Although it’s a debut release for At First Light, Idir has more musical history behind it than that would imply. John McSherry, Dónal O’Connor and Francis McIlduff already have a 2008 collaboration, Tripswitch, under their belt and are no strangers to the traditional music scene. All three have made their mark in many ways – John McSherry as a founding member of Lúnasa and Coolfin, Dónal O’Connor while touring with Lúnasa and Cathal McConnell, and recording with Brian Kennedy and Moya Brennan. While Francis McIlduff has provided his prodigious bodhrán and piping skills for Irish folk-rock outfit Alias Ron Kavana, Sin É and After Hours. That’s a lot of musical pedigree behind a debut album.
The gentle Breton opening of The Magnificent Six gradually builds towards a more spirited offering celebrating a mild mannered Jack Russell. Following close on its heels, Ar Thóir an Donn is a set of lively tunes built around Dónal O’Connor’s celebration of the legendary Queen Méabh of ancient Ulster. Soon the guest vocals of Ciara McCrickard bring a new dimension in Aird Uí Chuain (The Quiet Land of Erin). Ciara’s singing is throaty, but soft, with a delightful and unmistakable County Down accent that’s also evident in Courting is a Pleasure.
It would be trite, and unjustified, to simply describe this album as ‘just like Lúnasa’. John McSherry’s influence is inevitable, but in no way the predominant flavour. The album also showcases the various members’ more individual talents. Dónal O’Connor’s fiddle is husky and lean or fast and furious as required. Having two players of uilleann pipes, low whistle etc, provides scope for exhilarating explorations of the mainly traditional material they draw from. At times this can consist of gentle harmonies, such as in the first of the Bethan’s Dance set; Song of the Chanter, and also some invigorating and skillful piping duets.
There are some very distinctive passages – El Garrotín opens with a Renaissance Volta and leads to a beautiful Asturian melody learned from that region’s Llan de Cubel. In Roy’s Hands, written by Finbar Furey in honour of the late Roy Williamson, the listener is delighted, despite the sombre pace, by the sound of two uilleann pipes harmonizing. If you enjoy pipes, it’s a sound that can’t be rivaled.
Before we know where we are, the album comes to a wild, stomping conclusion with The Pipers of Roguery. Throughout the album the songs and tunes on offer are given further depth and colour thanks to contributions by Michael McCague and Ruben Bada (Bouzouki, Guitar), and guitar virtuoso Tony Byrne.
With Idir, At First Light have presented a hugely enjoyable collection of tunes and songs that will be treasured by listeners. Again, we have a group of musicians who have taken traditional music and injected new life, new interpretations and new vitality. I suspect this album is going to be at the top of my play list quite for some time, it’s an absolute delight. And I know who’s just gone to the top of my wish list for Celtic Connections too!
Idir is release through ‘At First Light’. Buy it here.