by Louis McKee
"Who is that there tapping me window pane?" Who indeed? It is "Cunla," and Celtic Crossroad. Celtic Crossroad, for those of you who haven't been paying attention, is a band of three from the Delaware Valley who are driven by traditional Irish music and folk instincts, and Cunla, I'm happy to report, is their long-anticipated second CD. As with all second efforts, there is much to live up to here, and some matters to be addressed, and isn't it good to know, now, that the band has come through brilliantly?
Fittingly enough, the disc begins with "Cunla," an up-tempo jig you might recall from Planxty's version. Who is this Cunla, pestering the lass who is simply trying to get some sleep? A puka, maybe? Or just some amorous fellow trying to sidle up to the unawares miss? The playful knot of fiddle and guitar are accentuated by the steady bodhran and teasing vocals, and the tensions are twisted tighter and tighter with each fresh verse.
That's Tom Rooney doing lead vocals, with John Catterall playing in and out, as it is on most of the cuts on this CD. The sly fiddling is by Mark Arrington, and that's John on the guitar, while Tom holds the line with a steady pulsing bodhran, and the playful lyrics dance on the line just as you might expect.
After such a keen and solid display of musicianship, you might be a moment surprised when it is followed by the a capella capstan shanty, "Bullgine." This is a number that Judy Collins used to do in concert. The bullgine was an innovative on-board engine that pulled up the anchor on big packet ships like the Margo Evans of the Blue Cross Line, running from Liverpool to America. What true sailor ever really liked an engine? "A-he, a-ho - are ye a'mos' done? / Lisa Lee up on my knee / Clear away the track and let the bullgine run." The vocal braid, a wonderful three-part harmony, conjures up a raucous picture of salty sailors with a long trip ahead of them and a lot of work to do. As sharp as the three men are on their instruments, you will be carried away by the perfect wash of their voices.
A more roughneck, nearly rowdy stand is taken in "Arthur McBride," an anti-recruitment, (read that "conscription,") song that dates to the 1840's. Still not over the top, but more given to gruff and vim and maybe a pint or two, a man recounts an episode with himself and his "first cousin," and their encounter with a couple of recruitment officers. The recruiters' intention was first to sell the men on the soldier's life, but failing at that, they unwisely resorted to a threat. The cousins were having none of that, of course, and as might be said, a scuffle ensued. "But Arthur and I, we took the odds / We gave them no chance for to launch out their swords / Our whacking shillelaghs came over their heads / And paid them right smart in the morning."
This tune is more in the folkie tradition; Arrington's guitar and Catterall with a winding, robust narrative. That's John's mandolin in the chorus.
What is perhaps most remarkable about Celtic Crossroad is their great range, both in their selection of material, and their approach to it. Their roots are firmly planted in the traditional, but they are not ones to shy away from more contemporary and mainstay material. Well prepared for a rollicking reel, or a jig that the dancers will appreciate, they are just as comfortable, and solidly grounded, with ballads and fine-tuned airs.
"Irish Molly-O" is a bit of stage Irish, a proposal, ("Springtime, you know, is ring-time,") I'm sure, no less sincere, for such tongue-in-cheek lines as "Molly dear, now did you hear what all the neighbors say / About the hundred sovereigns you have safely stowed away? / They say that's why I love you, Ah, but Molly that's a shame / If you had only ninety-nine, I'd love you just the same." Quibbles about the dowry aside, and those nosey neighbors too, how can you doubt a man's sincerity when he sings from his heart, "Oh, Molly, my Irish Molly, my sweet achusla dear / I'm fairly off my trolley, my Irish Molly, when you are near?"
"Inisheer" is a lovely and stirring waltz, by the contemporary composer, Thomas Walsh, which highlights the sweet haunting whistle of Mark Arrington. Melancholy airs are not to be rushed, and you will cherish every moment of this simple, but stunning, melody. The change of pace is played out wonderfully, too, a delightful transition to the somewhat risky number that follows. "An Irish Lullaby" ("Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral") is best known as Fr. Chuck O'Malley's (Bing Crosby's) heartbreaker from the 1944 film classic, Going My Way. Sadly, there is a patina that the song carries because of that film, its odd-chance popularity. It's become a personal guilty pleasure, as I recall my father often singing it. Written by James Royce Shannon in 1913, for Chauncey Olcott's "Shameen Dhu" ("Black-Haired Jimmy,") it has more of a pedigree than many may think. It is another example of daring, fairly-modern stage matter. Nonetheless, it is a beautiful ballad, a lovely sentiment, certainly in keeping with the tradition - and when it was reclaimed by Van Morrison fronting with The Band, I, for one, stopped questioning the tune's validity. It is good to hear it taken up by Celtic Crossroad, and given such a reverent rendition. The a capella arrangement is extraordinary.
