Forget Riverdance: The Best of New Irish Music

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.”

Scotland’s Capercaille has been around for more than a decade, purveying tradition-minded music with a modern twist. But the band’s latest CD, Beautiful Wasteland (Rykodisc), marks a brilliant leap forward as the group draws in an unlikely element: African music. This seemingly odd fusion has already been attempted by the Afro-Celt Sound System, but Capercaille pulls it off with unprecedented aplomb. When singer Karen Matheson teams with the Guinean duo Sibeba on the slowly building, transcendent “Co Ni Mire Rium” (“Who Will Flirt with Me?”), the musical connection crackles.

There are loads of Celtic compilations out there, but Heart of Ireland: A Collection of Traditional and Modern Celtic Songs (Music Club) is the best one in quite a while. Focusing on the Gaelic-language music that has seen a resurgence within Ireland itself, the collection takes a deliberate stand against commercialized, inauthentic versions of Irish music. As the liner notes proclaim, “There are no Aran sweater-clad Kingston Trio clones heard here, no bathetic neo-Vaudeville balladeers or fey harpists from anachronistic ‘medieval banquets.’ ” Instead, the CD showcases artists who record for Ireland’s Gael-Linn label, among them the accordionist Carl Hession, whose “Morning Gallop” jig is brisk and lovely; Brian Hughes, whose haunting whistle solo on “Turas Go Tir Na Nog” will stop you in your tracks; and Aoife Ni Fhearraigh, who could probably be the next Enya if only she’d sing in English.

And there’s the rub: The acts that are most successful stateside are often those that are least noticeably Irish. People magazine editors, please note: The Corrs, a rawly careerist quartet with fashion-model looks, are currently trying to conquer the United States with bland, slightly Celtic pop buffed by Michael Jackson’s producer, David Foster.

But remember this: Even in the “old country,” the culture is not as untouched as romantics might hope. A couple of years ago, I thought I had found the pure heart of Ireland in a pub on the Aran Islands, where a local Gaelic-speaking band was playing a Friday-night dance. Except for the electrical fixtures, I thought, the scene could have taken place a century ago. I was jolted out of my reverie when the group launched into the most rousing dance number of the night: “The Chicken Dance.”

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