Fleadh Cheoil NaÉireann

Derry~Londonderry's Guildhall hosts two concerts showcasing the best in traditional Irish, Scottish and American music

The Fleadh Cheoil Na hÉireann is a celebration of Irish culture, particularly the country’s music, which has travelled beyond the shores of the island to reach around the world. 

Within this year’s programme – held in Northern Ireland for the first time, in Derry~Londonderry during the UK City of Culture year – space has been created to showcase musicians whose work demonstrates how Irish music has enriched and been enriched by music from other cultures and nations.

Two such concerts – broadcast live on TG4 and and streamed live on the Fleadh website – are held this at the city’s Guildhall. Highlands and Islands sees the Campbells of Greepe performing their puirt a beul pieces – otherwise known as 'mouth music' – while Across the Atlantic features a number of American acts.

The Campbells are a family of singers, and in the formal setting of the Guildhall they present their mouth music in a variety of forms: ranging from lively and upbeat to haunting and reverent in their Scots rendition of 'Down to the River to Pray'. They create an orchestra of voices, pure and rich, placed within a centuries-old tradition.

As Highlands and Lowlands continues, the Campbells are followed by Rona Wilkie and Marit Fait, a Scottish-Scandinavian mandola and fiddle duo, who play here backed by a string quartet from Glasgow. The music they create draws on their respective traditions to produce a new and vibrant synthesis of sounds and textures.

They open with an aggressive Swedish lullaby, one in which children are threatened with dire consequences if sleep is avoided. Angry and funny, this piece is followed by a soft, lilting Scottish telling the tale of a family secure and at peace. Wilkie and Fait's voices carry great beauty. Informed and respectful, fluid as a stream, they shift moods from song to song.

The music has a distance to it, a sense of the faraway. The refinement and control of the string quartet give a solid foundation to the duo’s music which, in their last piece, builds in energy, intensity and volume before tapering down to an emotional finale.

A string of acts from North America feature in Across the Atlantic, the concert opening with Liz Carroll, the award-winning American-born Irish fiddle player. Accompanied by Sean Og Graham on acoustic guitar, and Trevor Hutchinson on double bass, Carroll's set is truely one of the highlights of Fleadh 2013.

The first song is full of easy, sliding notes, a relaxed mixing of Irish and American, casual, fluid and sweet. Then comes the absolutely beautiful 'Tinsel'. Slower than the first piece, sentimental and affectionate, it's a song that sounds and feels distinctly American to my mind, the instruments fitting together snug as dovetailed wood, like an early Lambchop song.

Recalling Carroll’s childhood, when she and her brother decorated the Christmas tree, 'Tinsel' is an understated piece that holds the attention of all in attendance. Carroll's family memories are presented as if through frosted glass, full of a reassuring, pleasant sadness.

Next there comes a traditional Irish reel that powers along at pace, the guitar and bass rumbling like an engine behind the fiddle, high and merry, then low and intricate. Clearly delighted to be playing the Fleadh again, Carroll’s feet work furiously at invisible pedals, and at the end of their final piece, the musicians give each other handtaps for a job well done and enjoyed.

The Massachusetts musician Tim Eriksen (pictured above) follows Carroll. His opening bluegrass song, 'Spiritual', is sung unaccompanied. His voice nasal, personal, powerful, he sings of leaving the family who wouldn’t accept his love, of his desire to return.

Eriksen calls his repertoire 'a selection of old American love songs'. His second piece is sung while playing the fiddle held low on his arm. He plays hard, uncompromising, without flourishes, while singing a proud but imploring request to death: 'Won’t you spare me over for another year?'

In the third piece, hailing from Vermont, Erikson employs his banjo, interestingly drawing a bow across the strings, producing a scratched drone, the notes varying only slightly, before finishing with a song of a tragic fire at a Massachusetts mill, while playing rich, earthy chords on guitar.

To finish, the audience is treated to some traditional Cape Breton music from three Nova Scotia musicians. Troy McGillivray, on Cape Breton fiddle, playing with Andrea Beaton on keyboard, begins with a jolly tune, full of life and fun. Matt MacIsaac then plays a simple Celtic melody on the whistle, the instrument providing a deep, sad sound, before the trio move onto another song.

Fiddle, keyboard, whistle, and bagpipes all feature, with McGillivray, Beaton and MacIsaac changing instruments and roles with ease. Beaton even step-dances to a fast and joyous reel. Everything about the music these three perform is suggestive of life – of absence, of love, of loss, of friendship.

In their final song, bows flash in unison, as both fiddles and the pipes play a single melody in a last reel. These two concerts show the life that is in music, and maybe Irish music in particular, that has been shaped and borrowed and given and renewed throughout the world. At the Fleadh, things come together – and a newness emerges.