It’s sobering to remember that Ciaran Algar was just 16 when, along with his duo partner, Greg Russell, he won the BBC 2 Young Folk Award in 2013. By that age, though, he’d already garnered numerous titles at Fleadhs in Britain and Ireland, mainly for his fiddle playing but also for bodhrán. In the last three years he’s released 2 albums with Greg, a third will follow shortly. They’ve toured almost constantly and also teamed up with the Mischa Macpherson Trio, producing the innovative Tweed Project. Now, as if to underline just how productive he can be, Ciaran’s recorded The Final Waltz, nominally a solo album but in practice he’s assembled a band that includes some of the most talented new arrivals on the folk scene, along with musicians he’s known and played with throughout his school days. Ciaran is keen to give maximum credit to his school, St Joseph’s College, Stoke on Trent, for the support and opportunities that it gave him.
Ciaran’s prowess on fiddle is well recognised and, naturally enough, the backbone of the album is five tune sets. But with this album, Ciaran has been eager to showcase the growing range of his talents. So, in addition to fiddle, he plays banjo, mandolin, guitars, bouzouki and percussion. He’s also written three of the four songs and takes lead vocal on one of them. The resulting mix of material gives fascinating glimpses into his musical journey so far and sets out his stall for the next leg.
The album kicks off at a galloping pace, the first track being Jay Ungar’s Popcorn Behaviour combined with two tunes from well-known Irish fiddle composers from the first half of the 20th Century, Ed Reavy’s Leddy from Cavan and Joe Liddy’s The Red Bee. Popcorn Behaviour features fiddle and banjo parts in pretty much equal measure. The liner notes don’t make it clear if Ciaran double tracked both instruments for there is an alternative, band member Toby Shaer is an excellent fiddler and gets credit in the liner notes for playing fiddle, flute, whistles and guitar. Toby is a ubiquitous presence on the album, his playing superbly complementing Ciaran’s on the wide range of instruments they both play. Right from this opening track, the contributions of Giles Deacon on keyboards and Eden Longson on drums are clearly heard. Ciaran’s instrumental upbringing may well have been steeped in traditional Irish music but, by teaming up Giles and Eden, whose musical backgrounds range well beyond folk, he’s ensured that his intention “to combine traditional tunes with a contemporary-style of accompaniment” is established from track 1.
Many of the tunes in the remaining sets are traditional and generally Ciaran has chosen to include them for particular personal reasons. So we have Morrison’s, the first tune that Ciaran ever learned on the fiddle, presented in a set with Killarney Boys of Pleasure and MacArthur Road from Boys of the Lough’s Dave Richardson. Given a more traditional style arrangement, fiddle with driving guitar accompaniment, this set gives an insight into the playing that brought Ciaran his early fleadh success. His competition pieces from All Ireland Fleadhs figure in 2 other tune sets. The traditional jig, The Lucky Penny, is paired with a Toby Shaer composition, Josh’s Slip, highlighting the excellent interplay between Ciaran’s fiddle and Toby’s flute and whistle. The tune that closes the album, The Wild Geese, is the second competition piece, a slow air the first half of which features Ciaran’s exquisite solo fiddle that’s then combined with guitar and a second fiddle developing an arrangement that leaves a lasting and calming impression.
Ciaran describes his song writing as “something I’ve always done in private”, this album marks the point where he’s finally felt happy to record them. He takes lead vocal himself on The Locks but having teamed up with Sam Kelly last year to play on Sam’s The Lost Boys album, Sam now returns the favour and takes lead vocal on the other three songs. Sam’s voice has been widely praised over the last couple of years, both in his solo work and with The Changing Room. Combined with Ciaran’s sensitive lyrics it presents us with songs that are truly memorable. Ciaran doesn’t do ‘frothy’ lyrics, the songs here prompt you to think, The Final Waltz references the ability of leaders to remain aloof whilst sending the young to war, Our Home Now explores how hard it can be to realise your unhappiness stems from who you’re with rather than where you are. The vocal tracks are not brief affairs; Our Home Now is almost seven minutes, a result of the care and imagination that has gone into instrumental arrangements, making full use of the band’s talents. On Our Home Now this is boosted by having Jamie Francis, also part of The Changing Room, guesting on banjo. It would be unfair to the rest of the gang to describe the final guest contributor as the ‘icing on the cake’ but she is rather good. I first came across Somerset-based Kitty Macfarlane singing her own compositions at the Halsway Manor Hothouse Festival in 2013, here she adds the most exquisite harmonies to Ciaran’s songs, her voice blending so well with Sam’s, Ciaran sometimes joining the chorus as well.
When I talked with Ciaran back in 2013 he and Greg had just come off stage to a rapturous reception from the Cropredy audience. Nonetheless, one of the themes of Ciaran’s conversation was “Plan B”, just in case the music didn’t work out. Back then, he was still at St Joseph’s College, part way through his A level course and, in spite of the demands of touring and recording, was determined to complete it. Well, that part of Plan B is now complete and he’s going on to a degree but, with such a strong debut album adding to all his other musical achievements, it’s hard to envisage that Plan B will be needed any time soon.
Ciaran and the four core muscians, Toby, Eden, Giles and Sam will shortly be touring the material from the album as The Ciaran Algar Band, they’ll be gigs well worth catching.
Review by: Johnny Whalley