People are often taken by surprise when they discover just how popular Irish and Scottish music are in Germany. As a great many of our best known trad musicians will tell you, there’s a very, very large fan base for them there. And it isn’t just imported trad music that’s enjoyed, Germany has a wealth of home-grown talent that enjoy wide recognition, with album sales and audience numbers to match. One of the most popular of these is Fleadh, who have been playing their own lively, and constantly evolving, brand of Irish folk rock to German audiences since 1999. Fleadh released their third album, The Peacock’s Feathers, last month. It’s been very well received on the continent and a UK release should see them expand their audience.
German uilleann piper Frank Weber formed Fleadh in 1999; over the next decade the band underwent a few changes in personnel but steadily built up a solid reputation with live audiences around Germany. In 2010 their first album, Humpy and Lumpy, won them the Best Folk Rock Band accolade at the German Rock and Pop Awards. In 2013, their second album The Cleggan Bay Disaster included five songs written by singer Saoirse Mhór, originally from Kilcullen in County Kildare, and earned three further honours at the German Rock and Pop Awards.
The Peacock’s Feathers follows confidently in the footsteps of their 2013 release. An even mix of songs written by Saoirse and tune sets from the Irish tradition, it’s a lively and engaging album that succeeds in showcasing the level of expertise that exists within the European Irish music scene. Frank Weber’s an accomplished piper, and with the addition of whistles bodhrán provides a solid foundation for instrumental tracks as well as the songs.
Those songs display a strong influence from the work of masters of song like Luka Bloom, and Saoirse certainly doesn’t shy from taking on challenging themes in his work. The opening Kick Me, for instance, deals with the topic of bullying, but it does so to a soundtrack that could have come straight from The Saw Doctors. At times the song comes across as a fight-back, and with a solid backing from Marcus Eichenlaub on fiddle and Saoirse’s percussion, it’s a lively start.
You Don’t Have the Right offers different challenges, the irony can be difficult to spot. It’s the strongest piece of song writing on the album, though; with its stark images and mix of anger, fear and resentment. The songs certainly present more moribund tones and themes. Depression, for instance, in Bridge of Trouble (lifted beautifully, it has to be said, by Ian Stephenson’s Destitution Reel). They provide an effective contrast, though, with the instrumental tracks – and even the instrumental sections within the songs; such as in the introspective Table of Losers. Salt of the Earth takes a far more positive view in a retrospective tale of a life lived to the full and includes a light, engaging mandolin from Frank Dürschner.
This is where we come to the significant contrast in the album – the lively tune sets. It’s great to hear a band that can accommodate so comfortably both sides of the Irish tradition; writing and arranging meaningful songs while paying close attention to the jigs and reels that will lighten the mood. Just as Saoirse has his ability with an expressive lyric, Frank Weber clearly has the skill required to put together, and execute, an engaging set of tunes.
Leading on uilleann pipes and whistles, Frank takes the band, and the listeners of course, through an impressive collection of traditional and contemporary Irish music. In The Courthouse Reel / Laurel Tree, Tommy Gorny’s delicate finger-style guitar grabs attention early on before joining Dürschner’s mandolin and Weber’s pipes to bookend the more lively Laurel Tree. It’s a set that will appeal to those who love a lively tune, and there’s plenty more to enjoy. New Broom opens with an enticing fiddle/whistle duet before moving to light-stepping Peacock’s Feather; and Franks’ habit of re-visiting themes throughout the set adds extra charm.
It’s easy to see why The Monaghan Twig is such a popular tune, the combination of pipes and banjo really inject a sense of occasion, not to mention a great deal of energy. That same combination shines in The Taka Tuka set; a pair of Polka’s with a Greek tinge. The Killarney Boys set includes the joyful Hunt The Squirrel and the album closes with the short, sweet and rather less well known Maid Of Ballingary. A gentle touch to bring the album to a mellow conclusion.
It’s refreshing to find a band with ambition enough to move beyond their familiar audience and reach out across the North Sea to their artistic roots. Saoirse Mhór’s songs are distinctive, thought-provoking and echo the the approach of Irish contemporary song writers; while Frank Weber’s arrangements provide a more solid link to the tradition. It’s easy to see why the band enjoy such popularity in Germany. It will be interesting to see if they can achieve the same here.
Review by: Neil McFadyen
Saoirse Mhór (lead vocals, guitar, percussion)
Tommy Gorny (guitar, bass, slide guitar, backing vocals)
Marcus Eichenlaub (fiddle)
Frank Dürschner (banjo, mandolin, harmonica, backing vocals)
Frank Weber (uilleann pipes, whistles, bodhrán)