Overcoming the Competition

12 Jan

Gorgeous CDs from Seamus Walshe, Patsy Moloney and John Regan

Irish music competitions sound like a nightmare to me, what with all the stories of young wannabe champions passing out and vomiting with the stress, and the bitter disputes over the scoring.  Yet there are good things that come from it. One of these is the camaraderie and friendship between old sparring partners. Tom Dunne, my friend and session co-leader in New Jersey, is full of stories of exploits with his fellow contestants and subsequent buddies from competitions back in the day, in particular Seamus Walshe and Patsy Moloney. They  have recently both albums which are well worth your attention.

seamus-trad-coverSeamus Walshe plays the box in a very personal style. In the liner notes of one of Seamus’s previous CDs Traditional Irish Music on the Button Accordion  Joe Burke likened his approach to that of an architect (Seamus’ chosen profession).  At the time, I considered that notion fanciful, preferring to just savor the luxurious experience of having that CD on repeat for a leisurely drive across the Canadian Rockies. Now I get the architect thing. There is definite evidence of a stately, elegant and logical form, yet lyrical and emotional touches abound.


There are many examples of this on the new CD Turas: on the “Long Drop” Seamus shapes the first tune with phrasing and dynamic subtleties; as Eimear Reilly’s fiddle comes in for “Fred Finn’s Reel”, the stricter tempo and the “sit up and beg” figures enhance both the swing and the sadness in the tune; “The Torn Jacket” works as the release with a more straight-ahead approach (albeit with outstanding unison triplets).

The strong windswept melody of “Margaret’s Waltz” is stated with bold accordion and fiddle lines, leading into “Louis’ Waltz”, a staple of New York sessions (also known as “Dermot Grogan’s Favourite”). Here it is given a totally different treatment with the harp, fiddle and accordion creating a dense texture with the fiddle adding harmonic variations. The Poppy Leaf is another commonly recorded tune (twice by Tony DeMarco , and a stunning interpretation by Brian Rooney) which still gets a fresh treatment by Seamus and Grainne Hambly on harp. They take a relaxed pace, resisting the temptation to stuff the high part with notes, and smoothly transition into Charlie Lennon’s Rossinver Braes with its exquisite interplay of box and harp.

Turas means trip or pilgrimage and this album echoes that reflective note.  While it doesn’t have some of the exuberance of Seamus’ previous recordings it is an album of great sensitivity and maturity. It is also noteworthy that he has brought along some famous musical friends for this particular journey, including Alec Finn, Charlie Lennon, Noel Hill and Steve Cooney.

patsy-regan-bog-roadWhereas Seamus’ records have been spread out over the years, Patsy Moloney took a very long time to pull his finger 1832 Ruddal & Rose flute out and commit himself to CD, but then put out two recordings in two years. The first was a Over the Bog Road with John Regan on accordion. Patsy and John are All-Ireland champions (1977 and 1979 respectively) who met on a 1978 Comhaltas tour and talked about making a recording frequently over the 36 intervening years. We should all be very glad they did.

The first track on “Over the Bog Road” (“McGettricks No. 2/Mist on the Mountain”) is a clear statement of intent – Jimmy McGettrick’s reel is a gem with little twists and turns, where the low part seems to be a series of neatly phrased questions to which the high part gently responds. The rhythm is rock solid (as it is on the whole album), but what leaps out at you is the tone of the instruments: Patsy’s rich and clear; John’s sweet and crisp. “Old Limerick Reel” (an old tune from Patsy’s home of Templeglantine) is another standout – a simple tune but very effective, where the flute seems to float and bob effortlessly on top of the accordion, while the old school jig “The Sport of the Chase” hits you with its stark lopsided logic gorgeously phrased by John before Patsy joins him for the sweet symmetry of “Priest in his Boots.”

patsy-temple-coverPatsy’s follow up recording is the solo CD The Temple in the Glen. As on the duet album, first up are some great quirky reels: “Glen Castle” has gorgeous call-and-response phrasing and a propulsive force and lift into the more reflective “David’s Dream” neatly resolving on the high part. 

Patsy’s own composition “Alanna your Sleeping” is a slow air taking a simple lullaby melody and elevating it to something more enduring using the hallmarks of Patsy’s style: rich tone, perfect execution and a deep emotional core. Patsy’s intricate runs around the held notes are complemented engagingly by deft touches on Noreen O’Donoghue’s harp.

The hornpipe Tim the Turncoat builds from an early statement (where you delight in waiting for the end of the phrase to come to you), gradually filling out the melody, adding neat triplets, and then a sneaky change to the immaculate West of the Hill.

The last track is of course another a set of outstanding reels. The Curly Headed boy is relaxed and sinuous, pulling you in phrase by phase and pointing the way to the Patsy’s own composition “Temple in the Glen”. Like Patsy himself, this tune has been out there a long time but not received the recognition it deserves: it was intriguingly included on P.J. and Marcus Hernon’s superb 1989 CD Beal A’ Mhurlaigh as “Karen Tweed’s” in a set evidently put together after a trip to Birmingham (as it also included a “Kevin Crawford’s”); one or two Birmingham musicians over the years have prompted Patsy into playing it, but others have denied any knowledge of Patsy “writing his own stuff”. The secret is now out, and more than that the CD has generated a buzz among musicians and serious listeners, and the distinctive phrasing of “Temple in the Glen” is now a regular feature of Digbeth sessions.

So there we have it – traditional music at its best and most mature, thoughtfully selected and presented. All of the CDs can be found on Amazon, and if you would like to see Patsy Moloney and John Regan have their hearts set on a musical trip over to the New York region in the New Year (any interested promoters and house party throwers let me know).

This is solid stuff – I can’t imagine any of these guys getting sick in front of judges. 


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