Beoga hail from Country Antrim in Northern Ireland, and since forming in 2002, they’ve recorded a consistently enjoyable series of four studio albums. Their fifth, Before We Change Our Mind, is their first studio release for five years, and follows their successful live CD/DVD Beoga Live at 10, from 2013. Beoga (‘lively’ in Irish Gaelic) write and play music that follows a traditional path, but happily diverts along routes that bring the likes of Danu and Michael McGoldrick into view.
That five-year interval has certainly wrought some changes in the Beoga’s approach to music. The endearing eccentricity of 2009’s highly enjoyable album, The Incident, is tempered by a more craft-centred approach to tune sets. That doesn’t mean they’ve abandoned their innovative approach, far from it. The twin button accordions of main composers Damian McKee and Seán Óg Graham provide the melodies for the opening tune set, The Homestead Hero. Building to an invitingly lively concluding reel, driven expertly along by Eamon Murray‘s bodhrán, it’s an excellent introduction to Beoga’s timeless approach to instrumental sets.
The Convict, for instance, is a brace of reels that offer a race from the start, as the paired accordions and bodhrán canter across the fields together. Giving chase is Liam Bradley‘s piano, as the set rises and falls gently over uneven ground that leads to a helter-skelter downhill pursuit where Bradley introduces light jazz flavours, reminiscent of the great Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin. Those same trad/jazz influences pepper the title track, Before We Change Our Mind, as a virtuoso bodhrán sings along to twin accordions in a pair of polkas before the closing reel of the title.
In 2004 Beoga’s debut album, A Lovely Madness, established their prowess as an instrumental unit and earned them a number of award nominations. Soon after, the quartet were joined by County Limerick singer and fiddle player Niamh Dunne; whose smooth fiddle and gentle vocal style added further enticing dimensions to their music that flourished in their 2007 album, Mischief. With an increasingly international approach to their music, their third album, The Incident, even saw Beoga earn a place on the 2010 Grammy short list for Best Contemporary World Music Album.
As well as the pace and precision of Niamh Dunne’s extensive experience as a fiddler, the latest release also features her vocals on four songs, the first of which should be familiar to most listeners – The Bonny Ship, The Diamond. Driven along at a steady pace, Niamh’s vocals do wonderful justice to the much-loved song, as do the harmonies provided by her fiddle. Tommy Makem’s Farewell to Carlingford opens with Graham’s guitar (which he also wields impressively as a member of Fiddler’s Bid). As the singer’s love of the sea becomes more emphatic the depth added by Arco String Quartet and layers of vocal in the chorus contrast perfectly with the lighter phases, proving that the classics are always worth re-visiting. Like A Dime, by New York singer-songwriter Eamon O’Leary, proves it’s just as productive to move away from the tradition too. With Niamh’s vocal complimented by Graham’s softly picked guitar, gently augmented by strings (beautifully arranged by producer Michael Keeney), brushed percussion, and backing vocals courtesy of Stephen McCartney and Rachael Coulter. The song perfectly showcases Beoga’s ability to adapt their considerable instrumental prowess to successfully support a song; rather than invade it with a show-stopping bridge.
That willingness to put the song to the fore comes over strongest in Niamh’s superb unaccompanied rendition of Pecker Dunne’s Wexford Town. The shared surname is no coincidence either. Daughter of the famous County Limerick piper Mickey Dunne, both are members of the same extended travelling family, whose history, and legacy, Pecker celebrates in the song.
“O times were good and times were bad, and people cruel and kind,
But what I learned of people then, has stayed within my mind,
I’ll honour friends with all my heart, do for them all I can,
But I’ve learnt to go the road again, when they spurn the tinker man.”
Three individual compositions on the album prove just how effectively Beoga take their cue from the Irish traditions, and take those influences in a new direction.
Seán Óg Graham’s Eochaid opens as a slow air on the accordion that soon increases pace as Murray’s bodhrán is introduced. As Niamh’s fiddle takes up the melody, the sound expands with McKee’s accordion and keyboards. During the enchanting softer phases, there’s a tinkle of piano over drones and shivering strings, bringing a touch of drama on a salty breeze. In contrast, Seán’s Aurora offers a deep, ponderous piano before a light cascade of accordion leads to a delightful fiddle/accordion duet. The piano tries to inject a more sombre tone, like a dark, dour priest; but there’s too much joy in those reeds and strings, and it ultimately succumbs to the light. Gentle and uplifting.
It’s an engaging contrast that’s used just as effectively in McKee’s Jump The Broom; a light, bittersweet accordion melody where strings adopt the gentle melancholy before fiddle and piano tempt them off into a dance.
This album was, of course, destined to close on a tune set, and Seán’s Valhalla is the perfect candidate. There’s an unhurried elegance in the easy-going slip jig that opens the set, with accordion alongside lightly picked guitar. Fiddle and second accordion join the melody before glorious, light-filled fiddle harmonies provide an utterly delightful lead into the most melodic march you could hope to find. With some exceptional harmonies among the string arrangements, we gently sail toward a conclusion that’s like a long, contented sigh at the end of the most wonderful day.
I’ve been unable to work out the significance of the title to this wonderful album. Before We Change Our Minds suggests an impending change of direction. I sincerely hope Beoga aren’t about to change their minds about their approach to music. The new album will undoubtedly be popular with their existing fan base, but their maturing approach to composition and arrangement will also appeal to a wider audience, one that may be new to what Beoga offer, but are sure to be instantly enchanted by this absolute charmer of an album.
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Photo Credit: Fiona Morgan