Paul Brock & Enda Scahill,
(Compass, 2007)

Kevin Burke & Cal Scott,
Across the Black River
(Loftus, 2007)

Fiddler and longtime Patrick Street member Kevin Burke, who has a long history in the Irish revival, is a household name to those of us who treasure that country's traditional music. Any recording with which he is associated can be counted on to be as good as contemporary Irish fiddling gets. The all-instrumental Across the Black River is no exception. Here, Portland film composer Cal Scott ably accompanies Burke on guitar, mandolin, bouzouki and mountain dulcimer. Johnny B. Connolly (accordions), Michael McGoldrick (flutes) and Phil Baker (double bass) round out the ensemble.

Along with the traditionals (including a set on which "The Boys of the Lough," from which the revered Irish/Scots band drew its name, appears) and in-the-tradition originals, bluegrass partriarch Bill Monroe's gorgeous "Evening Prayer Blues" -- not played as a bluegrass piece, but as an underscoring of the Anglo-Celtic folk underpinning of Monroe's music -- gets a memorable, if unexpected, workout.

For all his mastery of Ireland's native music, Burke grew up in London, albeit of Sligo-born parents. He has lived in America (in Portland, Oregon) since 1979, so it is surely fitting that the legendary Irish-American fiddler Michael Coleman should rank among his idols. On a nine-minute set that includes the above-mentioned "Boys," Burke, along with Scott and the band, honors Coleman, who I am confident smiles from whatever heavenly emerald isle on which he currently resides. Another standout is Scott's "The Lighthouse Keeper's Waltz," awash in beauty and melancholy and sounding more as if it were centuries old than something conceived recently.

If Black River is Irish-Americans performing Irish music, Humdinger (also all-instrumental) is precisely its opposite: Irish musicians doing Irish-American music. As Paul Brock and Enda Scahill -- of Co. Clare and Galway respectively -- eloquently demonstrate, the two genres may overlap, but they are hardly the same.

In his informative liner notes musicologist, historian and Irish-folk-renaissance figure Mick Moloney (who's resided in the United States since 1972) observes this "is the first ever CD of Irish traditional music on the melodeon and tenor banjo." Brock plays the former, Scahill the latter, with Ryan Molloy on piano and Tommy Hayes on percussion.

The results are loud, rollicking, mirthful and confidently performed. This is how Irish-Americans played it in the early decades of the last century, as these mostly urban musicians picked up sounds from other immigrant traditions and integrated them into the venerable dance tunes they carried from their own notion of the Old Country. You could write a book on how music got louder when it came to America, a nation that operates at a higher volume level than most. Fiddles and flutes couldn't compete in bars and dance halls, but banjos and accordions cut cleanly through the din. If they made noise, they also, happily, made music.

Besides their technical excellence on their chosen instruments, Brock and Scahill are keenly informed students of the tradition. They've even unearthed a French-Canadian variant of the lilting tune to which the well-known Belfast children's song "I'll Tell Me Ma" is set. That alone would endear me to this wonderful album.

review by
Jerome Clark

24 November 2007

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