As a 7-piece band, Skipper’s Alley has the spread of talent to bring a fascinating array of instruments into their music and they use them to excellent effect on their debut, self-titled album. Their style is rooted firmly in the Irish tradition and it’s no stretch when listening to their tune sets to think it might be The Bothy Band or Planxty playing. Their material mixes traditional tunes, some well-known such as Toss the Feathers, with self-penned material and four traditional songs.
Young they may be but the members of Skipper’s Alley show right from the opening track that they not only have mastery of their instruments but also the talent to devise arrangements that intrigue and delight in equal measure. The opening track, The Flowers of Red Hill, is a 3 tune set starting with a jig and ending with a reel which builds beautifully from a simple beginning of guitar and harp progressively adding concertina, fiddle, bodhrán, uilleann pipes and banjo but not necessarily in that order! The pace builds as well and, if heard live, would be one of those tune sets you never want to end. There are plenty of other well-constructed fast paced sets but, equally, slow airs such as Amhrán na Leabhar allow individual musicians to shine, in this case Fionnán Mac Gabhann on the pipes. As a bodhrán player I must first declare an interest but I was particularly impressed by the prominence given to Macdara Yeates’ playing. His bodhrán gives a strong bass rhythm to many of the arrangements, often being promoted to the front of the mix.
Both John Flynn and Eoghan O’Ceannabhain contribute vocals, again encompassing different styles ranging from a delightfully personalised version of the Child ballad The Two Brothers, here given the title William and John, to the sean nós of Buachaillín Deas Óg Mé. The track starts with whistles setting up a melody over a drone from the pipes but when the voice comes in it is initially accompanied only by the bodhrán emphasising the rhythm. As the song progresses though, the band builds up an arrangement that brings in fiddle, pipes and banjo. By no means the most traditional presentation of a sean nós song but one that showcases Skipper’s Alley’s talent for taking elements of the tradition and combining them with flair and passion.
Skipper’s Alley have only been together for 2 years but already they have built a presence on the international Celtic festival scene and begun to pick up awards. This debut album can only enhance and widen that reputation. We can look forward to plenty more excellent music from these innovative, skilful musicians.
Review by: Johnny Whalley
Out Now: Available via Bandcamp