Elias Alexander & Bywater Band,
(Fresh Haggis, 2016)

(Compass, 2016)

The dictionary does not recognize the word dooling, so I presume that we're dealing with a private reference or joke, or maybe a slang expression unknown to me, either dated or too newly conceived for the bestowing of official blessing. I do know that the six-member Doolin' is a French outfit that plays Irish and Irish-American music. Stylistically, it's sort of an equivalent to a modern bluegrass band, or it would be if that band at times sang in French. The material is sometimes linked by reference to the mid-19th-century potato famine that drove many thousands of desperate Irish (including my mother's people) to America.

In any event, Doolin's novel identity has attracted attention in circles that ordinarily pay no heed to rooted music. It deserves praise for its razor-sharp musicality, if not perhaps for its (fortunately sole) attempt to merge hip-hop with Irish song; on the positive side, as the last cut "Famine" is easily skipped. But before that, there is an engaging assortment of tunes played with verve and imagination on the genre's standard acoustic instruments. The well-regarded Irish-American folksinger/guitarist John Doyle is a frequent presence, as arranger, player and general guide around the furniture.

Curiously, there are no authentic Irish folk songs, though there are a few finely rendered older instrumental pieces, perhaps none more so than the enchanting "The Road to Gleanntan" and the Frenchified "White Petticoat" (here "Le Jupon Blanc"). Jacques Brel's "Amsterdam," occasionally recorded in English translation during the folk revival, is done in its original French. It's one of the album's outstanding cuts; you can practically sense vocalist Wilfried Besse's relief at getting the chance to sing in his native tongue. It's hard to imagine what this is doing on an ostensibly Irish recording, but it's so good that any complaint would be simply perplexing.

Doolin' also covers "Galway Girl," Steve Earle's successful effort to recreate an Irish-pub song. The liner notes identify Bob Dylan's "Ballad of Hollis Brown" as "based on a true story," though in truth it's based on -- i.e., rewritten from -- Dave Rankin's "Poor Man," as cut by the Louisiana Honeydrippers on a bluegrass album for Arhoolie in 1961. Both are set to the traditional "Pretty Polly" melody. It is depressingly true that once in a sad while crazed people have slaughtered their families, but Dylan's particular accounting is out of his imagination.

Elias Alexander & Bywater Band perform recently composed material, for the most part from their own ranks. Still, that material is so soaked in Scottish tradition that Bywater could readily pass for a collection of antique songs and tunes, at least if put next to the determinedly modernist likes of Doolin'. Bywater's members live in Boston (Alexander is originally from Oregon), which historically and currently has produced no end of first-rate Irish and Scottish-influenced musicians.

Bywater opens with the title piece, a very much in-the-tradition lament credited to Tim Eriksen, whose own deep-folk albums are eminently worth seeking out. It concludes with "Earth & Stone," a ballad of Alexander's family's exile from the Highlands and resettlement in America. Between them are pipe tunes, with Alexander, more than proficient on the border pipes, taking the lead. Alongside him, Kathleen Parks provides a rather dazzling five-string fiddle, Eamon Sefton strong rhythm guitar, Nate Sabat lively acoustic bass, and the multi-gifted Patrick Bowling bodhran, flute, whistle and uilleann pipes, plus a couple of guests (Neil Pearlman on accordion, Jake Galloway on horns) who pop in here and there.

A fiercely melodic and compelling sound results, never letting up or go. Each number is something of a marvel. Still, it's "The Reclamation" that I can't keep out of my head.

music review by
Jerome Clark

20 August 2016

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