The Chieftains & Friends,
Fire in the Kitchen
(Unisphere Records, 1998)

There are a lot of very cheesy Celtic compilation albums flooding the market today.

Don't get me wrong, many of the tunes are worth having. But lately it seems like anyone with a record label is putting out an album (or series of albums) called "Celtic <fill in the blank with an appropriate noun>" to waylay the innocent or ignorant music store browser. Most are little more than samplers, a marketing tool combining tracks from other albums.

An exception to the cheesy trend is Fire in the Kitchen, a sort-of Chieftains album from Dublin by way of Canada.

The Chieftains, undeniably the granddaddies of the modern Celtic folk revival, have put out a lot of good records with a variety of "friends" culled from the esoteric and pop music realms. This latest, which doesn't even give the Chieftains top billing, brings together a veritable Who's Who in Music from Celtic Canada.

Each track features members of the Chieftains mixing it up with some of the top musicians and bands from the northernmost chunk of North America. Some were featured with the Chieftains in their Dublin Gael Force concert series (aired in the States on PBS channels, now available on videotape), but Fire in the Kitchen is certainly not a retread of old material.

Nothing here is lifted from somewhere else. All 11 tracks were recorded for this album, with new arrangements prepared by the individual performers working with one of the Chieftains -- mostly ubiquitous pipe-and-whistle man Paddy Moloney, but fiddler Sean Keane, flutist Matt Molloy and singer Kevin Conneff get their licks in, too.

Fire in the Kitchen draws its name from the Canadian "kitchen party" tradition, which Moloney (also the album's producer) likens to the Irish hooley or pub session. Every tune on the album is traditional, and there's certainly variety to spare.

The album opens with "Madame Bonaparte," mournfully played on Donnell Leahy's fiddle over the light plinks of sis Erin Leahy's piano. Then the rest of the Leahy family and a handful of Chieftains join in for a madcap race through "Devil's Dream" and "Mason's Apron."

One track down, and already I'm excited.

Next, the Rankins slow things down with the mournful "An Innis Aigh," proving once again the Nova Scotian family's mastery of vocal harmonies. Then Great Big Sea, one of the fastest-rising stars in the field, kicks things back into overdrive with lively Newfoundland favorite "Lukey/Lukaloney."

Laura Smith provides the next breather, singing a cryingly soulful "My Bonnie." Rested too long? The Chieftains and fiery Cape Breton fiddler Ashley MacIsaac wake you back up with another lively instrumental set, "My Home/The Contradiction/Julia Delaney."

OK, slow it down again. (Are we sensing the pattern here yet?) Rita MacNeil sings an achingly beautiful rendition of "Come By the Hills." But don't get too mellow, because we're zipping back to Cape Breton for Natalie MacMaster's soaring, sizzling fiddle and light, step-dancing feet in "Fingal's Cave."

If you've been paying attention, you can guess what's next. Yup, a slow Gaelic ballad, "A Mhairi Bhoidheach," sung by Mary Jane Lamond (yet another Cape Bretoner on the rise). Don't wait for the next track for the inevitable tempo change, however; Lamond livens this one up on her own.

The Barra MacNeils maintain the upbeat mood with a spritely "Rattlin' Roarin' Willie." The Ennis Sisters apply the brakes once more for a melancholy "Red is the Rose" (sung to the same tune as "Loch Lomond"), before French-Canadians La Bottine Souriante close out the album with a final fast-paced set, "Le Lys Vert," featuring a brassy, almost Dixieland flavor.

The constant tempo changes and the stylistic differences between the various Canadian artists make Fire in the Kitchen an entertaining listening experience, well worth playing with the repeat button on. Each track boasts the original flair of its spotlighted guest, while the Chieftains add their own touches as well. Combined, there's ample diversity and a unifying sound which most compilations lack.

If you're hungry for a taste of new and experienced musical talents in the traditional Celtic field, Fire in the Kitchen is the compilation to buy.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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