Certain albums come to define and represent a genre of music with a reputation and impact which never fades. Here’s one, recorded back at the back end of the long hot summer of 1976 at Rockfield studios in rural Wales by a cast of characters who reset the sound and shape of Irish traditional music. Mostly the fall out from Planxty’s dissolution and happy coincidence led to it’s creation, however you can’t deny skill, craft and sheer exuberance on the part of the participants, meant the stars aligned when our heroes finally began proceedings. I say finally because Irvine, Brady, producer Donal Lunny and fiddler Kevin Burke were scattered, it took them awhile to all arrive at the studio. Full detailed information can be found in the fabulous booklet which accompanies this ‘Special Edition,’ basically an essay of umpteen thousand words on the history of, music on and enduring legacy of the album. Writer Gareth Murphy leaves no stone unturned in his fascinating account, speaking to those involved with an ease and glow of bright reflection, he’s produced the kind of writing that could stand as a separate entity.
The music and it’s about time I got round to it, is text book stuff, sure several acts had forced tradition to face a new direction but here is the proof that those who understood could make it flow and seem totally natural, rock this isn’t but the musicians thought and worked in an entirely modern manner. The songs and tunes nine traditional and one from the pen of Irvine sit snugly together, they seem to melt into each other. Okay so on the original you’d have to flip the record over – you can still do that if you want to buy the purple vinyl issue – but with the CD everything runs seamlessly, Brady’s earthy vocal a perfect counter to Irvine’s rootsier sounding voice. The jigs and reels are equally fluid, the ensemble playing mesmerises as guitars, fiddle, mandolin, hurdy gurdy and bouzouki all dance and twist around each other. ‘ Fred Finn’s Reel/Sailing Into Walpole’s Marsh,’ can’t help but make you burst into a huge grin whilst ‘The Blarney Pilgrim,’ sets the bar for every version of the tune I’ve heard.
Equally that applies to the songs, particularly ‘Arthur McBride & The Sergeant,’ which is a Brady solo track and a number which has become as synonymous with him as ‘The Lakes Of Pontchartrain.’ It’s a rolling melody which underpins the refusal of two cousins to join the army, Brady relates the tale in clear Irish tones and his guitar picking takes you on the journey with Arthur and his cousin to their valedictory dismissal of military life. You can imagine the two of them with brisker step vanishing over the hill to join merriment in a nearby hostelry. It’s a mighty rendition. As is Andy Irvine’s ‘Streets Of Derry,’ a song familiar from other versions – notably for this writer from Trees in pysch rock folk clothing – yet the drama of a near hanging is as palpable here with just guitar, harmonium and hurdy-gurdy. In it’s simplicity lies the key to the drama, don’t overload a simple story of love conquering adversity with instrumental complexity.
Look I could go on about this recording – every home should own a copy if good music is valued within those walls. Put straight, this is one of the definitive recordings of Irish music. It has resonance to people from U2 and Lankum, truly whilst defining a style it is beyond any simplistic pigeon holing. It holds the DNA of what was and what was to come. In short it is essential!