More Power to Your Elbow,
Sold Out: Live at the Arena
(self-published, 1994)

Fingers of Fun
(Power Records, 1997)

Few bands release a live album before laying down a few studio tracks, but it was a good choice for Celtic folk-rockers More Power to Your Elbow.

Released in 1994, Sold Out: Live at the Arena is an excellent introduction to the band from County Tyrone, Ireland. Full of blistering sets, raucous songs and a few mournful ballads, the album is a testament to what new rock can do with traditional tunes.

Recorded at the Arena Drunsill House Hotel in Omagh, the album proves once again that folk music fares better with an audience

Lead vocalist/acoustic guitarist Gerry Cunningham has a ball interacting with the crowd as he belts out tunes like the old Pogue classic, "Dirty Old Town," and "Trip to Tipp," a lively and bawdy original number about Irish lads road-tripping their way to a music festival. Cunningham also turns pub favorite "Whiskey in the Jar" into a hard-rockin' revolution and recreates the Beatles with a fiddle-driven rendition of "Jo-Jo" ("Get Back"). "Back to Tyrone" is a Cunningham original lamenting the life of an Irish expatriate far from home, but the hopping, enthusiastic performance belies the sentiment of a New Yorker longing for Ireland. Cunningham exposes his serious side with "You're Not Here Tonight," a touching tribute to the band's original keyboardist, Mickey McGoldrick, who was killed in a car accident shortly before the album was recorded.

But the album's strength is its energy, and the band demonstrates a crackling intensity with instrumental sets including "Out of the Mist/Mairead Nesbitts/Colonel Rodney," "The Happy One Step" and "Lady Ann's/John Loughran's/Mason's Apron." Pat Casey's fiddle and Helen Donnelly's tin whistle burn through the tunes with a fiery passion.

Less inspiring is the band's second release, Fingers of Fun. With only two of the original eight members remaining, More Power to Your Elbow lost some of its former fire.

Casey and Donnelly are among the missing, and their replacements, Niall Mulligan and Emanuel McFarlane, don't carry off the same flare. The band also shifted gears somewhat, featuring tunes like "Down the Motorway," which sounds like it came from County Tyrone via Nashville, and the maudlin ballad "Missing You."

Sadly, the band uses Cunningham's vocals rarely on this album, focusing instead on the countrified singing of newcomer Nicola Hammil. It's also a much slower album, with instrumentals such as "Breaking Reeds," "Reels and Regulations" and "Batter Madness" sounding less rambunctious, more stately and calm. "The Bodhran Beat" is a welcome exception to the rule, featuring the percussion work of Darren Morgan, Sean O'Brien on bass, and a lively stretch for the rest of the band. Cunningham gets his best vocal workout on "Johnny Come Home," a deceivingly upbeat song about the woes of yet another wayward Irish lad.

In the future, More Power to Your Elbow should stick to pubs and concert halls, and leave the studios alone.

[ by Tom Knapp ]