The back story went something like this: The pub tour is shared by a handful of local Dublin musicians who rotate the work; on the night we went a fellow named Joe Brennan (also quite good – and a brilliant wit, which made for a fun evening) was leading the tour.
By pure happenstance he bumped into his buddy, Alan O’Doherty, on the street before the gig started. Alan was visiting from Galway, where he had recently moved from Dublin, and where he’s now playing with a group called Gráda. (The name of which proved to be my undoing – but more about that in a bit.) Joe invited him along, and Alan was kind enough to sign on for the night.
What a night. His playing floored me. He gave us a good dose of traditional Celtic fare, but the thing that was most astonishing (and transporting) was the way he mixed up the Irish strains with bluegrass and jazz improvisation. Glorious good stuff. When they finally wrapped up it was far too early for my liking – I wanted to follow him home like a puppy.
We caught a flight home to Chicago the next morning so there wasn’t time to hunt out his CD in the local shops – but I figured I’d have no trouble tracking it down in the States. I was so wrong. My biggest misfire was hearing the name of his group wrong – so once I came up empty handed trying to track down “Alan O’Doherty” I started my fruitless search for a group called “Garda”. No dice.
Until today. In an offhanded conversation thread re a bumper sticker on a VW bus, debaird@flickr steered me toward Road Records in Dublin, and after a few email exchanges they straightened me out. The group’s name is Gráda, and although Road Records is presently out of their discs (but think about buying something else from them ‘cause they’re good folks), you can pick up a disc or three from Gráda’s site, and you can also download The Landing Step from iTunes, where this review will give you a glimmer of what you’re in for:
Gráda play with obvious respect for the ancient roots of their music, but also without any apparent fear that they might break it through experimentation. So the first thing you hear on “Tread Softly” is the cello; the melody of the original composition “Inis Dornish” sounds more Eastern European than Irish; the vocal numbers are cover versions of modern songs written by the likes of Emily Saliers and Teddy Thompson (son of Richard).Trust me. This isn’t your daddy’s Celtic music.
In short, this is an album that will be filed in the Celtic section with the trad stuff, even though it spends as much time looking to the future as to the past. Still, there's nothing quirky about the band's sound; singer Anne Marie O'Malley delivers everything with a gentle elegance, and even when the band lapses into jazzy jam band mode it never goes on long before the flute and fiddle are suddenly playing closely arranged harmonies or lilting off into another traditional reel. Most albums of Celtic music yield their charms quickly, but this one grows on you. Highly recommended.