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.
In rock and pop, supergroups often feel like outings of overgrown, silly-haired schoolboys. Folk ones are different, because the coming-together of the generations is in the music’s very blood. This is the idea that pulses and jigs behind the debut album by Usher’s Island, a gathering of Irish musicians from veteran bands such as Planxty and the Bothy Band, and younger musicians Mike McGoldrick and John Doyle, spring chickens in their 40s. Recorded in a County Galway cottage over three days, the mood throughout is old-fashioned, simple and unpretentious. Those wanting wild experiment will go wanting, but the playing is moving and warm, particularly on Bothy Band update Five Drunken Landlady’s and Sean Keane’s. The songs sung by Andy Irvine – now 75, but with a voice decades younger – also cut through, especially on Irish standard Molly Ban. As he sings of its dead subject, shining “Like a fountain in the sun”, the sky blazes.
Usher’s Island brings together two generations of the finest and most influential 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. 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 uileann pipes and John Doyle (ex-Solas) on guitar and vocal. Both also play in The Transatlantic Sessions and as a trio with John McCusker.
Another legacy lies behind the story of the recording of the album. 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 a number of 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 and Mike doubling as chef to fuel the ensemble’s playing.
The resultant self-titled album is imbued with the musical history, both of the place where it was recorded and of the five celebrated members of Usher’s Island. Their debut exceeds the expectations that inevitably accompany musicians of this calibre joining forces.
The music combines the excitement of the 1970’s traditional Irish groups with a modern sensibility informed by a range of influences. There are lively sets of traditional tunes, including tunes from the Goodman Collection, from Donegal fiddle playing brothers John and Mickey Doherty, and from Chieftain’s fiddler Sean Keane. The songs range from fresh takes on the traditional Molly Ban, The Wild Rover and Bean Pháidín – which Dónal Lunny revisits 44 years after recording it with Planxty – to captivating originals by Andy Irvine and by John Doyle.