The Fenians,
Band of Rogues
(Mizen Head, 1999)

The Fenians were a secret revolutionary society organized in 1858 in Ireland and the United States to achieve Irish independence from England by force. The name comes from the ancient Irish Fenians, a professional military corps that roamed over ancient Ireland in the 3rd century in the service of the high kings. Hopefully, this namesake revolutionary band of rogues has no intention of remaining a secret. Their brand of music is high energy, traditional Irish with the passion of rock and the sophistication of jazz overtones.

Band of Rogues was recorded live at the Galaxy Concert Theatre in Santa Ana, Calif., in 1999. The concert starts with a slow aire and a few excited fans hollering in the background. You can visualize the fog lifting over the misty fields of Ireland to the traditional sounds of an Irish flute and uillean pipes, even though the tune is called the "Flower of Philadelphia." There's a voice introducing the band and immediately there's an energy that's going to take you straight through to the end of the CD, even when pace slows in songs like the hauntingly beautiful rebel song, "Back Home in Derry." The only consequence of being live is that the voices aren't as polished as a studio recording would be.

Ideally, live CDs should have intros on a separate track so you can program them out altogether. On this CD, intros for each cut are at the end of the previous selection, so if you want to skip the chatter, you have to be listening on a device that allows you to skip to the next tune, but that's still better than having to listen to it at the beginning of a cut. For the most part, the chatter on this CD is limited; however, I think they could have done without the two minutes of chanting and carrying on at the end of the "Coal Tattoo," the last song in the concert prior to the encore.

The selections on this CD include a lot of your favorite Irish tunes, most of which feature three traits for which the Irish are best known. There's fighting in "The San Patricios" (an original tune about the Irish who switched sides during the Mexican-American War, and in which is the quote that becomes the title of the CD -- "an immortal band of rogues"), "Back Home in Derry," "I'll Tell Me Ma" and "The Green Fields of France." There's coal mining in "Doogan's Stones" and "Coal Tattoo." And of course, unrequited love, in "Take Her in Your Arms." Then, there's love and war in one cut, combining the same tune/different words of "Star of the County Down" and "The Fighting 69th," the latter being the story of a famous Irish regiment in the American Civil War.

The Fenians provide their own interpretations of all these tunes. This is perhaps the best version I've heard of "The Green Fields of France," sung as the true requiem that it is -- slow, moving, tender yet passionate, with military drum beats emphasizing the "death march" and powerful harmonies on the chorus. Andy M. Stewart's "Take Her in Your Arms" is one of my all-time favorites -- too bad Stewart didn't have a sax player, it's exactly what this song needs to make it perfect. Lately I've come across several CD's with traditional tunes renamed to include the word "Turk," and the Fenians include their version, "Drowsy Turk," named after "Drowsy Maggie," and performed with clear, precise, brilliant work on the tin whistle. And there's a very dynamic rock sound to the tune "Coal Tattoo," as Jeff Baxter joins the group on electric guitar.

But then there's "Oh Danny Boy." This is the "Star-Spangled Banner" of Irish music, and unfortunately, it is the worst cut on the CD. Like "The Star-Spangled Banner," you not only have to have a good voice to pull it off, you need the right voice, and that voice needs to be fresh, not stressed from a long concert. But surprisingly, audiences love that song so much, they will forgive almost anything, too caught up in the emotion the song creates.

[ by Alanna Berger ]
Rambles: 12 January 2002