Sharon Shannon,
Spellbound: The
Best of Sharon Shannon

(Green Linnet, 1999)

There are two photos of Sharon Shannon in this release's CD booklet, with a third picture on the back of the CD case itself. In all three photos, she's holding an accordion and beaming. After listening to all 21 cuts on this "best of" compilation, I have to admit that I also wore a grin.

Shannon is not a singer. She's one traditional Irish performer who doesn't hold that claim to fame. Her specialty is the accordion (both piano and button), but she also plays fiddle on several tracks. She's joined by a number of talented musicians, including Mary Shannon, her sister, on mandolin and banjo; Donal Lunny on bouzouki, bodhrans, keyboards and guitar; Winnie Horan on fiddles; Stephen Cooney on guitars; and Maire Breatnach on fiddle and viola. The instrumental numbers they play on run the gamut from traditional tunes to more contemporary, yet traditional sounding, pieces. Only one number, Mike Scott's "A Song of the Rosy Cross," has vocals, and the vocalist isn't Shannon -- it's Scott.

Most of the material is set pieces comprising at least two tunes, and they sometimes contain some surprises. A track simply titled "Kids" starts off as an arrangement of the traditional "Fead an Fhiolair" that amazingly blends nicely with its accompanying piece -- the instrumentals to Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks' "Never Going Back Again." As I listened, I knew I'd heard that song before. Its title came to me before I checked the CD booklet, and I was pleasantly pleased to note how hammered dulcimer, accordion and bouzouki worked with it.

Immediately following that track is Donal Lunny's "Cavan Potholes." There's an actual drum set on it -- more than the bodhran that represents the percussion section on most of the other songs. The bigger surprise, however, is the tenor saxophone that accompanies the accordion, bouzouki and fiddle. It brings in a quiet, jazzy moment to what otherwise sounds like a traditional number. Shannon simply is full of surprises.

Natalie MacMaster sits in as fiddler on Ross Barenbergh's "The Magic Foot," a tune recorded in Cape Breton in 1997. Barenbergh's composition is given a more traditional treatment, however, and it sounds like a song that would be played in a Cape Breton kitchen night. Make it a big kitchen, however. Anyone not too busy playing an instrument would need to dance.

Traditional and traditional-sounding numbers do reign supreme on this CD, but, yet again, there sometimes is a little twist. The Irish Shannon ventures into other traditions and sources. A live tune, "The Woodchoppers," also known as "Le Reel des Voyageurs," consists of two tunes of French-Canadian origin, the first of which was learned from two Swedish musicians. "The Bungee Jumpers" starts with "The Fisherman's Lilt," an American tune, is followed by a French-Canadian tune Shannon learned from the band La Bottine Souriante, and concludes with a tune written by Rodney Miller, an American fiddler. "Blackbird," the album's lively opening track, also consists of two tunes: "Padraig O'Keefes," a slide, and a Cajun tune, "The Happy One-Step." "O'Keefes" is a light introduction to the CD; it's pure Irish with just Shannon on accordion and Lunny on bouzouki and bodhrans. Then, with a easy segue, they're joined by fiddle, piano, organ, congas, double bass and a Jew's harp for a trip to New Orleans.

It's difficult to choose a favorite number from this plethora of possibilities. There are too many choices to appeal to too many different tastes. The main theme tying it all together consists of Shannon's arrangements. While her accordion generally stands out, it never overwhelms the other instruments; she's the bandleader who plays accordion and allows all the musicians to do what they need to do to make the songs sound their best. It's easy to understand why she smiles so broadly in all of the CD's photographs.

[ by Ellen Rawson ]
Rambles: 16 March 2002

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