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RON KAVANA - Irish Ways

RON KAVANA - Irish Ways
Proper Records PRDP 4001

Every once in a while, a reviewer is given an album that, even before inserting it into the CD player, he instinctively feels has the potential to lodge itself in his heart, mind and very tissue of his being.  This is one such.  But what made it so?

Well, I guess three things.  First, the sheer artistic scale of the task attempted in this 4-CD set.  Let me refer you to the front cover:

Under the title “Irish Ways”, we have the words “The story of Ireland in song, music and poetry”.  Now, dear Reader, just ponder on those words.  For Ron Kavana means exactly what he says. This is an attempt to tell the story of Ireland from pre-historic times up to the present day.  And not miss out salient events or distort the facts to fit his story.

That is a considerable task in itself.  For the fact is that Ireland often seems to me like some grand courtesan, clad in sometimes slightly faded finery, but with a heck of a story to tell.

Then second, there is Kavana himself. There was a time when he was really hot property.  Every man and his dog was singing his mesmerising song “Reconciliation”, and he – along with his Alias band - were the flavour-of-the-month alright.  One just sensed that this was a man of considerable gravitas, and a man capable of producing a landmark album.  

And then he virtually disappeared off my radar.  (I now discover that he has been studying full-time and graduated with first class honours in Irish Studies.   That fact explains the “radar”, but also explains the degree of erudition necessary should one undertake such a gargantuan task as this, and really want to make a fist of it.) 

And then there was the third aspect that made me feel this album was special: and that third thing is perhaps in many ways, the one that takes precedence over all other initial responses.   I refer to the actual marketing PRESENTATION of the product - what it looks like when you unpack it from the outer wrapping.

Now, this is something that has long interested me.  For sure, intellectually one knows that the best wines often come from the least attractive soil, but that said, somehow that rule seldom applies with CDs.  Package your CD hastily with spelling errors and no liner notes, and the chances are that you don’t take your own work seriously: and so I figure, why should we, the listener?    Conversely, present the merchandise like it’s the crown jewels, and you immediately get the potential buyer’s attention, even if the jewels turn out to be rhinestones.

Not that there are any imitation gems here.  And not just the content: the packaging imitates nothing I have seen in my many years as a reviewer.   I salute Kavana and Proper Records Ltd. on producing the most handsomely presented 4-record set I have ever encountered.  If the BBC Folk Awards would have a (long overdue) category for “Product Presentation”, then this album set would win in a canter.  It is aesthetically just about as close to divine as you’ll see this side of Paradise.

It comes looking for all-the-world like a handsome book, but as you open it up, you see the five hours’ worth of CDs inside the front and back covers.  And in between you have 122 pages (the 46,000 words are essentially the text of all Kavana’s spoken links between poems and songs, and also the poem and song lyrics themselves).   They are printed on very high quality paper and in an easy-on-the-eye type font.   And they have the bonus of fine illustrations and maps.  Not to forget also an extensive chronology from 9000BC to the present day (not the “900BC” it says on the dust jacket: this typo was the only obvious mistake I spotted in a detailed study of the text).

The chronology is inevitably a bit parti-pris.  We have mentions of Bloody Sunday in 1972, and the 1974 Loyalist ‘reprisal’ bombs killing over 30 in the Republic: but no mention of the 1979 murder of Lord Mountbatten and Warrenpoint massacre or the 1993 Shankill bombings.  But hey, I can come to terms with that.  I don’t mind if his politics ain’t mine.  And anyway, a historian who assiduously sits on the fence just becomes The Creosote Kid who sends us all to sleep.

The production must have cost enough almost to break the Bank of Ireland!   Although I noted that it was “made in the Czech Republic”, so maybe that sugared the pill a little.   Certainly though, it is still a massively expensive gamble.

But is it a gamble that will succeed?  Unquestionably, yes.  The £22.69 retail price might seem steep, but when you have the gorgeously packaged product in your hands, and appreciate the audio content, you will see it is probably not.    For Ron Kavana, this major work, six years in the making, is clearly his artistic high water mark.   It contains all new recordings of traditional and original material.  Ron has got a plethora of guests along for the ride, several of them being famous names like Shane McGowan, Brian McNeill, Terry Woods and Niamh Parsons.  Alas however, there is an absence of credits for individual tracks, and thus we are left to guess “who-plays-what-when”.   But I guess that this adds a sort of “parlour game” to the whole “listening experience”!

There are too many moments that delighted me to list here.   I will leave you with just the one.  How I just love his song “St Patrick” on Disc 1.  And its amusing chorus: “St Patrick, though you were a Taff, to us you’re still a Paddy
When we celebrate your name now from New York to Glenamaddy”

As a Taff myself, it’s nice to hear a proud Irishman like Ron, have the good grace to admit that his Patron Saint was from Wales.   Thus it is that us Welsh have TWO patron saints to celebrate in the same month of March!

And talking of “celebration”: basically this album is just that.   A celebration of the fact that throughout its often troubled history, the big heart of Ireland kept beating, and earned its day in the sun: a day that looks like it might just now be coming.

An important release.  

Dai Woosnam.

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This album was reviewed in Issue 74 of The Living Tradition magazine.