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CRAOBH RUA "No Matter How Cold and Wet You Are" Lochshore CDLDL1237

Craobh Rua are already veterans of the festival circuit, having swung audiences in their native Ireland and, at events such as Gwyl Werin y Cnapan, on this side of the Irish Sea as well. Their reputation precedes them. Why, then, is this disc so disappointing on first hearing?

Partly, this seems to result from their having put together an album which, in its earlier stages at any rate, sounds more like the Bothy Band than the B.B. did themselves; so much so, in fact, that although the first couple of medleys contain some unusual tunes, I felt sure that I'd heard 'em before, given the Bothy treatment. Now, don't get me wrong. I yield to no-one in my admiration for the Bothy Band, but my feeling is that God (or was it Donal Lunny?) created them to move the music along, not to provide a model to be slavishly followed forever after amen.

But slavishly followed it is, with all those changes of tempo and texture that were so exciting 20 years ago, and which sound so contrived and passe coming from Bothy imitators now. Jim Byrne plays the part of Micheal O Domhnaill, Brian Connolly that of Donal (and both play bodhrans - I hope Seamus Ennis isn't listening in his grave!) and share responsibility for the production.

The songs (all with northern associations, as one might expect from Craobh Rua) are also a typically Bothyish selection: a couple fast, a couple slow, and one in Irish - Aird Ui Chumhaing, which makes Micheal O Domhnaill's version of it with Skara Brae sound like a cross between Clannad and Pentangle. Of the others, Fare Thee Well, Enniskillen is a bit reminiscent of Bonny Woodhall except that nothing happens (which makes it more like "Sharpe"). Johnny Todd is a brave attempt to rescue a song which has become a cliche from the associations it has accrued. They largely succeed: one hardly thinks of "Z-Cars", and one is left to concentrate on the story, which at least has a moral, unlike Roving Jack the Baker, in which a proper cad (in the first person, too) gets away scot-free with his caddishness.

Now, here comes the paradox (about time too): I've had the latter song running through my head since second or third listening. It rates pretty high on the catchiness index, and the same goes for much of the rest of the contents of this disc, once you've waded through the first five tracks. Straight after Johnny Todd comes a most impressive set of hornpipes, the first of which was penned by Jim Byrne himself (and writing your own hornpipes is an almost sure-fire route to my heart), and which culminates in a dazzling display of virtuosity on The Independent, packed with tasty unison and harmony work between pipes, fiddle and banjo.

The hornpipes eschew the tendency to take everything at breakneck speed, as do the nice set of jigs which follow, of which the first is a Charlie Lennon composition (The Kings of Inishbofin) and the second was written by Michael Cassidy, the fiddler with the band.

Cassidy is also well to the fore in an interesting slow version of The Tarbolton. The idea of exploring the potential of fast dance tunes played slow is perhaps a little reminiscent of Kevin Burke (The Maids of Mitchelstown, Caislean na nOr, etc), but sure, you've got to have some influences, haven't you? The use of multi-tracked fiddles here is rather Burkian as well.

The other instrumental medleys, from here to the end, are equally absorbing and, whilst inevitably displaying some Bothyish influence, also contain much admirable originality, including more compositions by members of the band and luminaries such as Tommy Gunn. Mark Donnelly, the piper, sparkles away throughout, and a stomping set of reels put a close to what is really a very fine album. And yet (unless your idea of true happiness is Bothy copyists) you might give up before you got to the good stuff. It's a pity they couldn't have asserted their own identity more forcefully at the outset.

Christy MacHale

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