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VARIOUS ARTISTS "Common Ground" EMI Premier 724383769124

It's become a truism lately to say that, more than any other individual, Donal Lunny can take the credit for the burgeoning of Irish music in all its multifarious manifestations over the last couple of decades. Just because it's a truism, though, doesn't mean that it isn't true (it'd better be - I've been saying it myself for most of the said decades!), and the recent Late Late Show tribute to the man was a pleasant, if somewhat belated, recognition by the Irish media of the truth of the proposition.

This disc is, in a sense, the record of the television programme. In both cases, friends and associates of Donal come together to pay homage to him, and to give a demonstration of the sheer range and diversity of the music with which he's involved, and of contemporary Irish music in general. In the case of Common Ground, that's pretty diverse. We have songs - it's mostly songs - in both English and Irish (3 of the latter); of these songs, some are traditional, some new, and a couple are written by great names of Irish literature; and there's a couple of instrumentals, too, composed by Donal, and reflecting what a fine tunesmith he is. The record is produced by Donal, who also co-arranged every track, and plays on all but one of them.

So much for the generalities! Focusing in particular on the instrumentals, Sharon Shannon & Co do a fine moderato job on a reel called Cavan potholes, one of those Lunny tunes that would sound perfectly in place in a session, but are equally apt - as here - to take off into a jazzoid solo on sax. The sax is played by Richie Buckley, who appears (as does Shannon) on several of the other tracks, and who has the true Keith Donald feel. The overall texture, indeed, is distinctly Heartsian, as is also the case with Whistling Low and Errigal, a pair of sprightly jigs - also rather reminiscent of Timedance - fronting Davy Spillane, and featuring long-time Lunny alumni Nollaig Ni Chathasaigh (fiddle), Eoghan O Neill (bass) and Noel Eccles (percussion) who are also apt to pop up all over the place, as does drummer Ray Fean.

As regards the songs, a couple of the contemporary ones are rather outside of my province, though, given the wild diversity already hinted at, that's hardly surprising: antipodeans Tim and Neil Finn's Mary of the South Seas is a laidback nostalgic number, and Tomorrow by U2's Bono and Adam Clayton is a plaintive song of adolescent rites of passage. There's plenty of plaintiveness around the place, in fact, not least in Sinead O'Connor's rendition of Patrick Kavanagh's Raglan Road. I have to admit that the huge popularity of this song is lost on me: I find that its portrayal of the artist as an "angel", and the non-artist as a "creature made of clay" with whom it were better that the artist should never get involved, verges on the fascistic, and it baffles me why Sinead, renowned for her love of fairness and justice (and the same could be said of Dick Gaughan, who's tackled it in the past) should want anything to do with it; but it has to be said that, for those who like the song, she does a very pretty job on it.

The community of Irish descent in Britain is represented (and quite rightly too!) by Kate Bush and Elvis Costello. The latter takes on the great 18th-century low-life cant ballad "The Night Before Larry Was Stretched" (credited here to trad, though I've always believed it to be by Oliver Goldsmith), which he got from Frank Harte, yet another great singer with whom Donal has worked in the past. He handles it very competently, but I find the repetition of the first verse at the end somewhat gratuitous - if ever a song had a truly terminal end, it's Larry! And Kate Bush does a fine, concise rendition of Sean O Riada's Mna na hEireann, straying not at all far from the Sean O Se / Ceoltoiri Cualann version; O Riada himself would have been delighted, I'm sure.

The other two songs in Irish are a warm and enjoyable performance of O Bhean a'Ti by Maire Brennan, and an amazing number called Cathain? ('When?') by the polyversatile Liam O Maonlai, who, by multilayering of vocals and skillful use of bodhran and didgeridoo, creates a frantic, 'tribal' effect, reminiscent of An Bothan a bha'ig Fionnghuala, or something like a Hopi ritual chant.

In a reminiscence of early Planxty, Brian Kennedy does a creditable tenor job on As I Roved Out; but some of the best moments on the whole disk come from former Planxty members themselves. Paul Brady does a typical composition of his own, a rather bleak song of almost-lost love called Help Me to Believe. Christy Moore should endear himself to the Scots listening public with a splendid rendition of the late Davie Stewart's evocative ballad Bogie's Bonnie Belle (worth getting this record for on its own!). But the keynote song, and the song which closed the TV show, is Andy Irvine's magnificent composition My Heart's Tonight in Ireland. Irvine has improved greatly with the years, and while this song still deals in his specialist topic - nostalgia - it's a much more upbeat, positive approach than the one he used to cultivate. Here the nostalgia is, as it was on the first Planxty LP, for West Clare and the incomparable music of Willie Clancy. It's possible to argue that Donal's importance lies at least as much in having brought Willie, and all that he represented, to a wider listenership, as it does in his own astonishing innovations; and it may also be that without Willie, there might have been no Planxty, and life as we have come to know it would have been radically different.

An important song, therefore, summing up the importance of this collection: a much-deserved tribute to the many talents and invaluable efforts of one of the true geniuses of our time, and a lovely man into the same bargain. Grateful thanks for everything, Donal; by God, if anyone deserves it, you do!

Christy MacHale

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This album was reviewed in Issue 17 of The Living Tradition magazine.