Davy Spillane,
A Place Among the Stones
(Columbia, 1994)

Davy Spillane is, in a word, a musician. He has been playing since childhood and performing publicly since his early teens when his father began taking him to fairs around Ireland. An acknowledged master of the uillean pipes and low whistle, he began his apprenticeship as a pipemaker in 1970 and now makes all of his own instruments. His musical career has spanned recordings, both solo and group, stage shows (he was a soloist with Riverdance) and many concert appearances. His list of collaborators is impressive and spans the range of Celtic, rock and pop musicians.

A Place Among the Stones is somewhat of a mid-career offering, released by Columbia in the U.S. in 1994. There are hints of many styles and forms, from ballads to reels and jigs to passages that are reminiscent of such new age luminaries as Mars Lasar, Patrick O'Hearn and even Tangerine Dream -- no surprise from a protean musician who has assimilated many styles over his traditional foundation.

There are many highlights in this group. One of the most striking is the title track, a haunting ballad featuring luminous vocals in Irish and English by Maire Brennan, who brings quiet intensity to the lyrics, perfectly supported by Spillane and the core group of musicians on this disc: Greg Boland on electric guitar, James Delaney on keyboards, Noel Eccles on percussion, Eoghan O'Neill on bass and Brennan on harp.

This is an album of contrasts, as exemplified by the shift from the ethereal quality of "A Place Among the Stones" to the lively, jazz-derived if somewhat incongruously titled "Western Whisper," and then immediately to the very traditional "Starry Night," which sounds very much like the music I used to hear "down home" among my Scots-Irish forebears in rural Appalachia. "Elgeebar" is worth mention if only for the sinuous dialogue between pipes and electric guitar over a syncopated, low-key "world beat" rhythm.

The showstopper is "Always Frozen," with vocals by Steve Winwood and the addition of Colin Boland on keyboards. Winwood's "lost-soul" voice is perfectly fitted to the cool jazz instrumentals. Spillane manages to make his pipes take on the particular color of a saxophone in places, adding to the jazz club ambience. The final track, "Near the Horizon," features Spillane in a thoughtful, intimate solo on acoustic guitar.

Most offerings of so-called "popular" music have a fairly short shelf life, at least in the U.S. Chalk it up at least in part to Americans' insatiable appetite for the "new" and in part to the relative mediocrity of most popular music. I don't think Davy Spillane is in any danger here: this is an absorbing album filled with delightful surprises that don't seem to lose their magic.

- Rambles
written by Robert M. Tilendis
published 17 July 2004

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