Manannan's Cloak
(Wardfell, 2015)

Jenna Moynihan,
(independent, 2015)

Back in the 1970s and '80s Irish and Scottish bands -- marketed as "Celtic" though there is, strictly speaking, no such thing as a pan-Celtic music, only blended regional (as opposed to purely tribal) forms -- led the international folk scene. Outfits such as the Chieftains, the Boys of the Lough, the Bothy Band, Planxty, the Tannahill Weavers, the Battlefield Band and Altan reigned supreme. Though the music remained of high quality, the initial popular enthusiasm inevitably passed. Today, less noticed but just as artistically vital, the British Isles' most notable folk movement is to be found in England's clubs, festivals and recording studios. Nobody who isn't ignorant calls what's happening there "Celtic music."

So let's forget the C-word even as we celebrate a couple of grandly accomplished albums that restore the music in all its joyful glory, perhaps portending an overdue revival of the style, which grew out of an effort to fuse the vocals of the "ballad groups" (most prominent among them the Dubliners and the Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem) with a quasi-orchestral iteration of older instrumental traditions. Before then, Irish and Scottish folk music lived more or less in two separate categories: the sung and the played. Old rural sounds were modernized, just as in America bluegrass took mountain string bands into the second half of the last century and beyond.

On the other hand, Jenna Moynihan isn't a singer, and she doesn't live across the ocean. She's part of Boston's young revival of folk musics, in which Scottish fiddle material plays a significant role. A native of upstate New York and a graduate of the Berklee School of Music, Moynihan often performs with the noted harper Mairi Chaimbeul. Woven (after the in-the-tradition, self-composed tune that enchantingly opens the album) brings in, here and there, guitarists (among them Courtney Hartman of the noted neo-bluegrass group Della Mae), other fiddlers (the estimable Darol Anger on one track), and Maeve Gilchrist, the recording's producer, on keyboards. It's Moynihan's rich, complex fiddling that, appropriately, is at center stage all while, fashioning evocative soundscapes at once grounded and dreamlike.

You don't have to be a fellow fiddler or fiddle authority (I'm neither) to appreciate what's going on here, an austere beauty and a music played at the highest technical level without, however, drawing any boastful attention to Moynihan's command of the instrument. It's been a good year for recordings of Scottish fiddle tunes, and if hers is the latest, it is also something special in its impressive depth and fearless exploration of the mysteries.

The Isle of Man lies in the Irish Sea off the northwest coast of England. Its original language, Manx, is, according to a geographical dictionary I consulted, "now virtually extinct." Its people (around 75,000) keep national traditions alive, however, including a folk-music scene thrillingly represented by the trio Barrule. The CD takes its name from the legends surrounding Manx god Manannan mac Lir, who concealed the isle in fog and mist to protect it from invaders; if any got through, the god dispatched balls of fire in their direction from his mountain-top perch.

Only one band member, fiddler Tomas Callister, actually lives on the island. The other two have Manx connections, though. Accordionist Jamie Smith, who grew up in Wales and leads the Welsh band Mabon, married fiddler/singer/dancer Grainne Joughin, a Manx native. Multi-instrumentalist Adam Rhodes left the isle to go to university in Scotland, where he stayed; he now resides in Glasgow. Still, the music retains something of its distinctive quality, though clearly influenced by its counterparts in Ireland, Scotland and England. The songs are sung in the Manx language or in English (represented by a stirring old celebration of the herring trade sung by Paul McKenna, who heads the Paul McKenna Band, devoted to Scottish sounds).

Never having seen Barrule -- whose second album this is, the first unheard by me -- I don't know if it is ordinarily a strictly instrumental approach. The vocal tracks are given to, as noted, McKenna and to Gregory Joughin, both guests, along with four other invitees playing bodhran, uilleann pipes, piano and lap steel to fill out the music on assorted cuts. From the evidence of Manannan's Cloak Manx's domestic music, if not radically unlike its neighbors', isn't entirely similar. As I listened, I thought of how Canada's folk music shares obvious qualities with its counterpart along the United States' northern tier while keeping an identity of its own. (For specifics, you might look up a couple of 2006 Smithsonian Folkways CDs, Classic Canadian Songs and Alberta: Wild Roses, Northern Lights.)

In any event, Barrule shines on this spirited collection of songs, polkas, jigs, reels and airs. In particular, I was intrigued to hear a ballad, sung in Manx (its title translates as "The Cruel Mistress"), which knowledgeable listeners will recognize as a variant of a piece known in Ireland as "The Black Velvet Band" and in America as "The Girl in the Blue Velvet Band." Like many ballads possessed of unusually compelling storylines, it has transcended language differences and crossed vast bodies of water to do its magic.

music review by
Jerome Clark

19 December 2015

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