How it’s New York: Not only is it New York, it’s in one of hippest Manhattan nightclubs. How cool is that?
How it’s Irish: All of The Teetotallers are Irish or of Irish heritage (Kevin Crawford was born and grew up in Birmingham where he first lit up the music scene in the 1980s)
It seemed pretty much the entire Irish traditional music community of New York was in attendance for The Teetotallers’ appearance at the Highline Ballroom for what their genial host Kevin Crawford referred to as their “own little brand of music”. This term caught my attention as there is always a dilemma for thinking traditional musicians in how far to go in putting their own stamp on their music, particularly when as is the case of Crawford and fiddler Martin Hayes they hail from regions of Clare where the tradition is so strong that playing styles are defined (and disputed) if not quite by the street, certainly by the parish
All three of The Teetotallers have pushed at this invisible boundary in their own way: Kevin Crawford (with Lúnasa) has explored the rhythmic underpinning of traditional music; Martin Hayes (with Dennis Cahill) has likewise delved into harmonic variations and the emotional center of the tunes; John Doyle’s U.S.-based Solas have experimented with instrumentation and repertoire. While these innovations have (dare I say it?) advanced the music, the question is what do you get it if you put all three together?
Would it be some Frankenstein (an over-agitated, over-emotional Irish-American, perhaps?) to send beleaguered purists into a tailspin, or some of the finest traditional music you are likely to have heard in years?
Fortunately of course, the evidence of the tunes at the Highline pointed very much to the latter.
The opening set of the “The Rising Sun”, “Follow Me Up to Galway” and “some tune from Sligo” reflected the sophisticated musicality of the evening with a gentle lift to the tunes, particularly the second reel. The focus throughout was not on a lot of notes but embracing and building upon on the core of the tune. This was followed with a gorgeous rendition of the jig “Felix the Cat” (named for the legendary Felix Dolan who we lost in April as Crawford respectfully pointed out) and then the Nightingale, which grew in intensity as more shade and tension were added step-by-step.
This dynamic interplay between flute and fiddle (with Doyle’s guitar suggesting and marking the way underneath) became a delightful thread through the evening. In some cases such as the East Clare reel the flute and fiddle were playing triplets in such perfect unison it was difficult to tell the instruments apart. On “Another Fahy’s” there was an exquisite contrast between staccato fiddle and rolling flute, with the flute adding light and playfulness to the energy of the bowing.
“Mac’s March (High Hills of Tara)” / “The Drunken Landlady” set perhaps encapsulated the Teetotallers’ approach. The march again featured close fiddle/flute interplay with Doyle’s guitar nudging things along with accents and elegant runs, but this was essentially a prelude to the second tune. “The Drunken Landlady” was given a whole new interpretation with some simple changes to the phrasing and turns and inventive guitar chord voicings – giving the tune some “air” if you will. The fact that it is also happens to be one of The Bothy Band’s most famous tune arrangements leads to an inevitable comparison. There are in fact times when you can hear echoes of that legendary band, but the similarity lies more in their role at the forefront of things – they are blazing a similar trail, albeit it in a more unassuming and evolutionary way.
The evening flowed very easily with all three members able to communicate with genuine charm and humor (including some hilarious mimicry from Crawford) and was punctuated by some finely honed songs from Doyle. His self-penned “Liberty’s Sweet Shore” was the most successful of the bunch with the sparse instrumentation on low whistle complementing the evocative famine story. To have the majority of the audience singing along to the choruses of an unfamiliar song unselfconsciously and without prompting speaks for itself.
There’s talk of an album. When it happens…get it.
Photos by Arlene A. Wallace