Music: A gang with a punch that tickles

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 How It’s New York: I met Alan Kelly at 11th Street, and hope to see the Gang back at APAP this year.alankelly

How It’s Irish: Alan and co. are from Galway (more or less).

Stay tuned for more reviews and reports from Celtic Colours. I was very glad to have seen them in concert in Nova Scotia: here’s a review of their CD, Small Towns and Famous Nights!
This article was originally published in Irish Examiner USA.

Last week in Nova Scotia during the Celtic Colours Festival, Alan Kelly reassured the audience that despite the word “gang” in the title, there would be no violence onstage.

There’s no violence done to the tunes and songs in their album, Small Towns and Famous Nights, either.

Through 11 tracks the band wove their way through jaunty reels, buoyant dance tunes and three soulful songs.
Small Towns and Famous Nights is that CD you keep meaning to take out of the car player but then just let it play again, because it just sounds so good. 

In Nova Scotia, the line-up was Alan Kelly on piano accordion, Maureen Browne on fiddle, Steph Geremia on flute, whistle and vocals and Tony Byrne on guitar. Tola Custy plays fiddle on the CD.
Alan leads the band, with his light-fingered, expressive playing on the accordion. To listen to him you’d never think he was playing a big old instrument, he has such delicacy of expression.
The album starts in an upbeat vein with a set called “Galway Reels,” with tunes by Fankie Gavin, Vincent Broderick and Máirtín O’Connor.

Another instrumental follows with an original tune of Alan’s called “Hopalong,” a lively jig, followed by his “The Chapel Bell,” and then the fast Scottish reel “Wing Commander Donald MacKenzie,” by Phil Cunningham. 

Throughout Byrne’s assured, bold rhythm helps to keep the tunes driving forward. When his strums come in, I find myself suddenly smiling.

“The Garden,” a song by roots/bluegrass musician Tim O’Brien, David Olney and John Hadley, has a kind of French feel to it, opening with a minor-key accordion riff before going into Steph’s torchy vocals.

Steph also wrote one of the tunes on the CD, “The listmaker,” the second tune in a set called “The birdmaker,” which, according to the liner notes, was written about Alan’s list-making habit.
Throughout, Alan’s arrangements are both interesting and modest, serving the music rather than demanding you notice them.

Tunes often change pace, begin slowly and build, weave lead instruments in and out in a way that gives the music real “repeat play” appeal, not unlike the gorgeous instrumental work of Lúnasa.

Scottish singer Eddi Reader, who has performed with the band, sings on the sing-along “Connemara” by John Douglas, who also sings on it. Unfortunately, the pretty song grows a little tedious after awhile.

I particularly love a set called “Breton Woods,” which includes Liz Carroll’s aching “Island of Woods,” a little faster than her own setting, played as a march, not a lament, as Alan says in the liner notes, followed by a couple of Breton tunes arranged by Alan. The step-up in pace and rhythm is both unexpected and deeply satisfying. The overall effect has both dignity and charm, a kind of nobility to it. It swings, in a refined way. 

Steph’s purity of tone in the flute adds much to the album, as does Tola Custy’s strong, punchy fiddle, which is beautifully showcased in the set called “Golden Pipe.”
This set shows off Alan’s strong skills as an arranger: we start off slow and pensive, with “The Golden Hashpipe” by Liam Lewis, then get a little faster with “Patsy Touhey’s,” and then by “The Porthole in the Kelp” by Bobby Casey we’re really grooving, with Jim Higgins on percussion (I’m pretty sure I heard bongo drums in there).

The album closes with a waltz Alan wrote for his 90-something grandmother, “Lollie’s Waltz.” It’s a pretty tune, that has lots of life in it-like the woman, no doubt, and the band itself.

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Copyright 2012 New York Irish Arts