Irishtown Road,
Irishtown Road
(self-produced, 2000)

When I heard Irishtown Road at the recent Scots-Irish Festival in Elizabethtown, I was first impressed by the calm they evinced while waiting what seemed like an interminable length of time for the sound man to get them properly miked. Then the music took over, and for the next hour I forgot the initial sound snafus and listened with delight. Here was a traditional Irish band with a modern sensibility and great spirit, whether they sang and played the tunes of the old sod or their own originals. Afterwards, I bought their very reasonably priced, self-produced CD, and have enjoyed it immensely.

The Pennsylvania-based group is made up of three Colgan siblings: Brian (guitar, fiddle, flute and more), Eileen (tin whistles and percussion) and Lynn (Celtic harp, keyboard and bowed psaltery), plus Joe Clark (bodhran, drums, hammered dulcimer) and Dave Bowman (banjo and guitar). Everyone sings, and their vocal blend is a real marvel.

It's not every band that can lead off their first CD with a song whose title is their own name, but "Irishtown Road" does just that. All ten songs on this CD are originals, and this is one of the best, immortalizing the place where the Colgans' Irish ancestors settled when they came to America in 1847. The lyrics tell how "They gave their hearts to each other and their souls to God." It's a rousing and contagious song, one you'll find yourself humming to yourself hours after hearing it. The sound of the CD isn't perfect: the mix is a trifle muddy, the bass a little boomy, but the writing and performances overcome any sonic limitations, which are certainly acceptable in a self-produced album.

The band next shows off its instrumental chops with a medley of the sad and keening "Hugh's Lament," with nice work on the harp and the whistles, and "Uncle Mike's Ghost." When the drum comes in with a martial beat in "Hugh's Lament," it's particularly stirring, and "Uncle Mike's Ghost" provides a rollicking and jolly contrast. The next song, "Ancient Holiday," starts off with a five-part vocal that's so gorgeous I immediately backed it up to hear it again. The song is beautiful in its harmonic complexities, not at all your typical cookie-cutter Irish song.

"Miss the Blarney Stone" is the CD's comic highlight, a hilarious parody song with an uproarious chorus that I won't spoil for you by quoting here. Even though a novelty song, they've got great, tight harmonies throughout. The band strikes a serious note with "Green and Orange," an effective and affecting look at the Irish troubles from both points of view.

"You're Only As Old As You Feel" is another fun novelty, though the scansion seems a bit awkward in spots. Still, the song shows the band's writing strengths by not being what you expect. A chorus may have six lines instead of the usual four, and the harmonic progression may not proceed the way you expect it to, things that make Irishtown Road much more interesting to listen to than many of their contemporaries. "Laura McDonald," however, is quite traditional in structure, right down to the "wack-fol-the-diddle" and "too-ra-lay" of the chorus, but none the less charming for it.

"Twilight Train" goes to the other extreme, with more of a country sound than Celtic, but we get back to Irish roots with the next instrumental medley: "Clark's Reverie/Horseshoe Bend/Deoch An Dorais." It begins in pure beauty, with the hammered dulcimer drifting in almost beyond the range of human hearing, and continues in an effortless flow of lovely sounds throughout. The final track takes us back to "Hugh's Lament," now done as a vocal with sublime harmonies, and winding up with a fine reprise of the title song, a wonderful way to end a sterling debut album.

Though Irishtown Road may not necessarily have the best solo fiddling or harping or singing you've ever heard, the group is very much the sum of its parts, and those parts add up to a mighty whole indeed. Filled with a fine spirit, excellent writing and rousing performances, I recommend Irishtown Road and Irishtown Road highly to any Celtic music fanciers. To learn more about them and where to get their CD, go take a brisk walk down Irishtown Road yourself.

[ by Chet Williamson ]