Sharon Shannon,
The Diamond Mountain Sessions
(Grapevine/Compass, 2001)

According to Sharon Shannon's notes, it's really all Steve Earle's fault. They recorded "The Galway Girl" together in Dublin, and from there, it all just kind of snowballed. Who else could join Shannon and her band, The Woodchoppers, on this recording, which became, as Shannon termed it, a "big long party" in Letterfrack, Galway?

Besides Earle, the official guests are Jackson Browne, Carlos Nunez, Hothouse Flowers, John Prine, Mary Staunton, John Hoban and Dessie O'Halloran. However, others, including Donal Lunny, Triona Ni Dhomhnaill, Maire Breathnach and Steve Cooney, are but four of the "extras" who occasionally sit in with accordionist Shannon and the Woodchoppers on these sessions. All these diverse performers lead to diverse material; the album ranges from Galician music with Carlos Nunez to Hothouse Flowers covering Hank Williams' "On the Banks of the Old Pontchertrain" set to a traditional tune. It may seem a discordant combination of songs, and while the results sometimes are mixed, they are far from a cacophony.

It was probably a good idea to make Earle's twangy "The Galway Girl" the second track rather than startling Shannon fans too much by opening with it. Instead, it's perhaps a more comfortable instrumental medley, "A Costa De Galicia," with Carlos Nunez on pipes and whistles, that begins the party. It may not be Irish music, but Shannon's sound blends nicely with Nunez' pipes. Earle's turn, however, easily demonstrates why Shannon felt inspired to seek out other performers with which to share the recording studio. The Irish band, featuring Shannon's accordion, works well against Earle's Texan vocals.

However, the organ that worked nicely on "The Galway Girl" seems overkill on "The Diamond Mountain." What had been a fun, light tune starring acoustic guitar and accordion becomes blurred once the Hammond organ and a saxophone join it. Triona Ni Dhomhnaill's keyboards on "The Pernod Waltz" are far less distracting and seem in keeping with the tune's general course.

The numbers that work the best overall are the ones in which Shannon's accordion, which should be the main attraction, after all, is not overcome by layers upon layers of instruments and voices. Sometimes it seems like just another instrument in the band on Dessie O'Halloran's take on "Say You Love Me" and "Slan Le Van," featuring John Hoban on vocals, with yet another dip into organ and saxophone. Fortunately, those two instruments don't seem quite as intrusive on the tune "The Four Jimmys" ("The Fitz" theme), and they apparently were banished from "The Hounds of Letterfrack," fun tunes that might appear on any Sharon Shannon album. While Shannon's accordion and whistles aren't the stars on Jackson Browne's updated "A Man of Constant Sorrow," they blend well with the other instruments.

Shannon takes a backseat on "Love, Love, Love," but the charming duet between John Prine and Mary Staunton makes me forgive her for that. On the closing track (before the hidden Galician tune to come to those who wait), "Northern Lights," Shannon trades in her accordion for a fiddle and appears to holds her own in a six-way fiddle fest with Liz Kane, Yvonne Kane, Mary Shannon, Jesse Smith and Sean Smith to Donogh Hennessey's rhythmic acoustic guitar.

So, do I have Steve Earle to thank or blame? While there are times that Shannon herself seems to be in the background, the experiment is pretty successful. Shannon takes her brand of Irish music far past Diamond Mountain, Letterfrack's background scenery, without ever leaving Galway.

[ by Ellen Rawson ]
Rambles: 31 August 2002

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