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SEAN GARVEY "On dTalamh Amach - Out of the Ground"
Harry Stottle Records HS 010

Sean Garvey here presents us with one of the most impressive debut albums that I've heard in many a long year. Unmistakably a Kerryman, lots of time spent in front of folk club audiences during his exile in Dublin has led to his employing guitar accompaniment a la Gaughan - an accompaniment which, as well as being excellently well played, is always at the service of the song rather than vice versa, and in no way restricts his temporal fluidity. Possibly also a Dublin influence is a certain declamatory clarity in his singing (a low baritone) which recalls Luke Kelly.

Whatever about the influences, this is an album of excellent singing, comparable to that of his compatriot Tim Dennehy in its expressiveness and feeling. To take an outstanding example of the latter, there's his rendition of "The Boys of Barr na Sraide". It takes some courage to do such a frequently-recorded song, but the feeling just shines out in Sean's version - when he sings about 'the boys who dared the Auxies and who fought the Black and Tans', you can just hear the pride in his voice, and his identification with the boys in question. And, anyway, surely a Cahirsiveen man should always have first claim on the song.

Most of the other songs on the record are less well-known, with a couple of exceptions such as "The Bogs of Shanaheever", though it's good to hear this gem from the Joe Heaney repertoire get a fresh outing. And then there's the matter of "Bagenal Harvey's Farewell". In this bicentenary year there has been a rash of albums devoted in whole or in part to the events of 1798, but, though Sean includes two 1798 songs on this record, there is no way that he can be accused of cashing in, for both are valuable contributions to the body of material on that historic year. "The Freedom Tree" I had never heard, or heard of, before; but it captures so well the ideology of the rebellion that it is sure to become a standard from now on. On the other hand, "Bagenal Harvey's Farewell" is a well-known song (indeed, Frank Harte features it on his excellent '1798' album), but Garvey's breakthrough is to put it to the air of "Derwentwater's Farewell", which fits it as well as if the words had been written with it in mind - which is precisely his contention, and one which I find entirely convincing.

There are plenty more gems on this album, including two songs in Irish, the well-known "Bruach na Carraige Baine", and "Se Oakum mo Phriosun", learnt from the great Sean 'ac Dhonnchadha. Then there's a delightful satirical number, "Haute Cuisine in Cathair Saidhbhin", written by Brian O'Higgins of 'A Stor mo Chroi' fame, and chronicling the incompatibility, for a while early this century, of the Irish revival and domestic science classes in certain parts of Kerry (!), and "Oh Don't You Know the Reason", a fine song of courtship, replete with everybody's favorite classical allusions. But perhaps the very best performance on this excellent and diverse record is of a big two-part Ulster ballad, "Laurel Hill". It's a veritable epic, dating from Napoleonic times, and most touching in its depiction ("Plains of Waterloo"-like) of the disguised lover returning from the wars being reunited with his faithful Nancy. Sean says that he has omitted some verses - I wish he hadn't, even though the song as it stands lasts nearly nine minutes, for it grips the listener from start to finish.

In all this, the three instrumental numbers shouldn't be overlooked, as our man is also a virtuoso performer on whistle (on which he sounds just like Micho Russell), banjo and mouth-organ. He concludes the record in great Kerry style with a pair of polkas on the latter, a tour de force with a precision and swing fit to rival those of a master concertina-player. All in all, this album is a dazzling anthology, and constitutes a landmark among releases of recordings of traditional music and song in 1998.

Christy MacHale

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This album was reviewed in Issue 29 of The Living Tradition magazine.