CATHAL MCCONNELL TRIO - The Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh - presented by Soundhouse, published on YouTube - 22 March 2021

Tue, 06/01/2021 - 15:45
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Cathal McConnell from Fermanagh is a living legend in Irish music, a tradition bearer from his home place and a collector of songs and music across Ulster and beyond. He was a founder of the influential group, Boys Of The Lough, in the 1960s, and still performs with them, but in his own trio he is admirably supported by fiddler and violist Kathryn Nicoll and harper Karen Marshalsay. This pre-recorded 40-minute set features Cathal on flute and vocals, and on the humble tin whistle, with brief introductions to each piece. Despite being well into middle age now, Cathal is in fine voice and well able to sound the wooden flute. There's no glitz or glamour to the staging of this concert: from Cathal's tweed cap to the muted carpet tones, everything fits the mood of authentic fireside chat and music.

The video is artfully made with good lighting and camera work, and the sound quality is excellent with minimum visual interference from microphones. There are slight effects of the necessary social distancing, duets and trios are not quite as tight as they might be in an elbowroom-only setting, but mostly this just lends the different musical lines more of their own identity, with good acoustic separation to complement the visual spread on stage. The opening two tunes, The Gates Of The Yellow Town and The Eagle's Whistle in contrasting rhythms, are indicative of the careful arrangements here: starting with a harp melody and accompaniment, the fiddle picks up the melody before the flute comes in strongly, leading the second time through the air, and driving the different versions of the second tune.

There's plenty of variety in material and treatment. Old Irish jigs learnt from the likes of Matt Molloy and Seán McGuire are passed among all three instruments. Scottish reels Bixter Rant and The Nine Pint Coggie picked up from colleagues in Boys Of The Lough are played as a fiddle and flute duet with harp backing. McConnell switches to whistle - albeit a modern high-tech incarnation - for his inventive transformation of two 1950s popular songs into a pair of hornpipes. The ancient harp air, Lord Galloway's Lamentation, lets Karen's Scottish harp shine in solo mode, adding Kathryn on viola and Cathal on flute for a rich rounded sound.

As well as the tunes, there are three songs here, ranging from the traditional Níl Sé Na Lá to the much more recent Only Our Rivers Run Free, written in the sixties by Cathal's brother Mickey McConnell. The third song is the tragic Valley Of Knockanure whose century-old tale of woe is explained in detail. Cathal's store of knowledge about the origins of these songs and tunes is prodigious, and is a major feature of his live shows. There's a theory that Mr McConnell was the inspiration for the film The Never Ending Story, and given free rein he could easily have stretched this performance to over an hour. Keeping the chat to a minimum on this occasion, the trio squeeze in a total of 14 tunes and songs, wrapping things up with a rousing version of The Humours Of Tulla, a very satisfying conclusion to a packed wee concert.

Alex Monaghan