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Red Knot

by George Fowler

Drioball na Fainleoige
(The Swallow’s Tail)

Johnny Connolly (melodeon, B/C accordion);
Charlie Lennon (fiddle, piano);
Steve Cooney (guitar);
Noirin Ni Ghradaigh (fiddle).
Clo Iar Chonnacta CICD127. 16 tracks, 58:06
Sound Bytes
The melodeon in Irish music is often regarded as one of those curious throwbacks to an earlier time. A modest instrument that was at home in rural dance halls and cottages, this simple one-row, 10-button diatonic accordion was cast aside in the rush by musicians in the past few decades to adopt the more dynamic two row B/C boxes, and traditional Irish discography is scant in memorable recordings of the melodeon.

Most welcome, then, is Johnny Connolly’s recent release on the Connemara label, Clo Iar Chonnacta. The potential dynamics and rhythmic complexity available from the lowly melodeon are really apparent in the hands of a master player such as Connolly. He learned melodeon as a boy, living on the now-deserted Connemara island of Inis Bearachain, laid aside the instrument when he immigrated to England, then took up the more popular two-row when he returned to Connemara in the 70s. Despite the apparent technical limitations of his boyhood instrument, Johnny chose to return to playing the melodeon, and Drioball na Fainleoige is a dividend for us all.

The album includes many oft-recorded standards such as "The Blackbird" and "The Bucks of Oranmore" which might elicit a yawn from listeners were it not the freshness and new life his playing breathes into these tunes. The title cut & opening selection, serves as good notice for what is to come as Johnny leads us through "The Swallow’s Tail", one of the first tunes he ever learned, in no less than three keys! There are modern selections here as well, including compositions from his accordionist son, Johnny Og, plus a new set of jigs from Charlie Lennon. Lennon’s piano playing lends dramatic chordal dimension and solid support on many of the cuts, and he picks up the fiddle to join in on several more. Producer/guitarist Steve Cooney lends another dimension on several selections. Cooney’s punchy guitar accompaniment may not be to every listener’s taste, and he has been criticized in the past for his jazzy chord selection when backing traditional players such as Connolly. Steve has had many successful collaborations with box players such as Seamus Begley and Altan’s Dermot Byrne, and certainly knows what he’s doing, but the contrast between his almost antic energies and Johnny’s more old-fashioned style will seem jarring to some.

The album is well-engineered, and Connolly’s generous liner notes provide a wealth of autobiographical information, as well as tune sources, in Gaelic and English. Part of Clo Iar Chonnacta’s mission is guardian of the Gaelic culture of Connemara and they are Ireland’s most prolific Irish language publisher. It’s no surprise then that some of the paragraphs are much more detailed in Irish than the scanter English translations, but it leaves us English-only readers wondering what we’re missing. Small quibble, and in some ways, a nice touch of Gaelic chauvinism. CIC’s venture into music has produced over 100 albums in the past decade, many of little commercial interest, but of vital worth to their ambitious custodianship of the West’s heritage. It’s gratifying to see this small label’s albums now appearing in record bins alongside the big guys.

-- George Fowler
Celtic programmer. "New Potatoes"
WERU-FM, Blue Hill, Maine

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