The Well Below the Valley
(1973; Shanachie, 1990)

Planxty's second album, The Well Below the Valley, was one of the first Celtic recordings I purchased, and it continues to mesmerize me today. Listening to and writing about Planxty has something of the hallowed about it. Though they existed as a band for only a short time, their influence has spread throughout the Celtic tradition in an almost religious fashion.

Each player's name resonates with history, with talent and with marvel. Liam O'Flynn: related to legendary fiddler Junior Crehan, influenced by master pipers Seamus Ennis and Willie Clancy; Christy Moore: talented singer and interpreter of the tradition as well as a writer of songs that have become traditional; Andy Irvine: founder of Sweeney's Men, pioneer of the bouzouki and mandolin in Celtic music, today a member of the supergroup Patrick Street; Donal Lunny: multi-instrumentalist, a member of the Bothy Band, a legendary producer and promoter.

Each continues to be a vital, invigorating and redefining force in music, and each has a rich body of work to explore. Each song or set of tunes on this recording has taken a place in the forefront of any Celtic player's repertoire.

First released in 1973, the album may lack a small amount of the verve and fire of Planxty's debut recording Prosperous (I emphasize the words "may" and "small"!), The Well Below the Valley is a marvelous mixture of pipe tunes, old-sometimes ancient-songs and subtle modern additions to the tradition.

Instrumentation is string heavy, but inventive and never repetitious. O'Flynn anchors the instrumentals on uillean pipes and provides fire and drive throughout the recording. Irvine plays mandolin, mandola and bouzouki, creating a sense of mystery, age and far-away-and-long-ago. Lunny provides much of the rhythm. From what I can glean (one drawback of the album is that jacket information is sparse), it is primarily guitar at this point, but he may have also played bouzouki on some tracks. Moore plays some guitar and bodhran; he and Irvine do the singing.

The song selection for me was like stumbling upon buried treasure when I first found it. I dearly love old songs and this recording features and celebrates them. All but one of these tunes ("Time Will Cure Me," an original by Irvine) were collected from various and sundry traditional sources and all date from the 19th century or before.

"Cunla" is a Connemara song, a silly, nonsense song to the tune of a well-known session jig. O'Flynn starts it off on pipes, Moore kicks off the vocals and we're off to the races. I truly relish the juxtaposition of the piping with the string playing (bouzouki or mandola -- it's difficult to tell). Energy builds and mounts with the addition of the bodhran and the underlying pipe drone until, just after a lilted verse, the whole band finishes off with another lash through the tune. It's too bad they didn't include any of the bawdy verses I've heard at some of my local sessions!

"Pat Reilly" is a song with a familiar theme (youth joins the army at the behest of a smooth-tongued recruiting sergeant) but not one I've heard recorded elsewhere. Strings carry a simplified melody as the basis of the backup. I believe it is a mandola and bouzouki arrangement tightly knit together with a bit of tinwhistle weaving in between, adding a lonely, wistful tone to an otherwise bouncy tune.

"As I Roved Out," the first of a pair of like-named tunes, is a famine-era song featuring Irvine on vocals. O'Flynn's pipes are plaintive without being soggy or melodramatic. Irvine's presentation is similarly contemplative and honest. The sadness inherent in the lyrics and melody is allowed to come through by itself.

The title song, "The Well Below the Valley," is an eerie holdover from the Middle Ages. Long thought to be left only in written form, it was rediscovered mid-20th century in the repertoire of a Traveller named John Reilly. Its rhythm and repetitive lyric structure are mesmerizing and almost, but not quite, draw your attention from the dark, incestuous overtones of the song's theme. The instrumentation is moody and harmonized with lots of fifths (think Gregorian chants).

"Bean Phaidin" is a Gaelic song that is rough and primitive in its presentation. Pipes double the singing and the bodhran adds an ancient, tribal feel. This is truly a song that brings you back to the wild Celts in the mists of time.

The second "As I Roved Out" has become a staple of Irish bands and Renaissance fairs throughout the world. Though I've heard many different versions at many different speeds and with a diverse variety of instrumentation, Planxty's still holds up as one of my favorites. The whistle kicks it off and has the effect of immediately sending one back in time and over the sea to another world. Moore's voice is still the standard against which I measure all other covers of this song. This song in particular is a sparkling bit of distilled magic and for me is worth the price of the CD.

The final song, "Time Will Cure Me," is the only original on the CD. The liner notes explain it best: "Suffice it to say that the girl was Israeli and that time did cure him." It's a beautiful piece and fits well with the other songs in both arrangement and theme, although the vocals are not as strong on this piece. Irvine's voice is high and he sings at times at the upper reaches of his range. It begins to sound a little thin in places.

Interspersed between the songs are a number of truly great instrumentals featuring O'Flynn's piping. Tunes range from standards ("Fisherman's Hornpipe/Cronin's Hornpipe," "Hewlett") to out-of-the-way ("An Phis Fhliuch," The Humours of Ballyloughlin"), and all are marvelous.

The Well Below the Valley is a superlative recording by some of the all-time greats in the business. It blazed new ground in arrangement and instrumentation, it rejuvenated music that had previously existed primarily on the printed page, and it influences and informs performers and listeners as much today as it did when released. b>The Well Below the Valley is a true glimpse of the soul of Celtic music.

[ by Fred Keller ]
Rambles: 7 September 2002

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