical form are often the most powerful driving forces behind creativity in traditional music at this level. Using your hands to play is easy enough. Using your ears to play is another day’s work – in this regard, these players set a high standard.

The Tap Room Trio is released on the Claddagh records label (mailorder [at] crl.ie). Kitty Lie Over is independently released (www.kittylieover.com)

Published on 1 March 2004

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

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