If you’ve been following the Irish trad music scene closely, you've likely heard about the infamous De Dannan split. One of the premier Irish trad ensembles, De Dannan is heir to over 35 years of performances, records, high-profile tours and amazing musicianship. They’ve gone through countless singers, many of whom went on to become quite famous, but the core of the band was always the amazingly explosive fiddling of Frankie Gavin (often referred to as the “God” of Irish fiddle) and the pulsing counter-harmonies of Alec Finn’s bouzouki playing.
So it’s a sad fact that Frankie and Alec, whose duet music is one of my most favorite examples of Irish trad music, had a falling out over the name of De Dannan and who should be allowed to use this name. For all the gory details, you can go to the Session.Org, which features surprisingly salacious discussions on a wide range of topics, but the gist of it is that there are now two De Dannans! So lucky us! One is called “Frankie Gavin & De Dannan” and features an entirely new cast of characters led by Frankie’s fiddling. Frankie promises a De Dannan for a new century, but I haven’t been able to get ahold of the album (most Irish musicians these days don’t even bother selling their CDs in the States, and Frankie refused our request for an interview) so I can’t vouch for this rather brash claim. From what I’ve heard online, the sound is much like De Dannan’s later work, very polished and drawing from pop sources almost as much as Irish trad. Have a listen for yourself.
But I’m here to review the other De Danann (note the slightly different spelling of the name), which is much closer to my heart as an old-school Irish trad fan. Simply titled “De Danann”, this band consists of two original members: the inimitable Alec Finn and bodhran player Johnny ‘Ringo’ McDonagh. To this percussive core, they’ve added a host of impressive virtuosos, most of whom I hadn’t heard of before (but I haven’t followed the Irish scene closely for years). Accordionist Derek Hickey is a great find, though he played in De Danann for about ten years before the band’s split in 2003, with a fluid style and an ability to match the other musicians note for note. In a nice article in Irish Music Magazine, Derek cites Frankie Gavin’s fiddling as a main inspiration for his box playing, and you can hear this influence in the powerful ornaments and jagged rhythms of Derek’s playing. Well-known Irish tenor banjo player Brian McGrath has also joined the band, and for old-school De Dannan fans who still remember the glory days of the truly great Charlie Piggott on banjo, this is a wonderful nod to the past. But Fiddler Mick Conneely is the great surprise here, with a ferocious fiddling style that sounds like a back-room brawl. He races through the tunes with hard-as-nails ornaments and plays at dizzying speed. His fiddling is just hardcore enough to keep De Dannan from sounding too polished, and in fact I’m very pleased to say that the band sounds like they've returned to their roots in the hell-for-leather pub sessions of Western Ireland.
I’m a huge fan of De Dannan’s 1989 album The Mist Covered Mountain and I can happily say that De Dannan’s new album, WonderWaltz nearly matches the pure passion and intensity of that now-classic album. At times the band sounds almost exactly the same, which is a pretty amazing testament to how tight this new band is, but also a testament to how much Alec Finn’s beautiful bouzouki playing defined De Dannan. Finn also defined the Irish bouzouki, developing a powerful technique that blended improvised counter-point harmony with rapid-fire tune picking. Together with Frankie Gavin, he created the sound of modern Irish trad music, as can be heard on their superlative album together, Masters Of Irish Music: Frankie Gavin & Alec Finn. In an infamous radio interview, Irish accordionist Tony MacMahon called Finn a “second-rate accompanist” and made the incredibly hypocritical claim that the bouzouki is not a native instrument to the tradition (and the accordion is??)! For my money, MacMahon’s completely off his rocker. The core of De Dannan has always been Alec Finn and always will be.
What sets the new De Danann apart and creates a new sound for the band is the singer, Eleanor Shanley. Her soaring, crystal-clear voice lends a lot of polish to what is actually a pretty rough-and-tumble band. I’m not totally behind this personally, but I have a pretty OCD vision of Irish trad and prefer the De Dannan that featured old hillbilly sean-nos singers rather than every other iteration of the band that featured quite polished and amazing female song starlets. So pay no attention to me, Eleanor Shanley is a huge talent and proves this on WonderWaltz. Rather than sticking with the rather standard idea that Irish trad singers should cover obscure traditional songs from old sources, Shanley gleefully taps into some of the great modern Celtic songwriters, offering "Hard Station" from Paul Brady, "How Will I Ever Be Simple Again" by Richard Thompson, and "My Beloved and I" from song collector Delia Murphy. In a rather surprising move, she also includes songs from American country stars Emmylou Harris ("My Baby Needs a Shepherd") and Ry Cooder ("Across the Borderline"). This makes sense, as country music is huge in Ireland, arguably more popular than the indigenous traditional music. In this way, De Danann's WonderWaltz presents a true vision of Irish music today as it barrels out of pub sessions, and taps into its equal love of American country and modern Celtic sounds. The band never loses sight of the traditions, but are clearly having so much fun that they couldn't be bothered to follow any stuffy rules and would rather just play the hell out of the music. You gotta respect artists like that. So here's to a brand-new century for Irish super-group De Dannan! Or as they say, the kings are dead, long live the kings!
De Danann: Patsy Touhey's/Fred Finn's
De Danann: Ireland
De Danann. WonderWaltz.
PS: I have to say that WonderWaltz is one of the best packaged CDs we've seen in a while. Great design, very colorful and makes you feel classy just to own a copy.
PPS: Special thanks to De Danann for permission to stream this music from their new album. And if you're looking to book them in the States, talk to Pat Garrett at Real Good Music. He's a great guy and De Danann deserve some great shows in the US.
Frankie Gavin & Alec Finn, back in the day. Amazing music!
The great 1989 album from the original De Danann.