Review 3

Beyond the Bellows and The Bow, Aoibheann and Pamela Queally, APQCD001, (2019)
Tobar Bhride, Antoin Mac Gabhann & Caitlin Nic Gabhann, CNG2, (2018)
Vernacular, Dapper’s Delight, KLR 033, (2017)

There is no rhyme nor reason underpinning what gets reviewed on this site!

A few years ago, when I released a CD with my great friend Liz Giddings, two commercial companies helped with the distribution, one of them arranging digital downloads, Amazon access, etc. and the other getting the physical product around to festivals and relevant outlets. This company also produced some sheets of adhesive labels bearing the addresses of every publication in the UK and Ireland (except one website the company refuses to deal with!!) which cover Traditional/Folk music on a national or regional basis. I expect that companies specialising in other musics of minority interest – Old Time, 30s Dance Bands etc. – do exactly the same. It is hard to see how such an approach could be applied to the concertina, even if someone were brave enough to take on the challenge of trying. I therefore rely on CDs arriving unsolicited (Thank you Dapper’s Delight) or on another Concertina Journal contact sending one to me (Thank you, Dan, for the Queally sisters’ wonderful recording) or on coming across a CD myself, as here the splendid CD from the Mac Gabhanns. Incidentally, three emails to the website promoting another Irish CD went without even the courtesy of a reply! I can’t believe that no CDs are coming from players in America, South Africa, Australia…. they simply aren’t coming to my attention and this explains my, seemingly random, scatter gun approach, influenced further by my own penchant for Traditional Irish music and the huge amount of it that is currently being issued.

I often wonder at the fact that two instruments that create their sound in such different ways – air passing over a strip of metal, and horsehair passing over catgut – can meld so perfectly into a combined sound where the two instruments are audibly inseparable.

The two Irish duos under review here can do it to perfection.

Here are Aoibheann and Pamela Queally:

and here are Antoine and Caitlin:

This supreme unity of sound is not easy to achieve and it requires a full understanding of the other person’s playing. Being family members with years of experience of playing together is a great help! If this unity slips it simply sounds as if something has gone wrong, so any different approach, with the instruments taking separate paths, must be clear and deliberately presented.

Again, here are Aoibheann and Pamela doing just that:

and here are Antoine and Caitlin:

Both approaches are equally valid and both require equal skill and understanding. The second approach can lead to muddle, but there is no example on these two CDs to illustrate that!

Slow Airs are notoriously difficult, as I have said before. On the Anglo Concertina they require very accomplished bellows control. Perhaps, because of this, we have come to associate them with older players. I think it is an outstanding achievement for a very young player to play with the skill and sensitivity shown here, giving the notes time and room to breathe with plenty of space between them when needed:

The Mac Gabbhanns draw the tunes on their CD from a wide area and that includes the music and style of Slabh Luchra which they approach with all the uncompromising drive of the music of that location. Here’s a short example showing again the technique of playing with total unity to create a single sound:

By a happy coincidence, Aoibheann and Pamela Queally have included a tune written by Caitlin Nic Gabhann, ‘Sunday’s Well’. Their gentle playing of this simple-sounding yet complex tune perfectly displays the two instruments taking separate but parallel routes. It is totally charming and I make no apologies for a slightly longer extract:

Caitlin herself recorded her tune on her first CD back in 2012. Here’s a brief extract:

This highlights a major difference in the playing of the two Anglo-fiddle duos under review. Neither observation is a criticism.

The Gabhanns play with more edge and thrust, doubtless the result of the confidence that comes with experience. The Queallys, on the other hand, have a gentleness, almost a sweetness, in their playing. It is differences like this, showing that the music is coming from deep within the players, that is one of the endlessly fascinating delights of good traditional music – and that is what we have here. If you love traditional music you will want both these recordings.

I have often talked about the important distinction between Traditional Music and Folk Music. The distinction is clear in my head but difficult to define, not least because there is a grey area in the middle. Traditional music, as the two CDs so far reviewed adequately exemplify, is rooted in a country, a region, even a family. Folk Music has no such roots. Much of the material may have traditional origins (whatever that means, given the vast scope from which traditional players have always drawn their repertory!) but the performance is rooted only in the judgement, ingenuity and technical skill of the performer. As I move to Vernacular from Dapper’s Delight I am indisputably entering the world of Folk Music and the Folk Club.

Dapper’s Delight are Susanna Borsch (recorders, voice and English Concertina) and Adrian Brown (Anglo Concertinas and voice) and they have plenty of ingenuity and technical skill. At times I feel it is misused. For example, when a delightful little Playford tune turns into this

I find myself forwarding to the next track. Unfortunately that brings me to the Ballad of Grace Darling. For all her glorious feminist credentials and breathtaking heroism (Why is there no feminine noun? Heroineism?) her song has been sung to destruction, and this ingenious approach, with the recorder indulging in exotic flights of fancy, though cleverly done does little to redeem it:

Other songs, though very well performed, beg the question, ‘Why?’ Oh Oh Antonio is great fun in a pub session or a lively evening, but is it worth recording? I’ve many times watched Mike Bettison perform Harry Champion’s Gorgonzola Cheese to the delight of audiences who’ve heard him do it many many times. It’s a very good vehicle for a good singer who can work an audience, but take the audience away and it’s just a silly song.

But this is a concertina journal so let’s turn there and find happier ground.

I cannot hear the English concertina except behind the Anglo which dominates the mix, but Adrian Brown’s Anglo playing is very proficient. It’s in the ‘Folk Club Style’ – a style developed by people like John Kirkpatrick and John Watcham and followed today by many other good players. When the Anglo first made its way into the Folk Revival there was little precedent. Dance musicians had William Kimber and Scan Tester, neither of whom had easily available recordings, but singers had no one. (I’ve heard that Kimber did sometimes accompany singing by another Headington Morris Man, but – if true – it was not recorded.) In fact, there are very few examples of musical accompaniment of British Traditional Singers. The pioneering performances of John Kirkpatrick were bound to be influential because they were so thoughtful and well done. Many followed his approach as here from Dapper’s Delight:

Adrian Brown also uses well the technique of holding left hand chords below a right hand line played across the rows:

He can also be bright and lively:

There’s some nice playing here.

And that concludes another review. Where has it taken us? First to further proof that Traditional Music in Ireland is healthy and strong with some outstanding young players. In contrast, the Folk World lacks focus. Dapper’s Delight show that there is ability and interest, but as the Folk World continues to contract and decline such music seems to me increasingly peripheral and remote. As for the rest of the world… I have no evidence.