September CD Reviews
By Sean Smith
August 30, 2017
Usher’s Island, “Usher’s Island” • Sports analogies can be pernicious yet so tantalizing. So when you hear of a band with an “all-star line-up,” it’s tempting sometimes to think of a team loaded with Most Valuable Player candidates, seemingly destined for unparalleled success – only to fall short because of clashing egos and failure to unite skills and talents effectively, thus leading to humiliation and recrimination.
Well, you can forget about that particular analogy as far as this album is concerned.
Usher’s Island is the quintet of Andy Irvine, Donal Lunny, Paddy Glackin, Mike McGoldrick and John Doyle, five of the most accomplished figures in the Irish music revival of the past half-century (give or take), and what they’ve produced actually exceeds expectations. In fact, “Usher’s Island” is much like a series of arboreal growth rings, hinting not only at the quintet’s impact on Irish music but also at their individual progression as musicians – from interpreting the tradition to interpolating elements of it into their own creations.
Most importantly, though, it’s simply a pleasure to hear the power, stateliness, and grace of Glackin’s fiddle and McGoldrick’s flute (as well as his uilleann pipes and whistle), such as on the jig medley – “The Half Century Set” – that opens the album, a set of reels that includes two from the repertoire of esteemed Donegal fiddler Johnny Doherty [see “The Tin Fiddle” review below], and “Sean Keane’s,” a pair of delightful hornpipes. Equally pleasing is the accompaniment, whether chordal, harmonic or contrapuntal, of Messrs. Irvine, Lunny and Doyle. They give plenty of room to the melody instruments and vocals but Irvine’s mandola, Lunny’s bouzouki and Doyle’s guitar are ever-present in all their glory.
And then there are the songs. Irvine and Doyle, respectively, give new life to the traditional classics “Molly Ban” and “Wild Roving” (a quieter, more subdued variant of the old pub favorite), and two obscure, fascinating ballads: “Felix the Soldier,” a New England song from the French and Indian War; and “Cairndaisy,” about an Irish Catholic emigrant fighting for the US in the 1898 Spanish-American War, but realizing that his true sympathies are with his opponents.
Doyle and Irvine, of course, have developed into consummate songwriters, too, and are in top form here. Doyle has shown a penchant for historical writing, and his “Heart in Hand” is an autobiographical, emotionally vivid recounting of the life of Richard Joyce, the 17th-century Galway native who, while enslaved abroad, became a goldsmith and reputedly created the Claddagh ring. Irvine is likewise an impressive historian in his songwriting, but of late also has become more personal, more nostalgic, and quite the wit. In “As Good As It Gets” he revisits his formational 1960s sojourn in The Balkans, a subject he’s covered previously via contemplative pieces like “Autumn Gold,” “Time Will Cure Me” and “B’neas’s Green Glade” – but here it’s with fond affection and memories of romantic assignations (failed and successful), and downright funny wordplay.
And mention must be made of Lunny’s return engagement with “Bean Pháidín,” which he recorded with Planxty on “The Well Below the Valley” – voiced rather more quietly and deliberately this time around.
On their respective websites, Irvine and Vertical Records both refer to this as the “first” Usher’s Island album – one shouldn’t automatically assume that to mean there’ll be a second (a third?), but a little optimism these days is a lovely thing. [verticalrecords.co.uk]