CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK; AN IRISH PARADE OF UP-TO-DATE TRADITION
The Prime Minister of Ireland, Albert Reynolds, made a surprise appearance on Sunday afternoon. He turned up at Carnegie Hall to introduce the Fureys, four brothers who have been making folk-tinged pop hits for two decades. The Prime Minister's appearance -- something like having President Clinton as M.C. for Crosby, Stills and Nash -- was a measure of how important music is to the Irish, who have held on to their traditions as tenaciously as any people on earth. Young musicians still work to become world champions on instruments like the tin whistle and the button accordion, and bands don't consider it old-fashioned to include fiddle or uillean pipes, the bellows-driven Irish bagpipes.
The Fureys' show was part of the annual incursion of top Irish bands. For American fans of Celtic music, it's feast or famine, because every booking agent in the United States seems to get the same bright idea: March tours for Irish bands so every major city can have Irish music on St. Patrick's Day. Over the weekend, I heard Altan at Town Hall on Saturday night, the Fureys on Sunday afternoon and the Pogues at the Beacon Theater on Sunday night. Still to come is the big night itself, Thursday, when the Chieftains play Carnegie Hall and New York's own Black 47 comes to the Academy.
Although the Pogues and Black 47 are rock bands and the other groups use acoustic instruments, they're all on the same continuum. Among Irish bands, U2 and its imitators have thrown off every Celtic legacy except the drone, but the bands that show up around St. Patrick's Day still revel in old ways. Folk instruments are up front; the archetypal Celtic dance rhythms of jig and reel, the melodic tradition of the slow air and the narrative structure of folk ballads infuse old songs and new ones. Purism isn't cherished -- only the Chieftains are free of guitar, a Spanish intruder -- but tradition runs strong.
Guitar and all, Altan was the folk standard-bearer among the weekend's bands, the kind of group that announces, "This song is 80 to 100 years old, so for us, it's fairly recently composed." Many of Altan's lyrics are in Gaelic, and the band members are avid song collectors who always credit their sources. Fingers flew, with accordion and fiddle sharing a melody but each adding different ornaments; Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh's voice had the tense, feathery quaver of a traditional singer and the vulnerability of a pop balladeer.
Altan is marginally inauthentic; guitar and bouzouki fill in chords,
and the melody instruments sometimes play harmony parts rather than unisons.
And love songs, especially brokenhearted ones, dominate Altan's repertory.
But the spirit of the music is Celtic to its core.
The Fureys can also play speedy traditional tunes; Finbar Furey, a world champion uillean piper, also plays tin whistle and banjo. The band presented its folk credentials by having him demonstrate the pipes, playing the same reel in two distinct regional styles. But the Fureys concentrate on a different part of their Irish heritage: songs of longing and displacement. At Carnegie Hall, they sang gentle ballads about bygone people and times, about fondly remembered places, about leave-taking. Many of the ballads were pop compositions, laced with a phrase of banjo or accordion to connect them to home.
The Pogues scramble ancient and modern with more anarchic intent. Tin whistle, accordion, fiddle, mandolin, banjo and hurdy-gurdy are kicked along by electric guitar, bass and drums; the tin-whistle player, Spider Stacy, is now also the Pogues' lead singer, growling in a voice as gruff and slurred as those of his predecessors, Shane MacGowan and Joe Strummer. In Mr. MacGowan's style, he appeared tipsy onstage.
The Pogues' folky virtuosity is prodded along by punk-rock drive, then topped with world-beat eclecticism: a didjeridoo (an Australian aboriginal horn) simulating a foghorn, a quasi-Arabic countermelody. But the Pogues remain proudly Irish, exploiting stereotypes -- drunk, rowdy, sentimental, God-haunted -- with the same in-your-face glee as gangster rappers. Behind the raucous stomp of the music, however, is the nimble grace of the reel.
Thursday will bring deeper traditionalism, with the Chieftains, and
Black 47's Bronx-tinged blend, which adds funk and rap. There's a generation
between the older groups, like the Fureys and the Chieftains, and the younger
ones. But unlike American bands of similar ages, the five Irish bands could
easily share a ceili, a Celtic jam session. After all, they know a lot
of the same tunes.
Your intrepid maintainer is DzM.