The McKrells,
(self-produced, 1999)

As I was sorting through the liner notes and the information about the McKrells, I also decided a visit to their website might be in order. Musicians' websites are often fun, and I found out one fact that instantly endeared to me this rollicking band of Irish bluegrass musicians. Their founding member and singer, Kevin McKrell, lists Lawrence of Arabia as one of his favorite films, and Revolt in the Desert as one of his favorite books. It doesn't hurt that he also prefers Picard to Kirk. A man after my own heart.

Aside from these apparently fated similar interests, I was pleased to find that the McKrells are also an accomplished and energetic band that combines traditional Irish tunes, bluegrass and rock with great flair. The live album is the only of theirs I have heard (though I plan to remedy that soon) and seems to suit their energy and style. They happily give the banjo the job of being the foundation in their melodies, which is also good in my book -- in my humble opinion, there should be more banjos present in music today.

The first track, "The Bat Upon the Harp," begins the album with great energy and a sense of fun. The artistry apparent in the banjo and guitar minglings are impressive, and reminded me a bit of the fiddle showdown, covered by many fiddlers, "The Devil Went Down to Georgia."

"Geraldine's Thinking of Galway" is one of the best tunes on the album. This selection is again full of energy, but this time it feels a bit more muted and touched with yearning. McKrell's lead vocals are tender and strong at the same time, just right for the tone of the song. The feeling of homesickness and a longing for a place are well written. The tune is also a showcase for the layers of string instruments which is the band's style. The melodies are complex and yet remain singular so that you can appreciate the individual threads of tune as well as the way they meld together.

"Lost in Your Eyes" is a more upbeat turn, even reminiscent of swing. The lyrics give the audience a traditional love song, and perhaps not so original, but the writing is also heartfelt, which makes it feel familiar rather than cliched. The electric guitar really arrives in this tune, melding well with the more classic instruments. This song shows how well the band keeps the methods of bluegrass and traditional Irish ditties and yet knows when to add the kick of electric instruments.

"I'm Still Missing You" brings the collection up yet another notch and lets the guitarist and banjo player jam happily. This particular atmosphere reminded me of the great evenings listening in Doolin in County Clare, Ireland, where the musicians in the pubs are all talented and never want to sleep, and thanks to their playing, neither does their audience.

"Over the Rainbow" is, of course, a familiar tune, and this is a lovely cover. The banjo with the guitar harmonies and improvisations give a nice breather in between the jauntier tracks. This is the kind of melody that lets you rock back in your chair and smile as your mind wanders in a happy haze. "Something's Come In" is a true ballad, gentle and beautiful, with a bit of a Spanish flair on the guitar. The low lead voice is suitably mournful and tuneful while the lyrics are evocative and simple as the best ballads should be. The song is spoken and sung with a storyteller's awareness of audience.

"Fanny Hill" brings the listener back into the swing aspect of the CD, an instrumental melody that makes you sway in your chair and nod your head in time. This contains the unique exploration of a melody and variations that often define live performances and really lead and audience to follow the musicians as witnesses to their craft. "Matty Groves" is a traditional cautionary ballad and quickly became my personal favorite on the disc. The music is quite dynamic, with a strong, almost confrontational sound that has not been heard before on the album. This style suits the song perfectly. The wail of the electric guitar only adds to the sense of doom that characterizes these great, energetic songs of duels and class clashes.

"Broken Dreams" starts off with a fun beat, then adds a quick bass line, and then the banjo enters with the melody. These happy three quickly lead the piece off into a sliding and fun tune and finally the voice slides in with obvious glee. The lyrics are almost so classic as to be sung with a wink, and as with the rest of the album, the music is the real showpiece. "Touch of Your Hand" marks another sad love song. Once again, the music is potent, and the lyrics do come through here more than in other tracks. The words are to the point and without frills, fitting the intricacy of the melody and technique by calling to mind strong emotional responses.

"If I Fall" picks up the beat again, and is a hopeful and optimistic song about searching for camaraderie and trust. The music and attitude seem to say the narrator is living in the knowledge that the longed for companion will be found, and the longing is an anticipation rather than a feeling to be endured. "Toronto" is one of the few tracks that lets the lead vocals shine a bit more, and thus again lets the lyrics play out. They evoke a traditional story of leaving home and the regretful leave-taking, and the melody is spare and beautiful.

"Ride On" takes a while to get going. The percussion leads us in with a whistle and the first moments of the song become a kind of pause when the band members noodle around together. There is less immediate energy, and the tune is not as spritely. The wait pays off, and the song shifts to become a rather haunting and ominous piece. Again, this melody is more stripped down than the other tracks, and gives each instrument its chance to work its own magic.

"Fly Away" is a wonderful finish for the album, feeling almost like a lullabye. The sentiment of the song concentrates on wondering what tomorrow might bring, but wishing to linger in the moment.

All in all, the album is remarkable for the talent of the musicians as well as the obvious satisfaction they have in their work. For me, there is nothing more compelling than an artist on stage relishing his opportunity to perform. This comes across flawlessly and engagingly on this live recording. As I said, anyone who loves Lawrence of Arabia has to be cool.

[ by Robin Brenner ]