Niall & Cillian Vallely

Callan Bridge

by Jason MacNeil

26 August 2003


Niall and Cillian Vallely can make some very beautiful music when their schedules allow. The sons of Brian and Eithne Vallely, who founded the Armagh Pipers’ Club in the north of Ireland, the duo picked up the uilleann pipes made famous by the likes of the Chieftains. But Niall took up the concertina, which isn’t exactly a traditional Celtic or Scottish instrument. However, you’d have a difficult time arguing with how the brothers blend both instruments. Recorded on two continents when time permitted from their touring commitments, this is knee deep in toe-tapping Celtic jigs, reels, and everything in between.

Beginning with Rio, the duo gets some help on acoustic guitar from John Doyle. The pipes lead most of the arrangement with Cillian performing some intricate notes while Niall adds subtle touches with the concertina (a miniature accordion for those not knowing). While it doesn’t lend itself to being muzak, the tone and tempo gives it light airy quality. If there’s one slight problem with it, it tends to go just a bit too long. “Muireann’s Jig” begins a bit slower but evolves quite nicely with the pipes being played. Ambling along, Doyle’s guitar playing keeps everything moving along. But there is a certain tension in the song that appears every so often before ebbing back. There is also no percussion on the tune, which doesn’t give it that forceful feeling it needs.

“The Humours of Tullycrine” is more somber and morose in its opening. Caoimhin Vallely’s piano is an early highlight before the concertina gives its first moment to truly shine. Fans of the Chieftains’ softer moments or those of Canadian band the Rankin Family should find comfort in this particular instrumental. Like all of the 13 songs here, the folklore and legend of each song is an integral part. “Sunnyside” is a bouncy and up-tempo tune that sounds a bit like Riverdance material in instances. Of course this shouldn’t come as a surprise as Cillian was part of the music for the smash production. Consisting of three assorted jigs, “The High Jig” sets the song off in the right direction. Composed after a pleasant visit to Sunnyside, New York, the pace picks up for the middle “Robbie Hannon’s Jig” before taming itself with “The Sunnyside Jig”.

One great thing about pipes such as these, or Celtic/Irish music in general, is it can be just as haunting as infectious. “An Buachaill Caol Dubh (The Dark Slender Boy)” has the same stirring quality as piping classics such as “Amazing Grace”. This is entirely Cillian’s number and it’s the highlight of the album’s first half. “Malfunction Junction” gives it a run for its money however. The joyful melding of both uilleann pipes and concertina is rounded by just a whisper of percussion. But the song loses its momentum two-thirds of the way through. Whether it’s the repetitive nature of the tune or a lack of self-editing, there’s a half-minute that stalls before the brothers pick things up again. “Bríd Harper’s” isn’t exactly special with a format that sounds like it was done better earlier on.

“Allistrum’s March” offers another stellar bit of playing from the duo, particularly how each tend to give and take throughout the nearly four minutes of music. It wraps up too quickly, but “The Singing Steam” makes the listener forget about that faux pas. Melodic to a fault and with entirely accessible from the onset, the tune builds into a larger and either toe or finger-tapping conclusion. Check your pulse if this does not happen or consult your nearby physician. “An Buachaillín Bán” is a tender and reflective song that dates back to the time of Bonnie Prince Charlie. “Miss McDonald’s” ends the record with more danceable tempos and rhythms. The back of the album sleeve says, “The legacy of one of Ireland’s foremost musical families is reaffirmed with this essential collection.” And for once it isn’t a bunch of hot air.

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