Ciaran Tourish: Down the Line

[9 October 2005]

By Jason MacNeil

Ciaran Tourish is perhaps best known for his work in Altan, one of the finer Irish-Celtic acts to come since Clannad. But while Altan isn’t on the road all the time, Tourish certainly has been a busy man. And when you have sidemen like the acclaimed dobro-ist Jerry Douglas of Union Station (Alison Krauss’ longtime backing band) stating Tourish is “one of the most capable and knowledgeable musicians I know”, well, you’re certainly onto something. And while there is still oodles of Celtic music on this offering, Tourish hasn’t ignored the Americana/roots/mountain music component that has historically tied the two precious genres together. This is shown on a leadoff medley of three songs entitled “Port Chuilinn/The Cordal Jig/Paddy Taylor’s Jig”. The first third of the song is a nice, well-paced segment with Tourish on fiddle and Arty McGlynn strumming a guitar to keep the toe-tapping, laidback melody flowing. The middle portion features percussion from Jim Higgins on bodhran and sets the song on a slightly different course as a pipe, er, pipes up and into the mix.

While it’s a great start, Tourish is consistently strong, shining regardless of the tone of the song as he does during the softer, reflective, lament-like “Carlisle Bay Waltz”. What makes the song so interesting however is the pedal steel/lap steel touches from Percy Robinson, and well it melds in with the cello of Neil Martin. It sounds as if Tourish listened to Mark Knopfler and Les Paul’s project Neck And Neck prior to working on this light, finely-crafted track in the vein of Cape Breton fiddler Natalie MacMaster. The only knock against the song might be how it tends to drag or marginally stall near the homestretch, but not enough to turn the listener off. The first non-instrumental is “Dreams Will Come”, a traditional arrangement worked through by Tourish and Paul Brady, who has a great voice for this sparse, haunting, Springsteen circa Tunnel of Love kind of tune. The fiddles and whistles don’t make their mark until about a third of the way in, resulting in it basically being a Brady solo effort rather than a Tourish tune with guest. And for a less than 40-minute album, this is a thick but quality-filled five-minute slab.

The first bouncy ditty surfaces with “Lord Gordon’s Reel” that Tourish says he learned from one of his earlier teachers, Dinny McLaughlan. McGlynn again adds guitar, but this is Tourish’s baby from start to finish, never busting out into a foot-stomper tune but not satisfied by resting on his musical laurels either. The intensity picks up nicelt, yet you won’t be hooting and hollering by song’s end. “Are You Tired of Me My Darling?” melds the Americana and Celtic ideals perfectly, but you are instantly drawn into the arrangement that reminds one of Alison Krauss and Union Station. Let me check the liner notes…well what do you know? Krauss is on harmony vocals, Douglas on dobro but with Tim O’Brien on lead vocals and mandolin. It’s a sweet song that has Tourish touching the space between verses for a great effect.

“Oldtown” tends to rub one the wrong way with its “worldly” feel for the most part. It’s timid and with too much of a flamenco slant for hardcore Celtic enthusiasts. Conversely, the haunting and gorgeous “Port Na Bpucai” is utterly flawless and features Tourish blowing away on his pipe. This is followed by another toe-tapper that is fiddle-fueled and entitled “Molly Ban/Flowers of Edinburgh/Famous Ballymote”.

While there are many great songs, perhaps the highlight comes during the ethereal, hymnal “Slan Le Mhaigh” featuring Maura O’Connell on lead vocal, carrying the spine-tingling kind of song herself. It seems the Tourish can certainly make do on his own, but his knack for collaboration is well thought out for this strong album.

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