Forget Riverdance: The Best of New Irish Music

So you like Irish music? Welcome to the pub

| July/August 1998

So you like Irish music? Well, welcome to the pub. Few Americans, it seems, are immune to the charms of an energetic tune from the Emerald Isle or its Celtic cousins: Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany, and the Galicia region of Spain. We've packed into performances of "Riverdance" and snapped up enough recordings to make "Irish" the largest world-music category in many CD stores.

Irish music has long enjoyed a cult audience in this country, even before the Clancy Brothers serenaded us with drinking songs in the '60s and the Chieftains appeared in the '70s and '80s with their lively reels and lilting airs. But the current scene has grown far beyond the coffeehouse and pub circuit. This summer, the Guinness Fleadh—pronounced flah, it means festival in Gaelic—drew nearly 100,000 listeners to megaconcerts in New York, Chicago, and San Jose. And although the lineup for the Fleadh was really only half Irish, the turnout showed that Celtic culture has become, for better or worse, officially hip.

The artists who fall under the Celtic banner are impossible to pigeonhole. They range from New Age sirens to sensitive balladeers, from pub rockers to tradition-rich instrumentalists. Often, in fact, the only thing tying them together is a common Celtic root. But this may be the key to the music's great appeal: It is magnificently broad and deep. America's folk, country, and even rock traditions can all trace branches of their family trees back to the Celtic countryside.

The sudden rise in Ireland's pop currency has drawn some complaints that Celtic culture is being caricatured and exploited: "Lord of the Dance," the lowbrow sequel to "Riverdance" featuring dancers in skimpy costumes and execrable music, is the obvious example. But the upside of the boom is that we can now sample the great diversity of Celtic music. Believe me, there's a lot more to this music than beery renditions of "Danny Boy."

"Riverdance" may have propagated a slick, choreographed version of Irish culture, but it benefited from association with some excellent musicians, most notably Bronx-born fiddler Eileen Ivers. A recent retrospective, So Far (Green Linnet), collects her best material from 1979 to 1995 and demonstrates that you don't have to have a County Cork birth certificate to master the Irish fiddle. Ivers' tone is authoritative, her technique impeccable; she unveils ornamental frills that surprise without showing off.

Ivers no longer plays in Cherish the Ladies, but this long-standing group is as vital as ever on Threads of Time (RCA Victor). A sort of all-female Chieftains, the group has an ear for great traditional material, such as the war ballad "High Germany." The group also sets to music two classic Yeats poems, "The Ballad of the Fox Hunter" and "The Lake Isle of Innisfree."