- 03 Jan 07
Annual article: With Compass Records taking over the Green Linnet catalogue, the Nashville label has now become one of the biggest traditional imprints in the business.
2006 was the year that saw Compass Records shake off any pretence of being a sleepy little bluegrass label and go hell for leather in a quest for dominance of all things traditional.
Meeting Compass boss Garry West at MIDEM in January it was clear that they were keen to expand, and to expand quickly. Acquiring the rights to the troubled Green Linnet catalogue has meant that the Nashville based company is now, de facto, one of the biggest traditional labels. That hasn’t stopped them from releasing an impressive array of new records either though, and in a year when quite a few of the ‘big guns’ in traditional music released albums (Mick Moloney, Teada, Lunasa, Moya Brennan), quite a few of these surfaced on Compass.
While Lunasa’s album lacked the vital spark that marks them out as a force to be reckoned with live, Mick Moloney and Teada both delivered their strongest work to date. Mick Moloney’s album especially took a huge leap of faith in departing from the strictly traditional to embrace what were in fact vaudeville songs from the turn of the last century. While acknowledging that these songs don’t touch directly on the ethnic music of Ireland, he does admit that they were indeed the ethnic music of Irish-America, the music by which second and third generation immigrants with no direct link to the native soil defined their ethnicity.
Gael Linn meantime has also had an extremely busy year. As well as its new releases, the label has kept apace with its policy of re-releasing classic albums and recordings from its archives. Having drastically revised their house style to embrace a fluid modern look, they set out their stall with a beautifully presented collection of the songs (some little more than fragments) of Maire Ni Cheochain Ui Chrualaoi, entitled Cu-Cu-In. Towards the end of the year they brought us a re-issue of some of Seamus Ennis’ hallmark recordings from the long out-of-print 1964 album Ceol, Scealta Agus Amhrain and A.J. Potter’ fanciful 1973 opus Ceol Potter. Added to this is a remastered version of the film Mise Éire available on DVD, all of which serves to show how important these recordings were and how endangered they had become, confined as they were to vinyl.
Each passing year takes someone special from us, and given that traditional and folk musicians tend to enjoy rather longer careers than performers in other fields, we are more acutely aware of greatness slipping out of our grasp in its prime. Early July this year saw the traditional community rocked by the untimely death of Micheal O Dohmnaill, still only in his 50s. At the centre of the re-vitalised Irish traditional music scene in Dublin since moving from his native Donegal in the late 1960s to attend UCD, he came into contact with every major creative figure in Irish traditional music and quickly established a reputation as a catalyst around which great music occurred.
With sisters Maighread and Triona he played alongside Daithi Sproule in the short-lived but influential Skara Brae. He subsequently joined forces with Donal Lunny, Paddy Keenan, Matt Molloy, Tony MacMahon, Paddy Glackin and sister Triona in a band which was originally called Seachtar (Seven), adopting the name The Bothy Band when MacMahon left. The name came from a tattered photograph Micheal had discovered in Scotland showing a group of musicians in a Bothy – a labourer’s shelter.
Paddy Glackin left before the release of the first album to be replaced by Tommy Peoples, whose fiery style matched the feral pipe playing of Paddy Keenan. Set against the choppy muscular rhythm section of Lunny and O Domhnaill, the band played straight-ahead traditional songs and tunes but with an energetic rock ‘n’ roll approach. The band’s three studio albums irrevocably altered how Irish traditional music saw itself, and it is impossible to envisage how Irish music would have developed had they not been made.
Sligo Live, which had a test run in 2005, arrived as a full-blown festival this year and drew some interesting acts, among them such raiders from the fringes as Duke Special and the Guggenheim Grotto, who are now making waves in the mainstream industry. Along with Dundalk’s Tain Festival, Kilkenny’s Rhythm & Roots Festival, Midlands and Longford’s International Banjo Festival, not to mention the astonishing range of Americana on offer at the Open House Festival in Belfast, Irish audiences are increasingly well served with opportunities to see the best international performers.
The highest praise however, must be reserved for the small band of promoters who routinely take the risks involved in bringing in fresh performers from abroad and giving them the platform to build an audience. Without venues like the Cobblestone, The Seamus Ennis Centre in Naul, The Spirit Store in Dundalk and Barry’s in Grange, the festival audiences would not be what they are, and exposed to the stunning array of acts we’ve seen here over the last year. Given how increasingly averse to risk the major promoters are, it’s gratifying to know that artists of the caliber of Will Kimbrough or Jeffrey Foucault can still get on a stage here and deliver an evening filled with joy and passion.
Internationally there was evidence of how sexy folk is becoming, most apparent perhaps in Bruce Springsteen’s decision to fully uncover his folk roots with an in-depth foray into the Pete Seeger songbook. Springsteen’s earthy Americana had always tipped its cap to the folk music that was self evidently its forefather but, like Wilco before him, he felt the need to pay homage to one of the founding fathers of folk. Former Pixie Frank Black confirmed that his previous excursion in the company of Buddy Miller, Spooner Oldham et al had been no mere dalliance with 2006’s Fast Man Raider Man where, across a two album set, and again abetted by some of the finest players in the American south, he set forth his stall as a frontiersman pushing at the scraggy desert edges where folk dissolves in a haze of overdriven Gibson 335. This pattern seems to be set. As these elder statesmen enter a stage of their career where they’re not completely shackled by the rampant commercialism of new acts, they choose to engage with a music that has a veracity and an intensity that belies the simplicity of its stylings.
It’s not just amongst the oldies either. Speaking to Cara Dillon earlier this year it became obvious that one of the things she was finding most exciting in touring her new material, was that folk clubs once filled with the beard-and-sandals-brigade are now being frequented by audiences her own age and younger. Folk has become just another type of music in the visible spectrum, no longer the closely guarded preserve of the enthusiast.
It’s the same sort of confluence of influences that has fuelled the recent rise in Sharon Shannon’s profile. No stranger to collaborating with artists from other genres, she has now embraced that concept as her raison d’etre and tours with Mundy, Declan O’Rourke, Dessie O’Halloran and Jon Kenny in a show that blends musical identities in an almost hallucinogenic fashion. And now, in the kind of coup for which she is increasingly being known, she has co-opted Willie Nelson into the camp. I mean, come on now, Willie Nelson guesting with Sharon Shannon? Incredible!
Perhaps the most incredible indicator of how folk is creeping into the national consciousness is the announcement that Dervish, the most impassioned of all Irish folk bands, are to represent Ireland in the Eurovision song contest, the stalking ground for synth pop divas and tanned Latino cheesemongers.
With breathtaking aplomb, the Sligo sextet haven’t even broken their stride. They’re supremely confident that their music can do the talking for them. Who cares if Linda Martin doesn’t know who they are? That says more about Linda Martin than it does about the band. And you can be sure that when they walk off stage in Helsinki next year, if Irish folk music is still just a pin prick on the musical map, it will be a far bigger pin prick.
The tacit challenge which this points up is the comparative rarity of composers writing new material in a traditional idiom. Writers such as Shane MacGowan, John Spillane and Damien Dempsey have shown that it can be done, but for traditional and folk music to flourish, they need to be joined by a raft of new writers just as exciting in order for the tradition to live.b