(Virgin, 1996;
Narada, 1998)

I would have loved to have been born a Leahy.

I'm not saying the family had a perfect life of laughter and luxury. But the crowded farmhouse of Leahys from Lakefield in Ontario, Canada, grew up in a world of music. It was, say members of that sprawling clan, a constant in their lives growing up, and they honed their skills playing rural fairs and weddings in the 1970s and '80s.

That must be why eight of the Leahy brothers and sisters make their music seem so effortless. Likewise, it must have something to do with their seeming delight in the craft; to see or hear them play is to witness a group of talented musicians who truly love what they're doing.

That sound and passion comes through clearly on their self-titled debut album, released by Virgin Music-Canada in 1996 and distributed now in the States by Narada.

Don't let the Narada label fool you. Once equated with wispy background music, Narada has since made an effort to remake its image with a strong Celtic traditional base. Leahy is a fine example.

The all-instrumental album has 10 tracks of some of the finest traditional tunes I've heard. Each is played with masterful aplomb, with a Cape Bretony feel that only strengthens my conviction that Canada is home to the new generation of Celtic master musicians.

The strongest element of a strong family group is fiery Donnell Leahy, who burns through many of the tracks with a fierce kind of fiddling seldom paralleled. When he's not busy setting fire to his strings and blurring the fingerboard with wild grace and grace notes, he slows down for soulful, passionate melodies with a lush Gypsy spirit.

The fiddle is Leahy's focus, so if you don't like the instrument, don't buy the album. Besides Donnell, brothers Doug and Angus also add fiddle layers to the tunes. (And, as the family demonstrated on a recent taped concert, most of the family can lead on fiddle with professional precision.)

Besides fiddles, the band features brother Frank on drums and sisters Erin on keyboards, Siobheann on bass, Maria on acoustic guitar and mandolin, and Agnes on percussive stepdancing (a la Riverdance).

Together, they create a package of many moods, from the biting "Cape Breton Medley" and melancholy "The Coulin" to the frenzied/mellow "Czardas" and whirlwind "The Call to Dance." The album kicks off with the potent "B Minor," with powerful fiddle solos overtop solid keyboard and backing musicianship, which sets the tone for all that follows.

Pick this one up. It's a hint of the future of Celtic music ... and Leahy will definitely be riding the crest of that wave. I, for one, can't wait to hear what they come out with next.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

Buy it from Amazon.com.