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With Friends Like These
James Keane (button accordion) with: Garry O'Briain (all tracks except one; guitar, mandolin & mandocello, piano, keyboards) - Tommy Peoples (3 tracks; fiddle) - Paddy Glackin (3 tracks; fiddle) - Matt Molloy (3 tracks; flute) - Liam O'Flynn (3 tracks; uillean pipes; whistle) - Kevin Conneff (5 tracks; vocals, bodhrn) - James Blennerhassett (7 tracks; acoustic bass, 'cello) - Liam Bradley (5 tracks; drums, percussion). 15 tracks; 58:44. Shanachie 78015.
Track list--Order info
This new Shanachie release features a wonderful collection of musicians and tunes but all of it features the clear, liquid, accordion playing of James Keane, four-time All-Ireland button accordion champion and co-founder of the legendary Castle Cili Band. His playing is clean but never clipped; relaxed and exciting at the same time. And his sound has a large share the happiness that is shared by so many button box players.

No matter who he plays with on this album, the accordion blends beautifully. Individual musician's voices are never lost; they blend together to sound like Planxty or Bothy Band (both groups that many of these musician played with).

This album is constructed of band tracks rather than solo tracks with accompaniment. The various combinations of friends on each track--average per track is 3-4 musicians of the 9 involved in the album--make for a great variety of textures and sound. The selection of music, ranging from Sligo polkas to O'Carolan, also adds much to the enjoyability of the album.

Na Connery's, a sean-nós song about the banishment of the Connery family by the English to Australia, is set for accordion and piano. Sean-ns sets music to words and syllables, rather than the opposite, and the feeling of the old singers is translated almost eerily to the button accordion.

An original slow reel, "Morning Mist," features the most elegant accordion playing I have ever heard. It is also a lovely tune, composed while reminiscing about the first view of Ireland flying into Shannon airport. Set with fiddle, flute, pipes and whistle as well as cello, mandocello and keyboards, it has the measured feel of older Scottish music (but is indubitably Irish at the same time).

"Black is the Color of My True Love's Hair" features Liam O'Flynn's almost orchestral piping accompanied only by mandocello and keyboards, this is paired with a stately version of Sean Reid's (reel) with accordion and pipes.

Kevin Conneff opens one set with a lilted version of "The Hunter's Purse" accompanied only by bodhrán. The set then moves into "The Flowing Bowl" with accordion, flute and bodhrán, and adds mandocellos for "Tilly Finn's."

Another original tune, "Lavalla," Keane's father's home, was inspired by images from visits there and has a slow, swinging, leaning, insistent rhythm that reminds me somehow of a New Orleans parade.

A moody rendition of "Miss McDermott's" (a/k/a "Princess Royal") closes the album. It reminds me of the type of encore that Altan usually plays, one designed calm the crowd as well as to remind the audience of the musicians' absolute mastery.

With friends like these, James Keane could easily form the next Irish "super group". I hope he does. Their playing is so much more relaxed and masterful than the current generation of "kick-ass" Irish bands (much as I love the music of Altan and Solas, to name but two). In this album, though, there's some more, something that seems more connected to the tradition and to the Irish, something older and more chthonic. This is not to say that it is a thoroughly traditional album: the accompaniments on many tracks, and even the instruments, are much more modern. These two reactions, which may sound at odds with each other, aren't. They exist because of the singularly natural way that James Keane and his friends play Irish music that simply has not stopped evolving. Interestingly, the drum (and I don't mean bodhrán) backups on some track are definitely non-Irish traditional, but remind of fairly mainstream Scottish accompaniment.

I will admit that there are two brief places where I found the accompaniment to be a little thick or overdone. Unfortunately, one of them is the introduction to the first track, which fortunately seems to have nothing to do with the rest of the track. Too bad it wandered in there, though.

The often complex textures are rendered very cleanly and warmly by the recording (produced by Garry O'Briain). The album includes excellent notes by James Keane about each tune. Needless to say, even with my minor complaint, this album gets an A+.

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