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SEÁN GARVEY - The Bonny Bunch Of Roses

SEÁN GARVEY - The Bonny Bunch Of Roses
Harry Stottle Records HS. 002

Kerry-born Seán moved to Dublin in the 1970s, and became a member of the Pavees group with the Keenan family; he won the All-Ireland Fleadh Cheoil sean-nós competition in 1982.  More recently he’s taken up assignments as Singer In Residence and ethnomusicologist for the Uíbh Ráthach Gaeltacht of South Kerry, and last year he won the TG4 Traditional Singer Of The Year award.

The Bonny Bunch Of Roses, which I discover is Seán’s second CD, has been out since 2003, but for some reason has only just come my way for review.  It sure is worth the wait however, for it’s one of the best CDs I’ve heard from an Irishman for some time (and there’ve been some good ones of late).  It’s one of those albums that, in covering many bases, is thus likely to catch the casual listener unawares.  Taken as a whole, the album has an impressive palindrome-like symmetry, whereby the “bookending” tracks (1 and 12) are neat little guitar instrumentals (one self-composed and one by O’Carolan), the next-in (2 and 11) are persuasive covers of decidedly non-trad-Irish songs, tracks 3 and 10 are “big ballads”, tracks 4 and 9 are instrumental tune-sets (lively, raggedy-but-fun session-style interludes where Seán sits in on flute)…  you get the drift.

This is one of those records in which you can luxuriate without a trace of guilt.  Firstly, Seán is blessed with an extraordinary singing voice: rich and deep, deceptively mighty, with a degree of resonance that I can only describe as gritty, and an ideal sense of natural ornamentation.  His is an enthralling and intense voice, with all the declamatory certainty of the truest sean-nós, whereby its expressive qualities are held within the melody rather than overlaid as distracting decoration or mannerism.  This applies whether Seán’s singing in English or Irish (and translations are provided!): his renditions of Éamon Mhágáine, The Weary Gallows, Sliabh Na mBan and The Bonny Bunch Of Roses are not only exemplary but also absolutely superb.  The first-named is sung unaccompanied, allowing the gorgeous nuances of Seán’s voice to be heard in all their tonal glory and his intuitive sense of flow to be fully appreciated.  In the case of The Bonny Bunch Of Roses, Seán modestly admits in his liner note to have carried out extensive research on the song’s evolution (yet that liner-note tells us more than that of virtually any other recording! – typically, Seán’s notes for all the songs are copiously-researched and highly literate); it’s the only non-studio recording on the album, and such is the frisson it generates that it’s no wonder it gave its title to the whole disc.   Where Seán accompanies himself on guitar, that accompaniment is genuinely unobtrusive yet possessed of a power and character all its own.  Unexpectedly perhaps, Seán’s version of Cyril Tawney’s Ballad Of Sammy’s Bar turns out to be one of the finest on record, acutely lonesome and with a brilliantly evocative harmonica backing from Mick Kinsella. Seán’s setting of Henry Lawson’s bush ballad Andy’s Gone With Cattle is similarly masterly and atmospheric, while his treatment of When My Blue Moon Turns To Gold Again is affecting and refreshingly unsentimentalised.  Other musicians appearing on the disc are Eoghan and Seán Óg Garvey, Liam Lewis and Josephine Marsh, but Seán’s forceful yet curiously unassuming personality dominates in the nicest possible way.  This disc is a real treasure.

David Kidman

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This album was reviewed in Issue 73 of The Living Tradition magazine.