Recent Celtic Gems: Usher's Island, Beoga, Falkenau/Ullman, Polwart, Smith, and MacLean

The term supergroup is overused, but what term better describes Usher's Island? To follow the careers of Andy Irvine, Dónal Lunny, Paddy Glackin, Michael McGoldrick, and John Doyle is to stroll through Irish musical history from the pathbreaking 1970s to the present, with stops along the way labeled Planxty, The Bothy Band, Moving Hearts, Patrick Street, Lúnasa, and Solas. There is an ease with which veterans play that must be heard to be appreciated fully. On their self-titled release, these top-drawer musicians hit the mark from the start. "The Half Century Set" is a jocular nod to the fact that two of the members are now septuagenarians, but if you close your eyes it's 1974 and The Bothy Band has just launched into one of their complex sets in which instruments (guitars, bouzoukis, fiddle, flutes, whistles, mandolin, etc.) weave in, out, around, and through each other. Equally thrilling are the gliding flute notes of McGoldrick on "Five Drunken Ladies," McGoldrick, Glacken going old-style fiddle on "Sean Keane's," and the classic "Big Set" finale "John Doherty's."

The vocals are the only real nod to age and it's a brief one. Irvine is now 75 and his unique voice, though contracted in range, retains luster. We hear him in fine form on the traditional "Molly Bán," a signature tragic tale of a man who mistakes his love for a swan and kills her. To pull off a song requires wrenching emotion from what might otherwise come off as maudlin, and Irvine is up to the task. He's also on form on "Felix theSoldier," a song about the Seven Year's War, and I got a chuckle from the outrageous rhymes and music hall vibe of "As Good as It Gets," Irvine's reminiscence of youthful girl watching in Slovenia. At 70, Lunny doesn't sing much any more, but he valiantly reprises "Bean Pháidin," which he first sang more than 40 years ago. At a mere 46, Doyle has no trouble at all with "Wild Roving" (a variant of The Wild Rover) or "Heart in Hand," a retelling of the man credited with inventing the Claddagh ring and a credit to both Doyle's songwriting and his status as one of the very best Irish-style guitarists. Twelve solid tracks that are a glimpse back and a step forward—what's not to like? ★★★★★

Would that I could say that Dougie MacLean's New Tomorrow lived up to its title and stood the test of time as well as Usher's Island. MacLean (63) is one of my all-time favorite musicians (and people), but the mileage (and smoking) is starting to show. MacLean is enough of a pro that he remains worth a listen, but there is a sense that New Tomorrow is stamped from the Dougie MacLean brand (gentle songs, mild mysticism, bright guitar note cascades) could have taken more chances than it did. Call this a half-realized shift in focus. The title track, for instance, is a close recycling of 1985's "Singing Land," and MacLean noticeably strains to reach the higher notes. It happens elsewhere as well, but luckily there are stellar tracks that redeem the project's ragged bits. "Shadow of the Mountain" points to the new directions he's heading. The arrangement is bigger, the cadences quicker, and Jamie MacLean's bass and electric guitar provide heft. I felt the same about the mix of harmonica and electric and acoustic guitars on "Thunderbolt," a dark-hued rocker. "Never Enough" is also in the latter vein and an honest musing on time's passage. Overall, New Tomorrow is best when MacLean surrounds himself with other instruments and voices. Many of his songs are about time and there's no shame in turning the page to a new chapter. The most hopeful track is "Wild and Windy Night," which captures MacLean at what he does best—open gentle, segue to a catchy and repeatable chorus, and build to a communal sing-along. Even before his pipes gave out, Pete Seeger taught us that no matter how good a single voice might be, nothing beats a roomful of people singing together for the sheer joy of it all.  ★★★

