Review 1

Tunes from the Trenches, John Kirkpatrick, Fledg’ling Records FLED 3099 (2015)
In Flow, Jack Talty, Raelach Records RR010 (2016)
Note for Note, Mary Mac Namara, PORCD (2014)
The Lady’s Cup of Tea, Mary Mac Namara & Sorcha Costello, MMacM 001 (2016)

It is a few years now since my last Review Essay for PICA and plenty of CDs of concertina playing have emerged during that time (indeed I have added to the pile myself), but it is not the intention of The Concertina Journal to review everything that involves a concertina. Rather we will try to feature recordings that are of particular significance or interest and endeavour to explain why we think so. The four I have selected from the last three years qualify fully.

One thing that hasn’t changed in recent years is that John Kirkpatrick continues to be England’s flagship concertina player, a role he has maintained unchallenged for a mere five decades! Equally outstanding on a range of other Free Reed instruments, John is one of the main performers at Folk Clubs and concerts in the UK and the wider world where he never fails to perform with professionalism and his own brand of – often self-effacing – good humour. John can also be spotted in less predictable places: rock CDs, West End theatres, TV mockumentaries…..

Recently he has taken to compiling themed evenings and ‘Tunes from the Trenches’ is one such, coinciding with the commemorations of WW1. Despite the title, the show and the CD include material from WW2 as well.

A lot of songs that fit this context are well-known and well-worn and John mixes these with a range of lesser known titles. Many are known today for their choruses with the verses long forgotten. Singing the verses in a live performance gives the audience more choruses in which to join, but, once heard on a CD, they serve only to demonstrate the wisdom with which the musical equivalent of Natural Selection consigned them to oblivion. Some of the other songs here, though completely appropriate for a live show, don’t repay frequent listening despite the great commitment and energy with which John approaches them. He has, wisely, avoided many of the songs popularised, (sentimentalised?) by the stage show ‘Oh What A Lovely War’ and, whilst including some parodies and spontaneous ditties, as a result the voice of the common soldier is under-represented.

Many of those who volunteered in WW1, leaving behind lives of drudgery, poverty and uncertainty, took their lifestyle with them. Some must have found that the ability to supplement their diet from the fields and hedgerows and make efficient rough shelters was useful; many were used to making their own informal musical entertainment and this engendered many of the familiar songs. By the time of WW2, entertainment was less spontaneous and usually commercial in origin and that is reflected in the selections here, but when I read the booklet I found that my favourite tracks were the four attributed to ‘trad’.

John performs everything with great enthusiasm and this commitment removes any hints of the undesirable Jingoism that can be associated with songs like these and this is further reinforced by other songs, like ‘The Squaddie In London’, which challenge the ‘dulce et decorum est’ approach to warfare. There are also many fine examples here of how exceptionally well John accompanies his own singing, able to divide his brain in two, singing one tune while playing something often quite complexly different.

This CD showcases John’s quality as a performer, even though it’s unlikely to spend a lot of time in your CD player.

There have been many happy occasions when I have been in bars in the West of Ireland listening to great music and marvelling as young players, often scarcely in their teens, play alongside those who in some cases are seventy years their senior. These young players, already highly proficient musicians, are waiting to take their place in the continuing tradition of Irish music. As the years pass they emerge in their own right.

Recent years have seen the full development of Jack Talty who is now rightly considered one of the major Anglo players in the music. I reviewed his excellent CD, Na Fir Bolg, with Cormac Begley in the final PICA (A solo CD from Cormac is expected any day!) and In Flow is a fine solo CD from Jack.

A striking feature throughout is the crispness of Jack’s precision playing; there are clear spaces between the notes and these do not disappear regardless of any increase in their number and speed. This is high expertise. Jack also favours quite a lot of decorative ornament and this is equally precise and controlled. Here’s a brief example of all this:

Another distinctive element is a bit more left hand accompaniment than is common with many Irish players:

These two sound clips alone are clear indications of Jack’s technical skill.

Jack plays a number of different Anglos, duly noted beside the track titles, and each is noticeably different in sound as well as in its pitch. The Linota brings a sweetness and the Lachenal a rougher edge while the modern instruments, a Suttner and a Carroll, hold their own easily in the company. Jack also gives details of the microphones used and he has done all the production himself, so the CD certainly sounds as he wants it to, and with different instruments, different pitches, a good range of tunes, including a slow air, there is plenty of range and variety. Yet there is a sameness running through the whole CD and this comes, I think, from the relentless intensity of the playing. All the tracks are full-on and this becomes wearing; I found myself wishing for some sets that were more relaxed and less demanding of the listener. It’s a small quibble, and one which should not detract from a highly accomplished CD.

