Golden Bough,
Songs of the Celts
(self-produced, 1998)

Songs of the Celts is collection of Celtic music; i.e., the music of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany, the Isle of Man and Galicia, among others. The musicians are all well versed and capable. The sound in general, however, is less reminiscent of revivalist traditional musicians than it is of entertainers in a studio or cabaret. One can imagine a cabaret where aging tourists come to have a pint of Guinness and hear Irish-American favorites somewhere in a castle in Ireland -- and out come these musicians. Yet, in a way, they are more Irish for it.

The voices are like the voices one hears in some parlor with lace curtains in Boston, an Irish woman, a "come over" as they call them, sings with relatives and it is her turn to solo. And they have, according to the liner notes, established themselves as one of "America's premier Celtic bands." The instruments are all played well and brightly. There is an air of accomplishment about the music. Yet somehow the studio figures in prominently in the mix. There is something electric sounding about it all.

No newcomers to the Celtic music scene, having played together for more than two decades, the group consists of Margie Butler, Paul Espinoza and Alison Bailey. Margie does a super job on vocals and wire and nylon strung harps, as well as playing the pennywhistle and bodhran (goat skin head drum with beater). Espinoza plays guitar and sings, plays the accordion and octave-mandolin and arranges vocals. Bailey plays the violin and backs up the others with harmonies on vocals. Together they meld into a viable and singular entity. They produce fine, tight music, pleasurable enough to make you crave to listen to it again and again.

There is, to a small but significant extent, something disconcerting, however, about the collection, and it is not in the performance of the selected works. It's the order in which they come!

We start with a medley that consists of "Polca dos Campaneiros," leading us into unfamiliar Celtic territory from the outset. While the medley does proceed to include "An Dro," "The Minstrel's Tune" and "The Sporting Boys," still, the next song is "Jock O'Hazeldean"! Now we enter Scotland and a Scots tune by none other than Sir Walter Scott.

My first impression was, "Hey, when are they going to get to the Irish music?" This question harkens back to a time when "Celtic music" meant "Irish music," and the world of Irish music was one of stage Irish, shamrocks, silly cartoon leprechauns and other diminishing stereotypical kitsch. So to a certain extent, "mea culpa!" After all, there were Celts in Eastern European countries, now enfolded in shrouds of occluding historic mist.

There is substance here for many types of Celtic music lovers. There is tradition. There is O'Carolan. There is pub fare. There is rendition. There are waltzes, set dances, patriotic songs and political tunes such as the immortal Tommy Sands' "Your Daughters and Your Sons," one of the most evocative songs on the CD. There is authenticity. I love and listen frequently to this CD. The tunes are played crisply and neatly, the execution stunning and the arrangements lovely to hear. Were I somehow a musical director for Golden Bough, I would pick a different studio next time, however. Or mix the works differently. Those behind the boards at the studio of record have produced what seems a watery, reverby, too clean kind of sound to the music. Not the acoustic ambience that a castle with tapestries would provide nor a parlor in Chicago nor Dublin nor a cottage in the West nor a crowded, smoky pub on a Friday night when all are glad of a work week past and a moment to smile.

[ by John Cross ]
Rambles: 14 September 2002

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