The Blackbirds,
The Earth & the Gravel
(self-produced, 2001)

Since the regional dams burst during the 1950s folk "revival," Celtic music has surged and coursed its way into virtually every corner of the globe. Love it or hate it, the Riverdance phenomenon has widened the channel and enabled more musicians -- good and bad -- to join their tributaries to the flow. Sometimes mixing in strange and disparate waters with the pure drop, sometimes cleaving close to the wellspring, this tradition sees another blend enrich the stream with a beautiful album called The Earth & the Gravel by Minneapolis-based band The Blackbirds.

The band's membership is a metaphor for their music and the growth of Celtic music. Sean Egan hails from Chicago and plays clarinet, tin whistle, piano and percussion. Paul Wheling on bouzouki, guitar and banjo brings a love of West Clare-style Irish music. Sam Adams on piano accordion, piano and organ adds a wealth of seldom-heard Welsh song and dance music. Mix these varied talents and instruments together with an equally varied song list and you have an ambitious, unique blend of traditional and contemporary, Celtic and American.

The album kicks off with a haunting tune from Brittany titled "An Dro," and when the clarinet joins in you know you have left the mainstream for less-traveled waters. "An Dro" is a marvel that recalls the House Band and John Skelton's bombarde. The clarinet has a mellower, throatier voice but is all the more effective for that and imparts an edge of earthiness (appropriate given the album's title) to this dance tune.

The energy and our enjoyment builds through the next set of tunes -- Irish this time. We start of with the more traditional sound of the banjo and accordion but soon the clarinet joins in again. The melding of the traditional and contemporary succeeds brilliantly on this and the other instrumentals. You think to yourself, "Why haven't I heard that sound before? It sounds like it's always been there." The banjo, accordion and clarinet have that perfect Clare bounce and you can't help but tap along and smile.

Like any ambitious effort, there are ideas that don't quite work, waters that don't quite blend. Piano/organ accompaniment occurs regularly in The Earth & the Gravel. I am not fond of that accompaniment style but I must admit that it does not overpower the melodies here and it's mixed in tastefully. It's not my cup of tea, but neither did it hinder my enjoyment of the album.

The vocals are also a mixed bag. The first one -- "Beth yw'r Haf I Mi," a traditional Welsh "song of love and heartbreak" -- is absolutely lovely. The piano works well here providing an ethereal tone over the heartbeat of the drums, the mournful clarinet and the introspective accordion. The next one is the Woody Guthrie classic "Do Re Mi" and it falls flat compared to the first. The guitar starts a slow shuffle beat and the clarinet adds a bluesy, almost Dixieland feel, but on the whole the song doesn't leap out at you. "Anac Cuan," a tragic Irish song of a boating disaster near Galway City, again is well done, but just doesn't strike the spark of the first song. The last song, "Adar Man y Mynydd," bookends the vocals with another beautiful effort done more traditionally: whistles, accordion and Welsh language. There's nothing wrong with any of the songs, but the two Welsh songs truly catch magic.

I enjoyed the way this album blends many different sounds and feels and rides some new currents while still keeping the stream of tradition clearly in sight. "Farewell to the Shore" is a fine example. Welsh and gypsy by origin and a harp tune by tradition, the Blackbirds feature accordion, bouzouki and clarinet to mingle the waters of the klezmer with the Celtic. It is a beautiful, haunting melody and a great showcase for Sean's clarinet. "Machynlleth" is a track of Welsh set dances and is another example of their twist on tradition. The Blackbirds play the tunes in polka time where the accordion and clarinet add a hint of good, old-fashioned "oompah" band sound without weighing the tunes down. It's a great, energetic set of traditional tunes done in a style I've never heard before.

The Earth & the Gravel is a beautiful recording that goes a long way towards reaffirming the fact that the waters of Celtic run deep and strong and are capable of mingling new currents and streams without ever losing contact with its headwaters. If it doesn't succeed at every turn, that only underscores the depth of feeling and breadth of musical scope in what does work.

- Rambles
written by Fred Keller
published 19 July 2003