Michael McGoldrick – ARC
Vertical Records – 6 April 2018
The release of a new Michael McGoldrick album is likely to make a lot of people sit up and pay attention. With ARC, his fifth solo album, they’ll be glad they did. Michael explained in our recent interview with him why it has been eight years since the last album – Aurora. The interval hasn’t affected the inventiveness and quality playing we’ve come to expect which are to be found in spades on ARC. It has though a more significant cohesion and warmth and altogether is an album that, once heard, you will just keep coming back to.
Michael, as many will know, is a renowned and much sought-after traditional Irish flute, whistle and uilleann pipes player from Manchester. He plays in a trio with John Doyle and John McCusker – they have just released The Wishing Tree album, and he also plays with Usher’s Island, The Transatlantic Sessions, Mark Knopfler, Capercaillie, and formerly with both Flook and Lunasa.
Five and Drive, the opening track, starts innocuously enough with just piano, drums and quiet bass but is quickly into a bright, rolling low whistle tune with a matching warm, funky and more obvious bass line from Ewen Vernal who sets the tone for superbly imaginative bass playing throughout the album. It is jazzy and loose, with punchy brass and guitar, and the tune immediately gets in your head – in a sense carrying on where Aurora left off but already with a more organic feel.
There’s no let up with The Wassalou River/Tambin Jig, which Michael describes as being ‘inspired by performing with many great World music singers’. The West African influence is evident in the tune titles – the tambin is a flute that is considered the national instrument of the West African Fula people. Wassalou River brings to mind Fela Kuti with jangly guitar, marimba and more funky bass. Tambin Jig, despite the reference in the title, sounds to me to be much more in a South African township jazz mode.
Miss Catherine McGoldrick’s Jigs, a set of jigs written by Michael for his three nieces, employs the full complement of flute, whistle and pipes, aided by John Joe Kelly’s ever-versatile bodhran playing. This great set of tunes in part continues the African feel and is destined to join the list of McGoldrick session favourites. The other family link is to be found in the album’s title – ARC is based on the first letter of each of Michael’s children’s names.
Bakanoba is the delightful bonus prize on ARC, taking us back to West Africa, with a beautiful song written and sung by top Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara. Recorded live at Celtic Connections in 2012, the track exemplifies the kind of collaborations that the Festival has become renowned for and that Michael relishes.
Cape Breton and a nineteenth-century Irish neighbourhood in Manchester are the inspiration for two other tracks – Trip to Nova Scotia and Angel Meadow. Both have a strong film soundtrack feel to them, and both work very well with deft piano and string arrangements from Donald Shaw. The Trip to Nova Scotia set, composed after a gig at the Celtic Colours Festival in Cape Breton, starts slowly with the evocative title tune on whistle and picks up the pace when flute is added for the rest of the set, which for me is reminiscent of the fiddle playing of Cape Breton’s Jerry Holland. Angel Meadow, played on low whistle, is a lovely lament written for the thousands of destitute Irish families who escaped the 1845-51 Great Famine and found themselves living in damp cellars with only straw for bedding.
Friendship provides the drive for two of Michael’s compositions on ARC. The lovely whistle tune Simon & Candy’s 50th wedding Anniversary was written for two American friends while Black Swan on the Turlough was written for his fiddle playing ‘great pal’ Dezi Donnelly. The latter is another tune that’s sure to be picked up by others and played in sessions. Played with the well-matched traditional tune The High Jig, the set is a master class in subtle, flowing playing on the flute, acoustic guitar, piano, bodhran and sparring interplay on concertina.
At the more simple, acoustic and traditional end of things, are two tracks where Michael, on flute, is accompanied by Ed Boyd (Flook and Lunasa) on guitar and Manchester’s Emma Sweeney on fiddle. The first tune in the John Kelly’s Concertina set was learnt from Paddy Glackin – Michael’s bandmate in Usher’s Island. Bill Malley’s Barndance, the final track, is quite outstanding and was picked up from Martin Hayes. The restrained playing begins with just flute and guitar, and then Emma joining, matching Michael’s playing stride for stride, together with an almost imperceptible harmonium undercurrent that, with plucked fiddle, sees the tune out.
The majority of tunes were written by Michael who maintains his knack for writing memorable, resonant tunes as well as ensuring there is space left for the other musicians to improvise. His trademark expressive, rhythmic delivery of the melodies on ARC are also more fluid than ever. There is continuity from previous albums – in particular in the cohesion that comes from collaborating with many of the same outstanding, versatile musicians. Three of them – Donald Shaw, Ed Boyd and Manus Lunny (bouzouki), have played on all five of Michael’s releases. Audibly, the album is a whole team effort.
ARC is a rich, varied and essential release for anyone who likes traditional music with plenty of thoroughly contemporary reference points and bright tunes that reveal more layers with repeated listening. The overall sense is a little less edgy, maybe less urban than Michael McGoldrick’s last few albums. ARC is more straightforward with a freer, more unified and overall mellower feel that makes for a superlative work that sounds quite unlike anything else you’ll hear any time soon.
ARC is released April 6th on Vertical Records https://www.verticalrecords.co.uk/product/arc/
The Michael McGoldrick Band will present a live performance of ARC as part of the Big Whistle Festival at the Bury Met on Saturday 12th May
Photo courtesy of Mike McGoldrick. Photo Credit: Gaelle