Before We Change Our Mind is the seventh LP from the award-winning Northern Ireland quintet Beoga and it's another winner. Not many bands feature two accordions, but Beoga generally build their instrumentals around squeeze boxes manned by Seán Óg Graham and Damien McKee, which melodies around Eamon Murray's percussive bodhrán, Liam Bradley's keys, and Niamh Dunne's fiddle. Beoga have mastered big sets such as the pulsing "The Homeland Hero," but they like to tinker with them. "The Convict," for instance has the frenetic edginess of a Penguin Café Orchestra arrangement and keeps us slightly off-kilter by heavily accenting the two beat. The title track—oddly situated as track nine of eleven—also keeps us on our toes with a moderately paced jig that speeds up, then tamps down via Bradley's moody piano and then cuts to livelier accordion work. Just when you expect a flourish and big finish, Beoga drops back for a lighter touch. "Valhalla" is an unhurried set ornamented in part by cascading piano notes that cue other instruments to feather in. It's one of several pieces in which the sounds echo with such authority and fullness that you have to remind yourself there are just five musicians. Interspersed are fine vocals from Ms. Dunne: a lively take on the well-traveled "The Bonny Ship, TheDiamond;" a gorgeous a cappella rendering of "Wexford Town;" and crisp covers of Eamon O'Leary's "Like a Dime" and Tommy Makem's "Farewell to Carlingford." Toss in sensitive and quieter originals from McKee and Graham and it adds up to nearly flawless album. ★★★★★ 

Is it odd to toss the Appalachian-style album I Can Hear You Calling into a Celtic column? Not when you consider that fiddler Anna Falkenau grew up in Scotland, five-string banjo ace/lead vocalist Lena Ullman in Sweden, both now live in Ireland (Galway), and Andy Irvine endorses their recording. Irvine reminds us that many Celtic musicians cut their teeth on tunes and songs such as these during the Folk Revival, and those who know their ethnomusicology realize that much of today's "Appalachian" music originated in Ireland and the British Isles. One of the best places to hear this is the duo's cover of Skip Gorman's incongruously named "TheChilean Horsemen." Ullman's banjo is spare and haunting, but Falkenau's fiddle sweeps where many American old-time fiddlers clip. In like fashion, Falkenau's original "Apatchy Hunting in the Garden" has the feel of an old steam train, but echoes of it snaking its way into the North Carolina highlands settled by Scots-Irish. There's plenty here that could be straight out of Asheville—the deliberately scratchy fiddle notes that meld with the banjo in of "Goodbye Girls," the vocal catches of "Red Rocking Chair," Ullman's in-the-tradition "Blueberry"—but check out the new tune to "Black Jack David" and tell me what you hear in the seams. T trans-Atlantic fertilization comes across even clearer in a cover of Charlie Lennon's "Easter Lambs." The 79-year-old Lennon (County Leitrim) is a renowned Irish fiddle composer and if you compare what Falkenau and Ullman do with fiddle tunes from early 20th century Irish émigrés to America, you've just aced Ethnomusicology 101.★★★★

Finally, let me give a plug to two older CDs that I picked up in the only remaining music shop on Edinburgh's Royal Mile. Both are spectacular and should be downloaded. Emily Smith doesn't travel to the U.S. very much these days and more's the pity. Nor are her CDs easy to find here, but you can download her 2013 compilation Ten Years. Listen to her spirited take of "Edward of Morton," the sweet exuberance of "Sweet Lover of Mine," the delightful optimism of "Butterfly," or the bouncy "A Day Like Today" and you'll be charmed. ★★★★

My only complaint about This Earthly Spell, an otherworldly delight from Karine Polwart is that this 2008 recording has eluded me this long. Scotland knows what everyone should: Ms. Polwart is a rare gem. Few have her ability to plumb the depths of sorrow, mystery, and joy, yet be equally convincing and real in each effort. Her voice is singular, her songwriting superb, and her sense of building a song as organic as the roots of a towering tree. Want a song that cuts through the bullshit of the culture of apology? Check out "Sorry," a hard-edged song that smashes with a velvet fist. Think of it as this flip side of "A Tongue That Cannot Lie," a drone-backed song based on an old Borders ballad. How about a song about the passage of time? "Rivers Run" will answer. Need a tear-your-guts-out reminder about the AIDS crisis? Try to keep a dry out while listening to "Firethief." If you need a jolt of uplift, it's hard to beat the simple yet nails-the-job "The Good Years." I could wax rhapsodic about Karine Polwart until winter turns to spring. Just trust me; you need to know about Karine Polwart. ★★★★★

Rob Weir

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