New Celtic CD Hits Right Notes for St. Paddy's Day

Monday, March 15, 2010

Album: Three Days in May (release date March 17, 2010)

Artist: Colcannon

Reviewer: Doc Arnett (785-442-6125)

If you're looking for a celebration of the Emerald Isle that lasts beyond a parade and a pint and that includes the real color and culture of Irish heritage, a brand new CD from the highly acclaimed Colcannon could be your ticket. I contacted lead singer Mick Bolger back in the midst of our most bitter spell of winter weather to see if he might be willing to listen to some songs my wife and I had written. He wrote back with an offer, "Sure, Doc. You send me yours and I'll send you our new CD." Even after he was duly warned of the extreme disadvantage to which he had offered himself, he still carried through. And so, I got my personal copy of Three Days in May, the band's newest effort, set for release on Saint Patrick's Day.

This mix of 14 traditional and 10 original tunes is not "Celtic Light" for those wanting to pretend they like Celtic music, sort of like people who eat at Taco Bell's because they "like Mexican food." This is not a quick single cut included to represent the genre; this is an evening in the pub or more accurately a week at the peat-heated cottage where the fiddle has been in the family since before grandfather's time and the bodhrán is covered with hide tanned by the clan's own hands.

Instrumentation is provided by the Colorado-based group's very talented musicians and was, for the most part, recorded in the time and season of the album title at Notably Fine Audio in Denver with Colin Bricker engineering. Tone and tempo vary considerably, from the slow and somber of Fare Thee Well, Whisky to the driving, yea, romping conclusion of the 14th cut. Mick's vocalizations speak from the old country, well handling the ambiguous humor/somberness of An Bunnan Bu' (The Yellow Bittern) and perfectly delivering the apparent innocence of the gentle bawdiness of The Hermit. He renders a restrained angst on the second cut, fully fitting the song.

Every one of the band members contributes at least one original on this collection, with Rod Garnett's East European-flavored Koprivshtitsa furnishing the only deviation from a purely Celtic feel. For true fans of Celtic music, this is an appreciable offering with exceptionally nuanced performances of traditional songs and tunes and with original music faithful to its influences yet able to breathe its own air. For novices to the genre, don't rip through the album. Take the music like good whisky: Savor a tune or two and let the notes mellow a bit before moving on. Rushing through will favor neither the music nor you.

1. Late April/Early May. Fiddler Jean Bolger composed this pair of seasonal tunes as part of a self-imposed regimen of writing at least one song a day for a year. The opening is pensive and reflective with transition to a moderately paced melody. The second tune is decidedly of sprightlier vein.

2. Fare Thee Well, Whisky. With Jean playing the low lines of an octave violin, Mick's expressive vocalizations blend effectively with Rod Garrett's flute. With the minor chords complementing a pensive and plaintive mood, this fine story traditional to both Scotland and northern Ireland takes its title from a wayward husband's choice between his wife and that which the Lord hath made to keep the Irish from ruling the world. One of the more poignant of the plethora of old songs of this type.

3. Katie's Rambles/Swimming in the Gutter. A pair of traditional tunes, with lilting swirls printing images of twirling skirts and the sounds of brogans below limber knees, patterning rhythms on a wooden floor.

4. Jenny Picking Cockles/Jenny's Chickens. A forced marriage of sorts, according to the liner notes, paired by the sharing of the persona in the title, the maiden's gathering of mollusks at waterside transitions to tending the family fowls. Jean's apt fiddling clearly mimics the clucks and peeping of the hens and chicks in this pleasing rendition of two traditional tunes.