"Brennan on the Moor" is a brilliant romp about Willie Brennan, a highwayman of wide repute, who made his name in the Killworth mountains northeast of Cork toward Tipperary. He had his comeuppance at the end of a rope in Cork in 1804. A somewhat "Robin Hood" account of his fleecing of a particular nobleman is the subject of this perfect pub offering. Arrington's whistle carries the tune in the beginning, but Catterall's guitar rounds it out as it moves along, and Rooney's lead vocals will stir up any room.
It is back to the English Music Hall with the wonderful "3 Jolly Lads." And "all in a row" - it seems they can't agree on anything. This is another a capella arrangement, but with a difference; this one is a bit of folkie give and take, a call and response. Owing much to minstrelsy, the boys can't seem to get a story straight - whatever the one asks of the other two, "one says aye, and the other says no." The only agreement to be had is when, one after the other, the two are asked if he will put up for a pint: this time, "one says no, and the other says no" - and it's "three thirsty lads all in a row," but none the less jolly, all in all.
"Welcome Paddy Home" is the sad tale of a weary rover. As he tells it, all was fine in his native Tipperary until the "strangers" came and took over the land, and drove this proud "true-born Irishman" to a life on the sea. "No more do I wish for to roam," exclaims the exile, another in a long tradition of laments. This might be the saddest whistle you'll ever hear, and the story will get stuck like a mote in the corner of your eye.
With "O'Carolan's Concerto" we are again treated to the fine musicianship of the
band. The sophisticated lead guitar of Arrington sweetens the sure-handed mandolin
picking by Catterall. Technically flawless, it a exercise in genius. The beloved Turlough
O'Carolan (1670-1738), of Meath, blinded from smallpox while in his teens, was one of
the last of the wandering Irish harpers. Legend has it that he fell asleep one night on a
fairy rath and woke with his head full of the tunes which he would enthrall generations
of the Irish. The composition beautifully presented here, a blend of art music and folk
music, and distinctly Irish in idiom, is a wonderful tribute.
"Rant and Roar" is another maritime song, a seaman's lark, an a capella work song. "We'll rant and we'll roar like true New Foundlanders / 'rant and we'll roar on deck and below..." all the way through the canal and on to Toslow.
"The Broom of the Cowden Knowles" is a lovely bittersweet ballad for the lovely Highlands girl with long blonde hair like the yellow broom blossoms, "the bonny, bonny broom," and a lost love, a squandered opportunity. You may recall a version of the ballad done by Silly Wizard.
Bellman, the hunting hound, a good dog, is well remembered in this dirge, a Caoineadh, or lament, and yet a delight -- "he's gone where the good doggie's go." Another glorious a capella, soulful, and yet with a twist of wit: "hounds of his kind they are all gea' hard to find."
When they have sung about the countryside, and the unsinkable spirit of being Irish, the poets have turned to humor and the conviviality of the kitchen and the pub. And so the day winds down for our three lads with some right smart craic and some dancing. "Water is Alright in Tea / Tripping Up the Stairs" is a fine-fun drinking song followed by a stirring jig, as though we needed to be told that water is plenty all right "for fish and things that swim in rivers, but it is porter we'd all rather be having."
And could there be a better way to end the CD than with a wonderful version of "Danny Boy?" This heartfelt rendition of the standard may well be the high point of the harmonies.
Celtic Crossroad is a band that is willing to take risks. They have the tools, fine musicianship and glorious harmonies, and do not hesitate to demonstrate their wide range of musical knowledge. They seem to be masters of every style, and Cunla is bound to please both their old fans and the new. This new disk is the next best thing to tappin' and clappin' to a live set.
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3. Arthur McBride
4. Irish Molly-o
6. Irish Lullaby
7. Brennan On the Moor
8. 3 Jolly Lads
9. Welcome Paddy Home
10. Oâ€™Carolanâ€™s Concerto
11. Rant and Roar
12. Broom of the Cowden Knowles
14. Water Is Alright in Tea / Tripping Up the Stairs
15. Danny Boy