Maeve Donnelly,
Maeve Donnelly
(self-produced, 2002)

There's an overly simple rule for music that if a piece has lyrics, it's a song; without lyric, it's a tune. That rule seems inappropriate here, because I swear Maeve Donnelly's fiddle sings. From the opening notes of "Flax in Bloom/Beauty Spot/Counting the Coppers," you'll swear there was human voice at work in those strings, except that human voices are rarely so fluid and expressive. Whether reeling through "The Braes of Busby/Chorus Reel/Braes of Busby" or musing on "Nora Criona," Donnelly plays the heart of her chosen tunes with verve and silken grace.

These tunes seem sadly brief, no matter how long they last. No matter how simple the tune or how often the theme repeats itself, Donnelly finds something new to add to every bar. Most tracks are under four minutes, and medleys at that. There's only a hint of how much inspiration she could find in the energetic, jazzy "Shrips Clog/Virtuoso" or the homey, housewarming "The Few Bob/Cronin's Rambles." Her quick experiments with tunes left me hungry for more -- I'm sure she could spend an hour on any one of the reels in "The New Road/Yellow Tinker/Delia Crowley's" without exhausting their theme. Instead, she flirts with snatches of favorite reels and hornpipes, medleys of jigs and flings, to enchanting effect.

Donnelly could easily carry an album with nothing but her own skill, but she is assisted here by some very able performers. All the musicians have the grace and skill to accent the dominant fiddle, without overwhelming it or hijacking the song. Occasionally another instrument does steal the spotlight. Adele O'Dwyer's cello takes the lead in the romantic "Peggy's Dream" and Peadar O'Loughlin's flute is an equal partner through the buoyant jigs of "Anthony Frawley's/I Love You Not and I Care Not." But Donnelly's fiddle always sets the pace, even when she pairs with her oldest playing companions, her brothers, for the jigs of "Fr. Quinn's/Sean Ryan's The Pipers Chair." Not many fiddlers could run herd on Aidan Donnelly's banjo and Mal Donnelly's wild accordion, but Maeve manages the task.

This is a must have album for fiddle lovers. Maeve Donnelly's playing isn't just excellent, it's unique. Fiddle is often played as a gossipy, gangling stalwart of folk music, and it certainly can shine as such. But Donnelly turns it into a sophisticated diva, channeling her instrument's wild impulses to drive her tunes along. It's rare to hear a fiddle sing; one with such a clear and shining voice is not to be missed.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 10 January 2004

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