The Other Side
(self-produced, 1998)

They were born with Irish spirits, but in an age of rock 'n' roll. So the members of Blackthorn combined the two and came up with a fun, lively collection of tunes on their CD The Other Side.

The Philadelphia-area band makes the point best, perhaps, with its crowd-pleasin' anthem for nontraditionalism, "The Drummer's Gotta Go!" The foot-stomping song tells the tale of a woe many bands face when they fly in the face of pure-drop tradition:

You don't need a drummer, now listen to me boys,
Not part of our tradition, it's just a lot of noise
Squeeze the old accordion and rosin up the bow
And keep the damn piano, but the drummer's gotta go!

Blackthorn is Paul Moore (acoustic guitar, vocals), John McGroary (button accordion, harmonica), Mick O'Callaghan (drums, tin whistle, vocals), John Boyce (keyboards, bass, vocals) and Seamus Kelleher (lead guitar, mandolin). Two of the five -- O'Callaghan and Kelleher -- are Irish natives, while the others spring from the Philly 'burbs.

The band wears its nontraditionalism proudly -- but don't let that fool you. They're just as obviously proud as their Irish heritage. The album, comprising mostly original tunes, is a delightfully irreverent, at times poignant look at the Irish and Irish-American experience. Moore, their primary songwriter and vocalist, has a great handle on his subject.

The opening track, "Kerry Rain," is a wonderfully fun song about an Irishman who travels the world over, experiencing all sorts of weather along the way, but all he longs for is the rain of his own country. "Granuaile" isn't entirely textbook perfect in its historical perception of the renowned Pirate Queen of Ireland, but it's a lively homage nonetheless. "No Way to Go But Up" is a touching song about a man at the bottom who cannot sustain his love for a woman who's content there, while "Only Place Open in Town" salutes the woman who stays loyal despite the singer's fading fame.

"Lady Liberty" is perhaps the most stirring song on the album. It tells of a woman who emigrates from Ireland and faces the hardships of a new life in America -- and who manages to hang on to her pride along the way. Kelleher's electric guitar and guest fiddler Liz Knowles add edgy tension to the arrangement.

The album ends with two excellent tracks. First, "The Road to Anglesea" is a delightful tip of the hat to Celtic music fans in New Jersey, and it's hard not to sing along on the chorus. "Ballad of the 15B" is a slower, simpler track, a moving song of maybe love that leaves you wondering about the outcome.

There are a few instrumental tracks here as well: "Put the Kettle On/Between the Ditches," "Hugh O'Donnell's Escape" and "Fresh Squeeze," all by McGroary. These tracks could fit nicely into a traditional tune list, but they're performed with plenty of Blackthorn's rockin' vigor.

Living only a few hours from Blackthorn's major stomping grounds, I've heard the band's name often -- but, amazingly, I've never seen them play. This album makes me want to try harder. The local Philly band I've heard so much about is heading for the big-time, and I'd like to catch them here before they go.

[ by Tom Knapp ]
Rambles: 25 June 2001

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