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Boys of the Lough

Jamie O'Brien
Boys of the Lough

Boys of the Lough

City: Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
Venue: Whitaker Center
Date: 2003-03-17
The Boys of the Lough are a rare example of longevity in the world of Celtic music. Formed in the late 1960s, they're still going strong. And they're not living on reputations and playing their "greatest hits" wherever they perform. Instead, they're known for their professional, yet still traditional, approach to the tunes and songs, for their vast repertoire which is steeped in many cultures, and for their entertaining presentation. Musicians have come and gone, but the Boys have retained their integrity over the years. This is the first time I have seen the band without long-time fiddler Aly Bain. For over three decades, his Shetland fiddle style and his experiences with the music of such diverse players as Jean Carignan and Bill Monroe has been a centerpiece of the band's distinctive sound. How do you replace such a virtuoso? The Boys' answer is simple: they don't. Dressed in suits, shirts and ties, they look more like businessmen, teachers or Mafia hitmen than musicians. The age range is wide: at one end are Cathal McConnell, last original member of the band; Dave Richardson, 30 years in the group; and a relaxed Brendan Begley (no jacket, no tie) who appeared as a guest over the years until joining full time some six years ago. At the other end are the two "youngsters" in the band, Malcolm Stitt (McConnell's "love child", according to Richardson) and the newest band member, Kevin Henderson. In spite of their lineup changes, the Boy of the Lough retain their spark, an originality in sound that is immediately identifiable, and their humor -- Groucho Marx himself would have been proud of such absurdity, such clever language play, such vocal slapstick. Over the years, they have presented different facets of the music, depending on who was playing. But for so long, the constant factor was the trio of McConnell, Richardson and Bain. McConnell is a flute player par excellence from County Fermanagh. One moment, he plays his standard Irish wooden black flute, the next an unusual lighter colored version of the instrument and then it's a turn on his whistle. While a fine melody player, his sense of harmony is extraordinary; he switches with ease from lead and unison play (typical of Irish music) into an accompanying role with unusual and unexpected harmony and counterpoint lines. The whistle, with its high pitched and at times piercing sound, is not always easy to appreciate. But McConnell is a master player and is able to overcome the inherent disadvantages to great effect. His duet as he played two whistles simultaneously on the "Foxhunter" set was worth the price of admission on its own. With just a small handful of songs, McConnell didn't sing enough and I sorely missed his plaintive voice; this is one of the greatest pleasures of the band's music. Whether reviving "Farewell Lovely Nancy", a song which appeared on the Boys' second album and again as a newer version on their latest, or giving a new interpretation of the night visiting song, "I Drew My Ship", there is a melancholy freshness to his vocals which leaves you craving more. One wonders at his apparent discomfort at being in the limelight, his fidgeting and nervousness, his searching for words. His zany comedy lightens the evening and leaves the audience rolling in the aisles. Richardson's humor is different, rather like that of the long-suffering guardian of the band. He has a deadpan way of addressing the audience that contrasts well with that of his companions. (His story of Begley's musical origins has to be heard to be believed.) Musically, this man from the northeast of England has always provided a coloring to the band. Surrounded by instruments -- concertina, accordion, cittern, mandolin -- he has usually added poignant touches behind the melody which often are more felt than heard. But now, he steps forward, takes a stronger role and appears to lead much more than ever. There are few singers of the caliber of Kerryman Brendan Begley. Irish is his first language and most of his songs are in Gaelic, too. Whether singing a hymn ("My Love, My God") or a song of longing and banishment ("Slan Cois Maigh"), there is a beauty and simplicity in his voice. These are songs with which he has been brought up, and rather than just sing, he lives them and the soulfulness is embracing. Two instruments sit by his side, a button accordion and a melodeon (an instrument similar to the harmonica -- breathe in for one note, out for another). More often than not, he uses the former with its driving, powerful sound. On the occasions that he turned to the melodeon, he spouts fire! His push-and-pull Kerry style is pure excitement as he creates a contradictory chopping yet smooth melody line. Begley was often accompanied by Scotsman Malcolm Stitt, a guitarist who plays with great sympathy and understanding. Unlike many in the world of Celtic music, he uses standard tuning on his instrument, but is still able to create similar effects to the specialized tunings. With Richardson taking more of a forward role, it is Stitt who now provides much of the coloring to the sound, turning tunes dark and foreboding or lifting them to an airy lightness. He is a well-versed musician with a fine array of chord voicings and progressions to complement the melodies of his colleagues. However, as he showed on more than one occasion, he is also able to pick the intricate melody lines of reels and jigs. Finally, Kevin Henderson, who, like his predecessor, is a Shetland fiddler. There is a great weight on his shoulders, following on from the magnificent Aly Bain. But instead of attempting to fill shoes, he makes his own stand. He is a fiddler who is able to weave his playing well into the sound of his band; he plays on much of the material the band performed, but never tried to grandstand. The Boys have flourished over the years thanks to their focus on presenting traditional music with an authentic approach. Henderson is absorbed into the sound and is his own man. His only major solo of the evening was an air followed by two reels, which showed he is a more than capable player. His technique is pure and rich, his style is basically Shetland with maybe a touch of classical but with some lovely sliding from note to note. He is an able and welcome addition to the band. Over the years, many musicians have passed through the ranks -- Dick Gaughan, Robin Morton, John Coakley, Christy O'Leary and more. But each incarnation of the band seems to rise to new heights. There is a sound that never seems to be lost; rather it appears to integrate the talents of new players. The Boys of the Lough go from strength to strength, never disappointing and always entertaining on all levels.

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