Three grand releases from the Isles today. Old Blind Dogs released their twelfth album today; North Sea Gas return to the place of the band’s birth for a 30-year celebration; and Patrick Ball offers up a tale of abandoning an island, which has struck rather close to home for your favorite shipwrecked editor . . .
North Sea Gas
[Scotdisc CDITV794 (2009)]
To celebrate its 30th anniversary, North Sea Gas (Dave Gilfillan, Ronnie McDonald, and Grant Simpson) released the live recording Edinburgh Toon. Excellent vocal harmonies and careful arrangements on familiar contemporary and traditional tunes make for an enjoyable casual listen, but the set list captured here is more than just a collection of great tunes and consequently rewards repeated spins.
Recorded 50 yards from the group’s first gig at Edinburgh Gasmarket, the disc fittingly includes many songs that are, in some way, about rambling, emigrating, or returning home. The opening pair of songs—the title track and “Broom o’ the Cowdenknowes”—set the thematic tone for the night. Having a set list with seven songs with the same theme, despite the wealth of material in the folk music of the British Isles, obliges the group to find and highlight subtle variation in a subject already filled with emotional ambiguity. They accomplish this in a surprising way: By playing them in a homecoming concert filled with songs of exile and return, North Sea Gas adds insight even to well-worn tunes like “McPhereson’s Rant” and a gorgeous rendition of “Braw Sailing on the Sea” (which is the best performance on the album).
The group ends on an uplifting note with Kevin McKrell’s “All of the Hard Day’s Are Gone”; however, though it might be “all beer and whiskey and songs from now on,” even this happy tune takes on a slight melancholy note when one considers that the band will soon be leaving to travel another 100,000 miles.
If a traditional group’s primary goal is to teach a listener something new about tunes that have been played hundreds or thousands of times, North Sea Gas certainly succeeds on Edinburgh Toon.
—Jon Patton (Baltimore, MD)
The Fine Beauty of the Island
[White Strand 01 (2007)]
Patrick Ball’s The Fine Beauty of the Island is a mythologized retelling of the 1953 abandonment of the Blasket Islands in County Kerry, Ireland. Ball provides all the voices in the story and intersperses harp and flute tunes throughout. Several O’Carolan tunes appear here, including the less common “Cremonea.”
Historically, the islanders left because, as Ball explains, “their turn was gone, their land poor, and their seas plundered of fish by large trawlers from England and France.” Ball incorporates real history, the Irish myth of Oisín, the hagiography of St. Brendan, and some of his own biography into a moving tale of loss and love. Ostensibly, the story is about his search for the origin of a haunting tune, “Port na Pucai” that, importantly, can’t be played on the harp. The title itself is the name of the boat sailed by the fisherman Brendan, who is, possibly, the last surviving former inhabitant of the Blasket Islands and who sees the island’s dead in the “road” below the surface of the sea. He claims his ancestor wrote the tune after having “heard it on the wind.”
Brendan tells Ball how 10 years passed on the island without a marriage, and how sad they had all been without the laughter of children. He has a daughter (by another man’s wife), Philomena, who had the magical ability to transform the face of the island’s dead into an image of what they loved best in life. On the morning of “The Vanishing” in 1953, when all the islanders were packing everything they owned into their boats to leave the island for good, Philomena could not be found. Ball plays a tune that calms the water, and the 80-year-old fisherman, with a man from Dublin whose father was a refugee from the Islands, crosses at dawn. Ball sees them and hears a different tune in the wind, one that can be played on the harp, which he dedicates to his father.
Ball’s most important accomplishment on The Fine Beauty of the Island is to show not only that music is important to him, but that something as simple as a single tune can contain a wealth of cultural, historical, and even mythological information, and, thus, shows how important music is to us all.
Old Blind Dogs
Old Blind Dogs – Wherever Yet May Be
[Compass 7 4542 2 (2010)]
After eighteen years and fifteen band members, Old Blind Dogs still manages to offer more of the same on their twelfth studio album, Wherever Yet May Be. Luckily, “more of the same” translates to power, tradition, and creative bursts and flurries of bombastic energy. The newest member of the band, Ali Hutton, contributes several original compositions, such as “Desperate Fishwives,” an exciting track that soars into the stratosphere and is a fitting finale to the kind of album people have come to expect from Old Blind Dogs.
Taking a genre like Celtic folk and putting a unique and creative spin—while keeping the essence intact—is a challenge that Old Blind Dogs manage to pull off time and again. They insert their own voice seemingly at will while successfully keeping their music an homage, instead of a total reinvention. The lilting “Psychopomps” is a perfect example; the track takes the traditional “Fouller’s Rant” and combines it with music of Hutton’s own design to create an evocative piece, full of youthful energy. The fiddles soar and the whistles playfully cut through, blending to form the most fun piece on the album. If every track was like this, Wherever Yet May Be would be stellar.
But not every track is a success. The tribute to the late Davy Steele, “Scotland Yet,” has some odd choices. The melancholy and wistful remembrance comes through, but the infectious drum beats are a bit too happy to jibe fully with the somber tone. Combined with the oddly musak-like chorus of whistles, ”Scotland Yet” fails to result in a cohesive unit.
The rest of the album, however, works well. The ebulliently classic “Portobello” flows rather adroitly into the group dance tune “Copper Kettle.” “Where are you” especially stands out in wistful poignancy, setting a mood and a tone that the aforementioned ‘Fishwives’ effortlessly builds off of. And that is possibly Old Blind Dogs’s best feature—their ability to take disparate tunes and melodies and blend them so well that one song transmogrifies into the other seamlessly and subtly, so that the listener is moving from jubilation to moody staring without noticing.
Overall, this is a worthy addition to the now-even dozen Old Blind Dogs albums. Perhaps it could have more noteworthy or distinguished itself from the prior eleven albums better, but the musicianship is at its finest, and the beautiful tones and moods of the British Isles are present in every note and rhythm. No one will be disappointed listening to Wherever Yet May Be, and there is enough to keep everyone—from the casual listener to the harshest critic—happy and engaged from beginning to end.
—Mike Tager (Baltimore, MD)
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