Noel Hill, Tony Linnane & Alec Finn @ London Irish Centre, Camden, 28th October 2011.
As part of the 2011 Return to Camden Town festival, this great duo was reunited with bouzoukist Alec Finn for a packed concert. According to Hill, they last played in London in 1980: he didn't say what they did wrong that night to spark a thirty-year embargo, but whatever it was they more than made up for it this time.
Female a capella quartet Rún opened proceedings with a selection of songs from Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Brittany. Founded by Down harper Bróna McVittie, Rún is a relatively new addition to the London Irish scene. Sedate and saucy by turns, their music is complex and beautiful, four voices intertwining with occasional harp accompaniment. A selection from their new album included the Clannad classic Casadh an tSúgáin, a Caribbean tinged Welsh love song, the Scots Gaelic Bodach Sneacht set to the jig Kitty Lie Over, and several songs from Brittany in French and Breton language. Visually striking and musically attractive, Rún ended their well-received set with an appropriately rocky version of the enigmatic Donegal song Dúlaman - not quite as contemporary as Altan's radio mix, but not far off.
The trio I had really come to see, looking a little more grizzled than in 1980, took their seats to loud applause. Kicking off with a set of reels off that legendary 1970s album, fiddle and concertina produced the very best of Irish music from Clare and beyond. Toss the Feathers, Down the Back Lane, Kitty's Wedding, Dr Gilbert's, Farrell O'Gara, The Geese in the Bog, The Stony Steps, an endless stream of reels, jigs, hornpipes and more reels flowed from flashing fingers on fiddle and fretwork cake-tin. Alec Finn's mastery was more than evident in this sparse trio: with Hill and Linnane mostly in unison, the delicate flat-picking and sensitive chords of his trusty round-back bouzouki were both magical and material to the overall sound. If there was ever a question about how much accompaniment can add to the music, Finn answered it with easy eloquence.
Solos from Noel and Tony were well received, as were several slower numbers. The grand old marches Lord Mayo and The Battle of Aughrim, which the pair recorded but never released in the '70s, were followed by a version of the Percy French air Boulavogue popularised by The Dubliners, and then the Yeats song melody Down By the Sally Gardens. This last was a special request from the audience: I've never been to an instrumental concert before where the musicians asked for requests, but Noel Hill's jokes were going down so well that he was in confident mood. He played the air, and then the reel The Sally Gardens, to ensure he gave the lady in question full satisfaction.
More reels to finish of course: Finbar Dwyer's, The Ivy Leaf and Molly Bawn, with an encore of Tommy Peoples' great tune The Humours of Glentown and The Oak Tree, a popular reel just now. Fans of all ages, many too young to remember the revelation when that 1978 recording hit the streets, were on their feet as this legendary trio left the stage. The unique brilliance of Hill and Linanne was neatly summed up in a snatch of conversation I overheard as I was heading for the après-gig session: "That violin and concertina were very unusual. At times they almost seemed to cancel each other out. You couldn't tell who was playing what." Take it as a compliment, lads!
Shaskeen, veteran seven-piece céilí band with not a fiddle to be seen, rounded off the evening with a good long set of tunes and songs. Pat Costello sang Johnny Don't You Leave Me, The Fox on the Town, McAlpine's Fusiliers and more, with splendid accompaniment from his six colleagues and his six-string guitar. Pumping out a mix of straight reels and jigs with some much more adventurous arrangements, Shaskeen revelled in a return to their London roots: Farewell to Connaught, The Bank of Ireland, The Galway Rambler, The Cook in the Kitchen, a lovely solo piping air The Flowers of the Forest, and a rousing 1920s polka by the great John Kimmel. Tony Howley, virtuoso saxophonist out of Manchester by Aclare, evened up the numbers for the second half, his dazzling rendition of Tom Ward's Downfall vying with Shaskeen's trademark Knocknagow Reels, before the band wrapped things up with The Shaskeen itself and Lady Anne's. By this time it was well after half eleven. Even though the music hadn't started before eight, that's still some helping of tunes.
The 14th Return to Camden Town Festival will take place between Friday 26th October and Sunday 4th November 2012. As has been customary in recent years, the festival programme will be divided into two long weekends, with the first dedicated to music and song and the second to dance.
Festival dates are Friday 26th – Sunday 28th October (music and song) and Friday 2nd– Sunday 4th November (dance) 2012. As always, the festival will be based at the London Irish Centre, 50-52 Camden Square, London NW1 9XB, with traditional music sessions taking place in local pubs and venues.
Photo Credits: (1) Return to Camden Festival Logo (from website); (2) Alec Finn, Noel Hill & Tony Linnane, (3) Shaskeen (by Karen Ryan / Return to Camden Festival).