This is what it says on the tin – a live album by two masters of their craft, recorded all of eight years ago. 40-odd minutes of straight-down-the-line accordion and guitar on a selection of jigs, hornpipes and marches, with a couple of airs thrown in for good measure. But it’s more than that. For although I do appreciate fine playing, I’m not a great fan of all-instrumental albums; so why is this one so special? Well, it just is! For this is genuinely exciting and tremendously exhilarating playing – par excellence – a fact which is further testified by the ultra-enthusiastic reaction of the audience.
Now I’m thoroughly ashamed to admit that this disc was my first encounter with Tony’s playing. Born in 1939 in Ennis, Co. Clare, Tony has for some years been renowned for his skilled playing of the humble button-accordion, with a speciality of interpreting slow airs, but sadly he’s recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, which has effectively put an end to his playing (and recording) career. He recorded an album of solo slow airs a few years back, which I understand is due for release shortly, but the present live album forms the first part of what he poignantly refers to as his “farewell to music” (of sorts). It’s sheer magic, with both musicians well on fire – and clearly fired up by the occasion, for whether on a brisk set of jigs or a measured slow air, there’s a sense of 200% involvement and passion that, while it sure springs eternal from the spontaneous heat of the moment, is born of a complete understanding of the music, its very raison-d’être, its idioms and conventions, and a total, unreserved immersion in the joy of playing.
I can’t stress enough the appeal of Tony’s musicianship, the extra-special qualities that characterise his playing, qualities that ensure even greater listener satisfaction on repeated playthroughs of this disc (the latter is not often a feature of all-instrumental or live albums!). First, there’s his innate grasp of the emotional import of any tune, his unerring sense of the direction it needs to take and the onward progression through its melody that the player needs to make. Second, there’s his scintillating technique: virtuoso, to be sure, but with delicate nuances of expression that complement the nifty and precise articulation of the notes (and the points in between!). He’s equally at home in the sprightly jig-rhythms of Cúnla, Port Shean Seain and The Garden Of Daisies, and the proud slow-march The Rolling Wave, the infectious, uplifting hornpipe The Plains Of Boyle and the show-stopping airs Caoineadh Eoghain Ruadh and The Wounded Hussar, and these together demonstrate the power of his emotional response as well as his technical versatility; one could even say (and not entirely fancifully) that the closing number, O’Neill’s March, contains elements of all of these forms of Irish traditional music. And what better travelling companion for Tony than widely-respected guitarist Steve Cooney, who has shared a stage with several of the biggest names in Irish traditional music; his sense of onward progression is as acute as that of Tony himself, and are every bit as intently driven, with comparable intuitive flair that both accentuates and complements the multifarious delights of Tony’s box work. He can conjure a very big sound from his guitar too, where many guitarists can sound thin and over-brittle – marvel at the intense and fulsome resonances from both players on The Rolling Wave, for instance. Absolutely magnificent.
I’m not making an idle and unconsidered statement when I finish this review by saying that this really is one of those live gigs that you just want to go on for ever. Even more marked, then, is the cruel twist of fate by which the music world has been shortchanged by Tony’s enforced premature retirement from playing and recording. As an interesting observation and a punning aside, I might sum up that despite the disc containing no reels, the music sure is the reel thing!
Review by: David Kidman
Released via Raelach Records. Order via Bandcamp.