5. An Bunnan Bu' (The Yellow Bittern). This song is well nigh onto three hundred years old. Mick and the band chose Thomas MacDonagh's 1913 translation* of the classic poem by the poet Cathal Bu' Mac Giolla Ghunna. Of his own translation, MacDonagh stated, "In my version of this poem I have changed nothing for the purpose of elucidation. I have even translated the name of Loch Mhic an Ein, a lake in the North-west of Ireland." In similar devotion to the work's origins, Mick delivers the first lines in Gaelic, giving us a chance to appreciate the poem's original poetry, if not its meaning. Most of us will have to wait for the English translation in order to begin to appreciate the wonderful ambiguity/innuendo of this number. The forlorn similarities the persona draws between himself and the deceased marsh dweller are beautiful and haunting, with both moods effectively conveyed by the band's instrumentation on this very fine cut. Mick's sensitive and effective string arrangement brings in the only use of guest players on the album. [*Look up Seamus Heaney's translation for a worthy comparative.]

6. The Mother Set is so named because it combines tunes composed by band members Mike Fitzmaurice and Brian Mullins in honor of Mike's mother. The full titles of the tunes are worth the price of the CD and the music is at least as good as the titles.

7. Return to Fingal/The Golden Keyboard/The Toormore Slide/The Youngest Daughter. This medley of traditional tunes begins with the notes of a spectral flute, slow and piercingly lonely, yet lovely. In the progression toward the light and lively end, it is as if a contemplation of suicide on a gloomy cliff turned into a celebration of life and light sparkling on the waters.

8. I Have a Rendezvous with Death. Mike Fitzmaurice, bassist and guitarist, takes a poem written by Alan Seeger (Pete's uncle, who was killed in WWI) and creates a melody and the arrangement. Mick's voice and use of the minors yields a powerful and touching effect. It's no wonder that Pete approved the result; it touches the place in us for which music was created.

9. March of Ides. In Mick's words, "A rollicking tune by Brian, featuring the composer on the flute." Brian Mullins plays cittern, guitar and mandolin elsewhere in the collection. Indeed, the flutist doth rollick...

10. Koprivshtitsa, a Bulgarian village, has hosted the more or less quinquennial National Festival of Bulgarian Folklore since 1965. As one might guess, this tune incorporates elements of East European folk music. Rod Garret, the composer of this one, teaches flute and World Music at the University of Wyoming and apparently spends quite a bit of time researching the music, culture and other anthropologic mysteries of Bulgaria and similar settings. While the least Celtic of the collection, imagine an Irish musician falling in love while hiking along the Topolnitsa River through the Sredna Gora Mountains. This tune might be one of the things that would happen...

11. Planxty MacAleese. President of Ireland, Mary MacAleese, visited Denver in 2006. Jean composed this planxty ("an Irish or Welsh melody for the harp, sometimes of a mournful nature," according to Mr. Webster) in her honor and the band performed it for the President. The tune is mellow and warm, peaceful and soothing, with an appropriate dignity and mood that is serious but not somber.

12. The Hermit. This traditional poem is perhaps the most gently bawdy of any that I've ever heard. In fact, it is only the innuendo of the very last verse that hints of that category. Acknowledging that a variety of tunes have born the words, the band uses an original melody by Jean Bolger, which has a lightness befitting the story. A must listen for those eager to be entertained and ready to laugh at the story of an old hermit whose annual bath in the lake is interrupted by three attractive visitors of feminine persuasion.

13. Man of Words. The flutist (Rod Garnett) strikes again with this complex tune, which incorporates a sort of self-contradicting light-footed plodding in rhythm and countertones.

14. Wheels of the World/Man of the House. This combination of traditional tunes begins with a fine, driving beat that rollicks along... and then accelerates! This one truly romps and includes what could be your first exposure to the bass harmonica.

15. The Night Visit/The Earl's Chair. Mick states that this is the first song that he sang before an audience in the U.S. and you will definitely want to read his account of that event. The song begins with an almost electrical sound and something of a blues beat. Mick puts a twist into this old story of an "innocent" lad taken in by a seemingly more experienced woman. At the end, the listener might well be musing, "Who has been most fairly seduced/I can barely deduce/but I doubt that anyone will be a'callin' the sheriff," as the band shifts to the instrumental.

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