Music InteReview: Dan Neely on Irish music in Cleveland

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How It’s New York: Brian Holleran grew up in New Jersey.

How It’s Irish: Holleran’s album with Brian Bigley is called traditional irish music on flute + pipes,and this essay considers the long history of Irish music in Cleveland, Ohio.

Dan Neely discovers that Cleveland, Ohio is a happening place for Irish trad, as he looks at the evidence in Brian Holleran and Brian Bigley’s new CD

CD is evidence of Cleveland’s potential

Ohio – and Cleveland in particular – has long been a great place for Irish music.  Before World War II it was the home of fiddler and dancer Tom Scott, and later on, that of flute player Tom Byrne and fiddler Tom McCaffrey.  More recently, the likes of Jimmy Noonan (flute) and Francis Quinn (fiddle) set an important standard that the young students of the now defunct Irish Music Academy of Cleveland were able to follow well into the 1990s.  These days, there is a handful of people who set a similarly high standard and who are encouraging a younger generation of people to the music.  Two such musicians are Brian Holleran and Brian Bigley, and together they have a new album, traditional irish nusic on flute + pipes.

Multi-instrumentalist Brian Bigley grew up in a musical family in Cleveland.  Although he also plays whistle and flute, he is best known as a uilleann piper, an instrument he took up when he was eight under Michael Kilbane’s tutelage.  He is also a uilleann pipe and reed maker and a champion step dancer.  Brian Holleran grew up in New Jersey, a student of the East Galway flute legend Mike Rafferty.  He earned wide respect on the session scene in New York, and was a featured performer on the seminal 2004 album Live at Mona’s.  Both were members of Cleveland’s “Burning River Ceili Band.”
The album grew from when Holleran and Bigley first did sessions together in Cleveland.  They found a tightness in their playing, which was borne out of their shared love for Matt Molloy and Liam O’Flynn’s duo playing on Planxty’s After the Break and Matt Molloy and Paddy Keenan’s playing on the Bothy Band’s Out of the Wind into the Sun.

Holleran told me that it turned out they were “both inspired by the kind of music that turned on any 15-16-year-old American kid playing Irish music.”  With this, their intention was to record a four-track demo to get session work in Cleveland.  Instead, they wound up doing the full album.

Holleran and Bigley are both excellent players and the combination of unaccompanied flute and uilleann pipes is both unusual and distinctive.  The album’s mix of tunes – some of them better-known and others that sound as if they just had the clay shaken off them (to borrow a phrase from last week’s column) – suggests a shared great good taste.   However, what makes this album relevant is its smart performances and pacing.  There’s a relaxedness in both Holleran and Bigley’s music that is deceptive, because while they play fairly briskly they never sound rushed.  It’s a disciplined, swing-dependent approach that speaks well for the respect the musicians have for the tradition itself.

This is a great album for your collection.  Tracks like “Rub the Bag / …” and later, the “Eel in the Sink /…” are both very satisfying, as are “O’Neill’s March / …” and the “Hills of Coore / …” which provide a contrasting sense of pace.  Holleran’s playing on “Seoladh na nGanhmna,” a slow air he learned from the magnificent singer Susan McKeown, is full of nuance and grace and is a thoughtful indication of the feel Holleran has for his craft, while Bigley’s playing of “An Buachaillín Bán” (a slow air he learned from Michael Kilbane, his mentor) reveals a musician with a keen ear and a firm understanding of his instrument’s subtleties.

This excellent album (which is available through CDBaby and iTunes) is evidence of Cleveland’s strong trad music community and its potential for great things.

To hear more of what’s going on there, trad fans can tune into Roger Weist’s “Beyond the Pale” (WRUW 91.1, Sundays 4-6pm) and Bill Kennedy’s “Sweeney Astray” (WCSB 89.3, Saturdays 2-4pm) radio programs.  Those wishing to get out and patronize the music more directly can see trad concerts at Pat Campbell’s pub “PJ McIntyres,” while those interested in the less formal sessions scene should visit Karen O’Malley’s pub “The Harp,” Pete Leneghan &Eileen Sammon’s “Stone Mad,” and Sara Pat’s “Plank Road Tavern.”

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