Usher’s Island – Usher’s Island
Vertical Records – 21 March 2017
When musicians of the calibre of those in Usher’s Island – named after one of Dublin’s quays – join forces, expectations inevitably run high. Their self-titled debut doesn’t disappoint, and this first-rate album of Irish traditional music is more than fit to take its place in the ranks of classic group albums in the field. It comes more than two years after their first live performance together in January 2015 – their FolkEast appearance last August was described by our reviewer Johnny Whalley as: ‘One of the most memorable sets of songs and tunes I’ve had the privilege to hear’ (read the review here).
The weight of expectation comes because Usher’s Island brings together two generations of the finest and most influential of Irish traditional musicians, stretching back to the acclaimed 1970’s era of Planxty, through Andy Irvine and Dónal Lunny, and the Bothy Band, through fiddler Paddy Glackin (who was a founding member but left before they recorded their 1975 debut, to be replaced by Tommy Peoples) and, again, the ubiquitous Lunny. They follow the last incarnation of Planxty, which ended in 2005, and later LAPD – Liam (O’Flynn), Andy, Paddy and Dónal. This next chapter, which began with shows in January 2015, brings in renowned players from the 1990’s generation, with Mike McGoldrick (Capercaillie, ex-Flook and Lunasa) on flute, whistle and uilleann pipes and John Doyle (ex-Solas) on guitar and vocal. Both also play in The Transatlantic Sessions and with John McCusker as a trio (their debut studio album The Wishing Tree is due to be released soon).
The story behind the recording of Usher’s Island reveals a different but equally fascinating musical legacy. A year ago Usher’s Island’s five musicians assembled at Mike McGoldrick’s recently acquired cottage in Co. Galway. The woman who sold her brother’s cottage had been keen for Mike and his dad Brendan to know that it had a history of music-making, having been where sessions were played in the village – which was confirmed by the presence of some old instruments. She was delighted that the new owner was a musician she had seen on TV. Fittingly, the cottage was turned into a recording studio for three days, with quilts draped everywhere to act as sound baffles and Mike doubling as the chef to fuel the ensemble’s playing.
The opening track The Half Century Set establishes the highest of standards that are maintained subsequently through a good number of lively instrumentals. It starts with a reassuringly familiar sounding rhythm from Andy on mandola and Dónal on bouzouki, filled out even more with the addition of John’s guitar, perfectly judged as ever. When first Mike joins in on flute, followed by Paddy on fiddle, the overall sound is sure to bring a smile to the face of aficionados, from whichever generation. Fiddle and flute combine throughout to superb effect, and it is a testament to the skill of both players that they sound like they have been playing together for much longer than the occasional appearance over a couple of years. One tune in the set, a slip jig, appears (un-named) in the Tunes of Munster Pipers collection from the James Goodman manuscripts, as does another, a hornpipe (also un-named) in the later Sean Keane’s set.
Dónal Lunny doesn’t sing too often but judging by his sole vocal turn here he enjoys returning to accustomed territory. He first sang Bean Pháidín on Planxty’s The Well Below The Valley 44 years ago. In revisiting it he mostly sticks closely to the original interpretation, but sounds less strained, more natural and much more lived in – Dónal Lunny as the Tom Waits of Irish music anyone? It’s tempting to suggest that Dónal should sing more often but when you’re in a band with Andy Irvine and John Doyle that doesn’t seem too likely. The two ‘proper’ singers in Usher’s Island offer up a mix of fresh interpretations of traditional songs and captivating originals.
Andy Irvine may be seventy-four, but his singing on the version here of Molly Ban is as good as on anything he’s sung before (and that’s a lot of songs all the way back to Sweeney’s Men in the late 1960s). There are versions of the song in both the Irish and the English traditions – variously titled Molly Bawn, The Fowler or Polly Vaughan, as well instrumental versions. Julie Murphy did an exquisite version accompanied by sympathetic slide guitar from Martin Simpson and The Furrow Collective covered it more recently. This version comes from singing of John O’Connell from Co. Cork and Andy’s very individual singing style delivers Molly Ban quite brilliantly. He also sings Felix the Soldier, a song from the Seven Years War in 1754–1763 collected in New England.
The Wild Rover is probably one of the best known, and most frequently sung (just possibly helped by a pint or two), songs in the world of folk music, and particularly within Irish music. The best-known version comes from The Dubliners, and you wouldn’t expect something quite so familiar to be a contender for consideration here (although Sam Lee covers it on Stick In The Wheel’s From Here: English Folk Field Recordings). John Doyle instead sings a very different version of the time-worn classic. Titled Wild Roving, it was originally collected by Sean Corcoran from Mary Ann Carolan of Drogheda. John’s singing just gets better and better, and here he turns what we would all know as a rousing, if not raucous, song into a wonderfully subtle and tender delight.
At the same time, John Doyle’s accomplished songwriting shows no sign of letting up. Heart in Hand tells, as John describes in Usher’s Island sleeve notes: ‘the tale of Richard Joyce from Claddagh in Galway, who was captured in the late 1600’s by Algerian pirates and made a slave for fourteen years. During his enslavement, he became a goldsmith and reputedly invented the Claddagh ring, encompassing a mixture of Egyptian and Greek design into an international symbol of love around the world’.
John has a brilliant ability to tell a compelling story using common but very effective devices that draw the listener in – in this case using repetition of the last two lines of each verse, in reverse order, instead of a chorus. Another self-composed song from John, Cairndaisy, tells the story of an Irish emigrant fighting on the American side of the Spanish-American War of 1898.
The skillfully amalgamated tune sets are superbly executed throughout – ranging across jigs, reels and hornpipes. Three sets of tunes are named after well-known fiddle players who were the source of one or more of the tunes – one set a piece for Donegal brothers John and Mickey Doherty, and another for Chieftains fiddler Sean Keane. Paddy Glackin has long acknowledged the wondrous John Doherty as a key inspiration.
The only weak spot for me on an otherwise exceptional album is As Good As It Gets, a song written and sung by Andy Irvine. Andy is rightly lauded as a writer of both fascinating songs about historical figures and poignant, wistful songs that reminisce on past times or yearn for other places – the best known of which is My Hearts Tonight in Ireland. As Good As It Gets is unashamedly in the reminiscence category, describing as it does Andy’s distinctly unsuccessful amorous exploits but nonetheless ‘happy days’ with a long list of women during a visit as a young man to Ljubljana, Slovenia, Yugoslavia in the late 1960s. On this album the song feels insubstantial – the coupling of ‘On Sundays at the skating’ with ‘wishing only that I might be mating’ is indicative. It is one of those songs that I’ve no doubt it is great fun live, when it can be accompanied by a suitably entertaining introduction, but simply feels out of place here.
Usher’s Island combines the excitement of the 1970’s traditional Irish groups with an appropriate modern sensibility. The album is taken at an unhurried pace that allows plenty of room for light and shade in the music, so we get to hear the artistry of a quintet that surely constitutes the cream of Irish traditional musicians. The singing includes some of the very best performances from two of the very best. This is an album that is imbued with the musical history both of the place where it was recorded and of the five celebrated members of a band from which I hope we will hear much more.
Performing Live at The Gathering Festival 2016
Usher’s Island is out now on Vertical Records and is available directly here https://www.verticalrecords.co.uk/product/ushers-island/