John Doyle, John McCusker and Michael McGoldrick – The Wishing Tree
Under One Sky – 9 February 2018
The Wishing Tree is, believe it or not, the first studio recording by the redoubtable trio of John Doyle (guitar), John McCusker (fiddle/whistle) and Mike McGoldrick (flute/whistle/uilleann pipes). They do seem to have been around forever and continue to play together in different combinations on each other’s and on other people’s albums – Doyle and McGoldrick featured on last year’s excellent Usher’s Island release and McGoldrick is about to release his fifth solo album. So The Wishing Tree was certainly long awaited – their previous live album was recorded in 2009 and released in 2012 – but it was definitely worth the wait. Not every track immediately reveals its’ depths, but that subtlety is at the core what makes this such a great album.
The trio started out following their first Transatlantic Sessions together in 2007 – a project all three continue to be involved in. When you are as busy as these three ‘top of their game’ musicians, you find time when and where you can. Mike McGoldrick said that just a few days before they recorded the album he and John Doyle went out to eat to have a discussion about what tunes and songs they might record. No slick advanced planning here then, and none needed. Anyone who has seen them play live will know only too well how comfortable they are in each other’s musical company and how well they pick up and follow each other’s musical cues.
A feature of their work collectively and individually is a well-founded confidence in writing their own tunes and songs and The Wishing Tree kicks off with a typically self-assured driving set of reels, two from McCusker and one from McGoldrick. The first and titular track was aired on McCusker’s Scots Trad Music Award nominated 2016 Hello, Goodbye album. It starts with John Doyle’s familiar rhythmic guitar and then reassuringly, matched stride for stride, the fiddle and flute come in. The next two tunes in the set are no less breezy. Dearne Valley Reel by McGoldrick, the last of these, is named after the location of the studio near Doncaster where the album was recorded. A music workshop was set up in 1985 just after the miner’s strike to alleviate the problems of unemployment in the area. They now enjoy an affordable, state of the art studio which is well used by local bands and community organisations.
From here on the album alternates songs from John Doyle with more tune sets. The first song is the lovely Bonny Light Horseman, sometimes called Broken Hearted I Wander, which is a lament from the time of the Napoleonic Wars and was popular through much of the rest of the nineteenth century. John’s version is based on that sung by The Voice Squad on RTE’s Come Along The Road in 1982 which he describes as ‘mesmerising’. John’s vocal is for me among the finest he has recorded. He gets the feel and pace of the three-man unaccompanied, Voice Squad version, but makes it absolutely his own, assisted in particular by a gorgeous flute break from Mike.
A couple of tune sets start out with a slower number and move on to more reels. Bó Mhín Na Toitean introduces one set, a tune recorded previously by Altan, and originally from master Donegal fiddler John Doherty. The version here feels both less hurried and less strident than Altan’s but has an uplifting, rolling confidence. Last in this set is Willie Bucach Macleod of Stornaway written by James Mackenzie, the piper with Breabach and it fits the trio’s ensemble style so well it sounds like it could have been composed just for them.
Another set starts with Keane O’Hara, a tune by Turloch Carolan, the blind harpist and composer who lived in the 17th and early 18th century, which flute player Louise Mulcahy does a superb version of on her Tuning the Road album. This is a waltz taken, again, in a relaxed and enveloping manner by the trio that makes you wish it lasted longer. A strong set of reels follows – starting with Rip The Calico, a ceili band favourite recorded by The Bothy Band. Then comes My Maryanne, which Doyle recorded with Solas, and finally Tribute To Larry Reynolds which McGoldrick previously recorded with Capercaillie and is also on McCusker’s Hello, Goodbye.
The shanty Billy O’Shea, written Iain MacCarthaigh, is already a well-established fixture of both the trio and John Doyle’s live shows. I guarantee you’ll find yourself joining in with the ‘Fall Down me Billy’ chorus without realising it; my twenty-year-old son can frequently be heard singing it quite spontaneously since he first heard it live a year or so ago. Billy’s falling down was no light matter, as he plummets to his death from a ship’s topmast which he has been forced to climb by the ship’s Captain despite his absence of nautical skills. This takes place when Billy and his friend have been shanghaied into joining the crew after getting drunk in Dublin. On John Doyle’s part, this is the exemplification of hunting down a ‘lost’ but needs to be heard, song, and then singing it in a characteristically compelling fashion.
The tunes that immediately follow Billy O’Shea are anything but new, but like much else on this album fit the occasion extremely well. The Wind That Shakes The Barley is here barely a snatch of one my all-time favourite tunes – a common session tune and the version by melodeon player Tony Hall on his 1977 Fieldvole Music album, with Nic Jones on fiddle and Johnny Moynihan on mandolin is just sublime. Trip to Hervé’s is a tune Mike wrote after gigging in Brittany with a fiddle player called Hervé Besto. He has recorded it previously on his first solo album, with Flook, and with Sharon Shannon, Jim Murray and Dezi Donnelly, but it still sounds as fresh and lively as ever in this new setting.