The last few years have seen two outstanding CDs from Mary Mac Namara. Her 2014 solo CD. Note for Note exemplifies over and over the element that I found lacking in Jack’s In Flow. This is wonderfully relaxed playing and the ease carries across to the listener and creates a similar feeling of gentle contentment. Let me stress that relaxed playing is not careless playing or casual playing; it is every bit as controlled and accurate as anyone could wish, but it flows with a pace that comes from experience as well as great technical competence. Sometimes it causes tunes to be played surprisingly slowly. This excerpt from the jig ‘The Caves at Kiltanon’ exemplifies all of this: a steady pace which flows easily and gently:

Mary also plays without the common (i.e. overused?) stylised decorations that are regularly found in Irish Anglo playing. Her main embellishment comes from the traditional technique of doubling notes, usually using the alternative buttons which give the same notes:

The recording has very clear stereo separation with the two sides of the (Jeffries Bb/F) concertina on the two stereo channels, something which may not carry into these sound clips. A fine range of tunes also includes two sets of Barndances; it’s good to see these once-despised dances returning to popularity and respectability!

Mary’s more recent CD, The Lady’s Cup of Tea, features Mary playing with her daughter, Sorcha Costello. I have just, consciously, avoided writing, ‘Mary is joined by her daughter’ as this would suggest that Sorcha takes a lesser role; she doesn’t. This is an equal partnership. Here’s one of the tracks where Sorcha plays without Mary and which puts the issue beyond doubt:

Sorcha is another young Irish musician displaying the ability and understanding which the tradition demands.

Playing in a duo is the most demanding option. A solo player has the freedom to stray, while a band musician can have a flexible role, but in a duo there is no hiding place and everything has to be entirely together. This requires not just practice and an agreed arrangement; it requires an empathy in the music which encompasses a shared understanding and a shared purpose – indeed, a shared philosophy about the nature of the music. I have often remarked on the special quality of families singing together, particularly siblings: Bob and Ron Copper, The Watersons, The Everly Brothers…. Growing up together creates a similarity in phrasing, as well as a similar intonation, that is natural and unlearnt. Mary and Sorcha show that years of playing together as a family create the same closeness in musical expression.

There are some tunes here that Mary has recorded before, like ‘Shandon Bells’ and John Naughton’s ‘Old Man Dillon’. Listening to them here it is clear that Mary’s playing with Sorcha is not the same as her solo playing. In this duo, Mary’s playing takes on a more forceful character and displays perfectly how this extra emphasis can be achieved without dominance or loss of subtlety. Listen to this:

Mary’s playing balances the strong fiddle line without losing her characteristic and relaxed approach.

All four CDs come with extensive liner notes, but these by David Taylor are particularly detailed.

Note For Note is a true solo recording; no other instrument appears at all. We tend to use the phrase ‘solo recording’ for anything that has just one lead instrument. Hence Jack’s In Flow is a ‘solo recording’. The valuable part played by supporting musicians can get overlooked. Mary and Sorcha call upon two piano players while Jack is supported by guitar and bouzouki. These unsung accompanists are often the unobtrusive heroes of many a fine performance. The piano with its depth and range makes a fantastic contribution. In addition, piano players are usually pleased to see the importance of their role as supporting player. They are prepared to be self effacing and see the bigger picture. String players seem to find this less easy. On these recordings all the musicians are well served by their accompanists, just as John Kirkpatrick is by his spirited home-grown chorus.

So as we launch our new website, what does this small glimpse at recent CDs tells us about the state of the concertina world?

John Kirkpatrick is still the English Guv’nor, but this doesn’t mean that the the instrument is poorly played elsewhere in the country. The Anglo has never had a higher profile in the Folk Revival and the standard of playing gets better and better. Harry Scurfield mentions this in his piece elsewhere on the site. John simply continues to be the most accomplished, professional and knowledgeable performer.

In Ireland, the tradition is alive and well. Commercial ‘Oirish Folk’ is ever-present in the tourist areas, but the real thing is strong with young players of great ability and knowledge waiting in the wings. Bring it on.

Roger Digby