(Flowinglass Music, 2000)

There are lots of Irish pub bands on the market. There are also a fair number of "courtly" bands better suited to a medieval or Renaissance feasting hall. Often, there is a sharp division between them.

Not so with Broceliande, a California band which has found the common ground between them. With fine string instrumentation and vocal harmonies which would do any madrigal group proud, Broceliande would suit well a royal court setting. But they're not pretentious about it, and they're not afraid to let their hair down at the end of the day.

The band members all excell at various points in the album. All four members sing, often in harmony or with various members taking the lead. All are talented instrumentally, too, featuring Margaret Davis on recorders, flute and Celtic harp, Karl Franzen on guitar, mandola, tin whistle and doumbek, Kristoph Klover on mandola and 12-string guitar, and Kris Yenney on string bass, cello, tenor viola da gamba and dolphin drum. It's an understatement, but I'll say it anyway: these four are good. Each is a master of the various instruments they play, and their arrangements are intricate, exciting, exceptional music. Their vocals are good; their vocal harmonies are exquisite.

The self-titled album begins with the classic Celtic ballad "As I Roved Out," which seems to be all about romance until the soldier of the tale leaves the friendly innkeeper's daughter holding the bag -- or, rather, his child. That leads to an Irish tune set featuring, among other things, the too-rarely used cello as a melody instrument. The band flows effortlessly from there into the 12th-century Portugese cantiga "Santa Maria, Strefa do Dia" and, next, a modern piece based on a traditional Irish chorus titled "Dulaman."

Yenney's cello is back in the spotlight for "Sarabande from Suite for Unaccompanied Cello in G Major/Century House," which blends a Bach piece with a new composition. Then the band swaps vocal duties for the jolly English traditional song for spring, "Hal-an-Tow." Davis does a sweet turn leading vocals on the Scottish ballad "The Broom o' the Cowdenknowes" before wielding several recorders to lead the lively "Cantiga Medley."

The slow, sweet traditional song "Blackwaterside" leads into the 16th-century French madrigal "Il est Bel et Bon." This lively bit of a cappella vocal acrobatics is fast, fun and entirely too short. Next comes the 18th-century English drinking song "Here's to the Maiden," a pleasant group sing-a-long which finds merit for drinking in any female in the room, as evidenced by the chorus: "Let the toast pass / Drink to the lass / I warrant she'll prove / An excuse for the glass." The CD concludes with the 16th-century madrigal "My Heart doth Beg You'll not Forget," another beautiful a cappella piece for four voices.

Broceliande is easily among the best in their specialized field of traditional music. Vocally and instrumentally, the band is flawless and the arrangements are never dull. This is a keeper.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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