Ceili Bandits re-energize traditional Irish music
By Noah Schaffer
When music fans visit Ireland, they head right for County
Clare. Smack in the middle of Ireland's West Coast, Clare is, along with its
northern neighbor Galway, the center for the
revival of the traditional music of Ireland. Step into a bar in Euro-obsessed
Dublin and you're more likely to hear techno break-beats than traditional Irish
jigs and reels. But the traditional melodies are still heard in County Clare.
This Sunday, when the Ceili Bandits appear at the Irish Times for a benefit
concert for WCUW (91.3 FM), they'll be bringing a taste of County Clare to
Two of the towns in Clare best known for traditional Irish music are Ennis and
Doolin. That's where you'll find the members of the Ceili Bandits teaching and
playing. Ennis is the location of Custy's Music, where head bandit Eoin O'Neill
works. An unofficial headquarters for the traditional music scene, Custy's
offers a variety of CDs, instruments and lessons. The store is owned by the
Frances Custy, whose father Frank taught many of the young musicians now
burning up the Irish traditional music scene (including international star
Sharon Shannon). After the shop has closed, you can probably find O'Neill and
the Custy clan over in Doolin. The small town, near the popular Cliffs of Moher
tourist site, isn't much more than a scatting of houses of an area of land that
used to be a fishing village. But Doolin contains three pubs that regularly
feature Irish music sessions, or seisiuns. "Doolin has become a Mecca of
Irish music," says Bud Sargent, host of two Irish music programs on WCUW radio
(91.3 FM). "The most well known pub there is Gus O'Connor's, which has been
featuring sessions for a long time. Doolin really got its reputation when a tin
whistle player named Micho Russell and his brothers began playing there.
Personally, I like the other two pubs, McGann's and McDermott's, because you
can walk between the two all night."
Ever since he began visiting Ireland in 1986, Sargent has featured the music of
artists he hears in County Clare on his radio programs, and now he's bringing
the spirit of the Doolin sessions to Downtown Worcester, when the Ceili Bandits
appear this Sunday afternoon at the Irish Times for the WCUW benefit.
Founded four years ago by O'Neill, the Bandits have featured a rotating lineup
drawn from the musicians who take part in the informal Irish music sessions.
For a fan of the music, a great seisiun is akin to a jazz or blues fan
walking into a bar and seeing the genre's greatest musicians jamming in the
corner. For the group's brief New England tour O'Neill will be joined by tenor
banjo great Kevin Griffin, vocalist and bodhan (percussion) player Ger Hoyne,
and multi-instrumentalist Quentin Cooper. On the Bandits' most recent CD
Hangin' At the Crossroads, Hoyne is replaced by fiddler Yvonne Casey for
an entirely instrumental affair.
Although sticking to traditional melodies, the Bandits infuse a highly original
energy into the songs. O'Neill's bouzouki and Cooper's mandolin and guitar
provide the rhythmic foundation for Casey's astonishing fiddle flights. (An
ailing Casey had to skip the current tour, but Cooper will play some fiddle
parts and the group might be joined by a local special guest on fiddle.)
Griffin's singing banjo shows why he is one of the top players in Ireland,
despite his never having ventured far beyond the session that takes place in
the corner at McGann's in Doolin. Cooper also has released his own solo CD,
Down in Doolin.
There are some surprises on the recording. "Spey in Spate, Devil Among the
Tailors" echoes "Dueling Banjos," showing how American bluegrass has its roots
in Irish fiddle tunes. On "First House in Connacht," Cooper shows how the
Australian didgeridoo can sound tasteful and right at home at an Irish session.
O'Neill recently helped found the Clachan label, which aims to record artists,
young and old, who have never appeared on record before. One of the first
efforts showcases local legend Joe Ryan cutting his first disc despite being in
his 70s. Small labels like Clachan are one of the reasons the current Irish
music revival is so exciting, according to Sargent, who has been a host of the
"Four Green Fields" radio show for the past 18 years. "In the early 80's, there
were basically three American labels that sometimes issued recordings of
traditional Irish music. Now there is an amazing proliferation of young bands
recording their own CDs, and small labels putting out artists who wouldn't
otherwise be recorded."
The Ceili Bandits appear this Sunday at 4 p.m. at the Irish Times to
benefit WCUW. Tickets are $15. Call (508) 853-7587.