Usher’s Island is a new superband that brings together some of the greatest contemporary Irish folk music musicians. Andy Irvine, Dónal Lunny, Paddy Glackin, Mike McGoldrick and John Doyle have played with the most iconic Irish and Irish American bands: Planxty, Bothy Band, Lunasa and Solas.
The majority of the compositions on Usher’s Island are traditional songs and tunes rearranged by the band, along with a handful of originals by Usher’s Island members.
The way the album was made connects with Irish tradition as well. Mike McGoldrick bought a cottage in County Galway, western Ireland that had been used by musicians in the past to hold sessions. McGoldrick turned it into a recording studio for three days.
Throughout Usher’s Island the listener is treated to fascinating storytelling songs and delightful ensemble pieces with superb instrumental interaction and superb solos weaved in. Irish music at its best.
Personnel: Andy Irvine on vocals, mandola and harmonica; Dónal Lunny on vocals, bouzouki, baritone bouzouki, bodhran and keyboards; Paddy Glackin on fiddle; Mike McGoldrick on wooden flute, low whistle and uileann pipes; and John Doyle on guitar, bouzouki and vocals.
Usher’s Island features masterfully-crafted Irish music with dazzling acoustic interplay and exceptionally expressive vocals.
Go-to flute/whistle man Mike McGoldrick and acoustic guitarist John Doyle link new albums from opposite flanks of the Celtic spectrum. Whereas British button accordionist, composer and producer Luke Daniels takes an experimental approach with Making Waves, the self-titled debut release from Usher’s Island — veteran multi-instrumentalist and singer Andy Irvine’s latest Irish supergroup — is fairly conventional. While Daniels follows the footprints of the Canadian-Scottish sound sculpting visionary Martyn Bennett, who married jigs, reels and airs with archival sound bites and electronic elements, Usher’s Island follows the pathway paved by previous Irvine projects such as Planxty and Patrick Street.
Recorded in a rural cottage, Usher’s Island is as well delivered as Irish traditional folk music can be, even if it’s a tad lacking in invention. Not that Doyle’s recasting of Irish pub staple The Wild Rover isn’t infinitely more mellifluous and sophisticated than the versions rendered with drunken gusto on St Patrick’s Day. Two excellent Doyle originals draw on fascinating historical narratives. Heart in Hand centres on a Galway man captured in the late 1600s by Algerian pirates; Cairndaisy concerns an Irish immigrant fighting for the US during 1898 Spanish-American War. Irvine also dips into the military archives for Felix the Soldier, a song from the mid-18th-century French-Indian War. The relatively insipid As Good as It Gets alludes to Irvine’s unfulfilled romantic aspirations during the 1960s. Bean Phaidin benefits from Donal Lunny’s bottom register singing and the appending of slip jigs. A converted Munster pipes tune (The Half Century Set), in which Paddy Glackin’s fiddle and McGoldrick’s flute combine symbiotically, sets the bar high for the medleys that follow.
Daniels’s modus operandi, which involved processing, layering and looping hundreds of audio samples before getting his guest players to independently record their acoustic parts live, means Making Waves lacks the intimacy and fluency of Usher’s Island. The first half, in particular, features a cornucopia of strange sounds that compete with acoustic instruments for ascendancy.
In The Larks and The Jolly Tinker, the overall effect is discombobulating, with Daniels’s traditionally inspired melodies taking too long to emerge. In Retro Reel, button accordion struggles to cope with extraneous clatter, bleeps and burps. When the producer adopts a more judicious approach, as on McCrone Jigs and Wester Kittochside, Daniels’s accordion — as well as his vintage Polyphon music box — and Aidan O’Rourke’s dancing fiddle sparkle in harness with Doyle’s guitar and bouzouki.