El McMeen,
Dancing the Strings:
Celtic to Contemporary

(Piney Ridge, 2004)

There is much in this album for enthusiasts of guitar music to enjoy. El McMeen describes the album in the sleeve notes as one of "dance tunes and dance-related music." This might appear to be a difficult genre for the guitar to embrace but to McMeen's credit he manages to do so very successfully.

His playing has an unfussy style throughout with no unnecessary fabrication, and he has the ability to get into the heart of a tune through his solo guitar. I was interested that he gives credit to his friend the Scottish guitarist Tony McManus, "whose dynamic playing on guitar inspired me to drill down on the fast tunes on this CD to try to make them mine." McMeen's playing does indeed share some similarities with the brilliant McManus's -- which means he is in exalted company for sure.

The album is subtitled "Celtic to Contemporary" and at its heart there are five fine adaptations of Celtic tunes. The lively opening number is a four-part Irish jig, "The Humors of Ballyloughlin," in which it is apparent immediately that McMeen can make his instrument sing. He can bring his individual stamp to a well-known tune like "The Kid on the Mountain" with a characteristic depth to the music's texture. The highlight of the album for me is "Turf Lodge," a Scottish four-part jig, which McMeen plays with great panache and spirit. Perhaps less memorable is the 18th-century tune "Hugh O'Donnell," which seems rooted in its particular time. The last Celtic number, combining the famous "Skye Boat Song" with "Give Me Your Hand," achieves haunting beauty through McMeen's sensitive and lyrical rendition.

There is an impressive range of tunes making up the album's remaining numbers but perhaps these don't quite have the same excitement as the Celtic tunes. Nevertheless it is startling to hear well-known pop tunes such as "Tears of a Clown," "Working My Way Back to You" and "Still the One" being made new again. Throughout the other six numbers, ranging from "The Tennessee Waltz" to "America the Beautiful," McMeen always captures the potentiality that fine guitar playing can bring to a tune.

- Rambles
written by Andy Jurgis
published 28 February 2004

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