Mary Custy,
The Mary Custy Band
(self-released, 1996)

I picked up a copy of Mary Custy's CD after seeing her perform with Irish accordionist Mary Staunton and guitarist Frankie Lane. Their excellent show was largely traditional in nature, so I expected about the same from the Doolin-based fiddler on her album.

I couldn't have been more wrong. Mary's band for this recording features electric guitar and bass and a drum kit besides the usual traditional instruments -- and there's even a bit of saxophone, too. The musicians sound like they'd be every bit as comfortable at a funk-rock jam or jazz improv session as they would in an Irish pub, and the effect makes for an excellent, unique album.

Mary's playing here places her more in the arena of Celtic-jazz fiddler Eileen Ivers and Cape Breton rocker Ashley MacIsaac than her more traditional Irish predecessors, and she slides and flows through the tunes with a steady hand. She's chosen her tunes from a broad range of sources, many non-Irish, but she keeps the Irish traditional influence intact throughout.

The album begins with a rockin' version of "Elzig's Farewell," which erases from the outset any notion that this is an album of pure-drop fiddling. Mary's excellent fiddling is supported by Steven Flaherty on guitar, Kevin Glynn on bass and Andy Palfreyman on drums -- the core of musicians who'll be with her for most of the album.

Mary learned the swingin' "Indianola," named for a town near Memphis, from an American saxophone player who visited Doolin and met Mary in Ireland's County Clare. For the next track, "F.Y.D.," Mary expands the band to include Eoin O'Neill on bouzouki, Gerry Molloy on guitar and, get this, Sergie (just Sergie) on saxophone. The sax isn't something you often hear in an Irish set, but I've heard it work a time or two before. This is another case where the fiddle and sax have been blended together like they were born to it.

"Health and Happiness Club Jig" is a cheery tune featuring clean fiddle riffs over Mary's core backup of guitar, bass and drums. Mary then proves she's not just a fiddler, playing solo piano in "Diamond Skulls" with classical precision. In "The Plight of the Refugee," Mary sticks with piano and adds synthesizer for more laidback jazz.

She resumes the fiddle for "Swing Easy," which also adds Sergie and his saxophone back into the band. Mary's fiddle in particular gives this piece an amblin' smoothness, and the sax adds a dirty edge that keeps the lengthy track from getting monotonous. She then strips the band back down to just her, Flaherty on guitar and Glynn on bass for the lyrical "Mullaghmore."

The core band gets back into a more traditional Irish fiddle tune style for the quick-paced "Silent Nights" before rolling into the lazy fiddle and guitar duet, "The Flatbush Waltz." The album concludes with "Scottish Jigs," with Mary and her band bringing things to a close with a fast, well-executed traditional set.

This album was a surprise the first time I heard it, but a pleasant one nonetheless, and it's held up under repeated listenings. Since it's already been three years since the album's release, I hope Mary has another surprise in store for us soon.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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