Dan Neely: Fibish DVD Goes Back to Mandolin Basics

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How It’s New York:
How It’s Irish:
 Dan Neely considers an instructional mandolin DVD from Marla Fibissh: these days you can learn even if you’re nowhere near a teacher!
 He also reviews a new CD from Texas trad group The Jig Is Up, and mourns the passing of Joe Byrne.

A version of this article was first  published in the Irish Echo, Wednesday, July 18 2012


The mandolin is a fairly recent addition to trad music.  Although Francis O’Neill-made cylinder recordings in the early 20th century that include Thomas Kiley playing the mandolin (aka the “Connemara Fiddle,” as O’Neill facetiously referred to it in his book Irish Minstrels and Musicians), and although the mandolin was the instrument Barney McKenna cut his teeth on before turning to the tenor banjo, it was not until the 1970s that the instrument took firm root in the tradition through players like Mick Moloney, Andy Irvine and others.

Today, there are many fine players on the instrument.  California-based Marla Fibish is one of the best, and she has just released a new instructional DVD, Irish Mandolin Basics: Tune and Technique, which provides great basic instruction on the instrument.

On this DVD, Fibish draws students in with the basics.  Short prefatory chapters on tuning, detailed instruction about what right and left hands should do, a look at pick choice and an outline of picking patterns lead into longer segments in which she applies these idea through nine tunes, four reels (“The Sunny Banks,” “Dan Breen’s,” “Paddy’s Gone to France” and “Jenny Pickin’ Cockles”), four jigs (“Connaughtman’s Rambles,” “Boys of the Town,” “Old Man Dillon” and the “Miller’s Maggot”) and one waltz (“Pretty Maid Milking a Cow”).   Each tune is presented at full speed with ornamentation and is then “deconstructed” into its constituent parts before she reassembles them at the end.  Here, Fibish provides excellent principled direction that emphasizes groove over flash.  Ultimately, this is the best lesson a new player can learn.

Those who have Morning Star, the outstanding CD played solely on double-strung instruments (including the mandolin, mandola, bouzouki, mandocello and dordan) Fibish made with Cork singing legend Jimmy Crowley last year, know that she’s a first-rate player.  Although some also know her as a teacher, this DVD will cement her growing and already sterling reputation and will help better define the mandolin’s role in traditional Irish music for those new to the music.

Fibish performs nationally but is based in and teaches out of Oakland.  She also teaches over Skype.  For lessons or to purchase her DVD, visit www.marlafibish.com.

Texas trad

I must confess that I don’t really know very much about the trad scene in Texas, but after hearing the Jig is Up’s new CD First Steps I’d be interested to learn more.  The Jig is Up band includes Larry Mallette (flute), Judd Heartsill (button accordion), Matt Lewis (guitar), Robert Shaddox (bodhran) and Diehl Moran (fiddle), a group of experienced players long involved in Houston’s trad scene that came together based on their love for the music and the ideas they shared about how it should be played.

First Steps is an album of traditional tunes and songs delivered with great spirit and enthusiasm.  Their instrumental arrangements are lovely and well-executed and never overpower the melodic beauty of the tunes.  Standout tracks include the tune sets “Lonesome Road to Dingle / … “ and the “Drunken Landlady / …” (the latter starting off with an interesting strathspey feel), and feature the band talents well.  Shaddox’s voice on songs like “The West Awake” and “The County Down” (a Tommy Sands composition which bears no relation to “Star of the County Down”) is wonderfully clear and bell-like and provides a terrific foil to the album’s instrumental side.


This is a CD that shows great respect for traditional Irish music and the culture around it, and reflects a high musical standard that I hope is representative of Houston’s music in general!  (Someone please fill me in!)  To learn more about the band and to purchase its CD, visit thejigisupband.com.

Joe Byrne R.I.P.

On July 7, Irish music lost one of its great patrons with the passing of Joe Byrne, the owner of J. Patrick’s Irish Pub in the Locust Point section of Baltimore.  Reflecting on Byrne’s legacy, Baltimore trad stalwart Myron Bretholz remembers him as the man who

 “provided a home and a haven for countless musicians and dancers who lived in and visited Baltimore over the past quarter century.  Even though he is no longer with us, his generosity and warmth will live in our hearts forever.”

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