Music on the Boil: A Singing & Dancing Kettle from Chulrua
by Tom Clancy
Originally published in Irish Music Magazine, January/February 2008. Reprinted with permission.
The glowing reviews of Chulrua’s new album, The Singing Kettle, are steaming in. It’s a strong brew, rich and sweet, like a good pot of Irish tea. Chulrua is one of the musical combinations graced with the presence of box player Paddy O’Brien.
The band had a successful tour of Ireland in August and September, including performances at the Masters of Tradition festival in Bantry. There’s something beautifully pristine about the music on this second Chulrua recording–it leaps into life every time. O’Brien has an unyielding respect, even reverence, for the melody. He insists that you hear it in its purest, most memorable form. Not a single melody on the album sounds rushed–the reels have a definite, delicate forward momentum, the jigs jog along delightfully, and the hornpipes are deftly played. In Patrick Ourceau and Pat Egan, O’Brien has found two like-minded collaborators.
Ourceau plays the reels of the title track solo on the fiddle with memorable, maple-syrup sweetness. He seems to reach in and bring out the heart and soul of the melody for our consideration. It’s paired with “Gooseberry Fair,” a tune delightfully ornamented with a round of chiming double-stops.
I asked O’Brien to take us inside the making of the album. Where does that vivid, vibrant sound come from? “Our sound has a lot to do with the combination of the warm tone from the fiddle (Patrick plays a wonderful instrument) and the accordion specially tuned to blend with the fiddle tone. It’s the choice of tunes, and how they are matched together, really, that determines the pace and speed at which they should be played. This in turn allows the notes to breathe, or make their musical statement. If tunes are played too fast, it can choke the phrasing, if you’re not careful. It’s all about interpretation, which is so important in getting the feel and emotion out of Irish traditional music.”
O’Brien also talks about “…tuning the tune.” What does that mean, I wondered? “It helps the phrasing knowing the tune very well, so you can develop the melody for more appeal, i.e., the inclusion of certain variations, as in “The Gander at the Pratie Hole.” There are nice ‘filler notes’ in “Wellington’s Advance” which give it a better flow and more body, and the few variations enhance the melody. I do this kind of thing as I developed individual tunes, especially tunes I know a long time. There’s always something new to discover. I didn’t develop “Wellington’s Advance” just for the CD; I did it over a long period of time because I enjoyed the tune, and later decided to use it on the recording. I believe Patrick does the same with some of his tunes, e.g., “Eddie Moloney’s/Roll Her on the Mountain.” That selection I learned from Patrick.”
The version of “The Morning Dew” is especially brilliant. “There is an old three-part version of “The Morning Dew” recorded by Michael Coleman. The version on The Singing Kettle is a two-part version from Joe Cooley. Where he got it, I’ve no idea. These two Morning Dews are an example of two settings of the same tune.”
I love their version of “The Drunken Sailor;” what’s the modern history of that piece? “”The Drunken Sailor” is usually played in G minor, however, I play it in A minor. The original five-part version is in O’Neill’s. Tommy Potts made the tune his own; he played it in G minor, and put in little variations here and there that enhanced it greatly. He was the one who composed the sixth part that I play solo on the recording, and much of the way I play it is from Tommy Potts.”
Patrick Ourceau is a lovely fiddle player. His solo on the title track is a very fine bit of playing. I particularly like the tight unison playing on those tracks where you and he go note for note. Where does he get those chops from? “Patrick Ourceau is no doubt a great fiddle player, and has a great sense of melody. He is very good at honing into the notes and settings of tunes from East County Clare players like Paddy Canny and people like Joe Bane.”
How do you go about selecting tunes and combinations/sets for a recording? “As far as the selections are concerned, I usually come up with a basic outline, and we each choose our own solo material. Sometimes we record more than we need, so we’re able to pick and choose the best tracks. We do the layout of the tunes in order as part of the mixing, and I do it according to how I feel about the selections. They’re all in my mind as I work, and I try to create a mood and a sense of life throughout the album, a sense of movement from one selection to the next. It’s a matter of trying to keep the energy of the album up at a certain level. This is not a crowd-pleasing energy I’m talking about now, but the natural energy of the tunes themselves and the way they’re played.”
O’Brien is also on record stating that not every jig or reel can be used in track selection. Often a lot of research is involved to find the right tunes. You’re looking for a tuneful blend and older tunes are often better because they may be less contaminated by outside influences.
Pat Egan handles the songs with grace and conviction. Egan is a great collector with a magpie’s eye for shiny little gems. He has two fine songs from Dubliner Mick Fitzgerald. One, “Asha, Asha” turns the old childhood rhyme into a meditation on aging and dying. The other is “The Ballad of Capel Street”–a street that’s heard a lot of ballads over the years, now has one of its own. That song is plucked from Fitzgerald’s brilliant 2003 album, Light Sleeper, but delivered in a more straightforward version. It’s a modern Dublin song with a little Molly Malone tribute in the chorus. “Ashfields in Brine” is from the pen of Archie Fisher, the outstanding Scottish singer-songwriter. And, on the less serious side, a Percy French song, “Bridget Flynn” is given a lively makeover.
Paddy O’Brien is like a seasoned worker who has toiled in the vineyard for many years. His musical journey took him from Offaly to Dublin, London, New York and many other places where the old players plied their trade. In time, he settled in Saint Paul, Minnesota where he became the custodian of a large section of the vineyard that he has tended faithfully over the years. One thing O’Brien learned well from listening to and playing with some of the older masters was how to prune and preserve notes so the tune could bloom and blossom. And he believes in putting old wine into fine, antique glasses. The Singing Kettle is another hearty harvest, another O’Brien vintage.