Planxty Dermott Grogan starts with the hum of a harmonium, soon followed by a beautifully understated, warm and flowing electric guitar refrain from John Doyle, which provides the thread through the rest of the piece. This exquisite tune was composed by harp and concertina player Holly Geraghty – in her words a ‘slow piece’ —and is dedicated to the late flute and accordion player Dermot Grogan from Derrytavrane, Mayo. Joining the guitar are two low whistles from McCusker and McGoldrick that follow and weave around each other– a constant feature of the trio’s live show – the three of them taking a top notch tune and adding to it with a respectful but innovative arrangement.
The sole original John Doyle song on the album is the excellent Burke & Hare. The infamous murders were committed in Edinburgh in 1828 by William Burke and William Hare, mostly of lodgers in the latter’s house. Burke and Hare sold the corpses to a Doctor Robert Knox for dissection at his anatomy lectures. A sense of menace pervades the performance, brought about by the combination of John’s stark lyrics and an almost medieval sounding accompaniment on a pair of whistles. For the chorus, John cleverly uses a nursery rhyme about the murders that was sung in Edinburgh, apparently until comparatively recently – nursery rhymes of course almost always have a sinister underside once you appreciate the story behind them.
A slip jig from the James Goodman Manuscripts, Buidhe Árda Dearga, finishes off one tune set – called, as you might guess, Goodman’s. Goodman collected tunes in the 19th century but his collection was not widely accessible until more recently and Mick O’Brien, Emer Mayock and Aoife Ní Bhriain included this tune on their essential album of tunes from the manuscripts. The version here is more rhythmic and fits particularly well with the two preceding originals.
The Wicked Belfast Man (Here’s To Old Ireland) is a song that John Doyle has previously performed in The Teetotallers with Martin Hayes and Kevin Crawford. Like so many of the songs John sings it is concerned with dislocation from home and being transported by sea to another place. Often called Adieu to Old Ireland (Irish Mail Robber), John got the song from Dan Milner, Bonnie Milner and Deirdre Murtha’s version, which is itself based on the singing of Sadie Syphers Harvey of Maine and taken from the Helen Hartness Flanders Ballad Collection of more than 4,800 field recordings of Irish songs from New England. There are versions of the same song from three other singers in the collection. John Doyle’s very fine interpretation here gives exposure to a wider audience of a song popular among early 20th century Irish immigrants to the U.S.
The Wishing Tree’s final track is another song/tune combination, both waltzes, so in keeping with the pace of much of the rest of the album. The song, Banks of the Bann, again opens with the harmonium and has a fittingly understated flute break. The song tells a tale of seduction and abandonment and a hope for a reunion on the banks of the river Bann, usually with a final ‘happy ever after’ verse that Doyle omits from his fine version ‘to keep the feeling of longing in the song’. The final tune is We’re A Case The Bunch Of Us, composed by a man of many good tunes, Scottish piper Allan MacDonald. Taken appropriately slowly, with fiddle, flute and guitar once more melding together in a way that makes you hope the tune stretched for longer, this playful tune is a fitting finale.
What you get with Doyle, McCusker and McGoldrick’s The Wishing Tree is in one sense something very familiar, or at least as familiar as it can be for a debut studio recording coming after ten years of collaboration. They deliver an album of the very highest quality; unfussy, acoustic music (aside from a sprinkling of gentle electric guitar), that is strongly anchored in Irish and Scottish traditions. You get a mix of tunes: traditional, those composed by others and a slew of convincing originals, most of which, Mike reported, were written spontaneously when they weren’t quite sure what fitted next. You get some upbeat driving reels and the expected intuitive ensemble playing, but also a sense of maturity and overall taking things at a more measured pace which brings even greater subtly than we’ve enjoyed from them before in performance. The Wishing Tree is exceptional and has to be a front-runner for album of the year.
The Wishing Tree is released on 9th February on Under One Sky Records
The Wishing Tree Tour 2018
31st January, Glasgow, Celtic Connections
12th February, Nettlebed, Village Club
14th February, Sheffield, The Greystones
15th February, Bury, The Met
16th February, Peebles, Eastgate Arts
17th February, Rotterdam, Celtic and Balfolk
18th February, Paisley, Paisley Arts Centre
19th February, Perth, Perth Theatre
20th February, Inverness, Eden Court
22nd February, Banchory, Glasel Hall
23rd February, Strathdon, Glenbuchat Hall
24th February, New Galloway, CatStrand
26th February, Emsworth, Baptist Church
27th February, Cambridge, The Junction
28th February, Shrewsbury, The Lion Hotel Ballroom
1st March, Evesham, The Fleece Inn
2nd March, Canterbury, Gulbenkian Theatre
3rd March, London, Irish Cultural Centre
4th March, Otley, Otley Courthouse
6th March, Shoreham-By-Sea, Ropetackle Arts
9th March, Périgny, France – Irish Weekend