It may be cultural guilt. I am about as Irish as Erin Brockovich, and my decidedly English ancestors were probably firing bullets into rock-lobbing members of the IRA 90 years ago in Dublin. In any case, I have a longstanding affinity for the Celtic/Rock musical hybrid that dates back to my high school years. While everybody else was listening to Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, my friends and I were buying Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span albums and dreaming of fair damsels and woodland nymphs and singing hey-nonny-nonny choruses in the high school corridors, which impressed the cheerleaders to no end. For anyone curious about such music (and really, who doesn’t want to warble hey-nonny-nonny from time to time?), I thought I would compile a highly personal and subjective guide to the genre.
It all starts with Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span. The time? The late ‘60s. Two English bands, both founded by one Ashley Hutchings, forego their fascination with all things Dylan and Beatles and decide to strike out in a new direction, exploring the traditional music of their native land and tarting it up with electric guitars and a backbeat. This is far more square than it might originally seem (although you will probably grant me that fa-la-la and hey-nonny-nonny probably wasn’t going to win over the hipsters). Imagine the American counterpart – rocking out to, say, “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain” or “On Top of Old Smokey.” Exactly. It was a wonder that the idea didn’t wither on ye olde vine.
But it didn’t, partly because these traditional folk songs have a timeless quality and appeal that transcends customs and cultures, and partly because these musicians were really, really great. Consider the best-known Fairport Convention lineup, and the amazing musical tree that sprang forth – Sandy Denny (possessor of one of the greatest, purest, most soulful voices you will ever hear, who later made a handful of achingly gorgeous solo albums with her band Fotheringay), Richard Thompson (who for almost forty years has constructed, with sometime help from then-wife Linda, a catalogue that rivals Dylan or Van for longevity and quality), Dave Swarbrick and Simon Nicol (who recorded several fine albums as a duo), and Ashley Hutchings, who went on to found The Albion Band, one of the better Celtic bands of the ‘70s, after he launched Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span.
By now you’re probably getting the idea. The Celtic Rock genre is as convoluted and inbred as any imaginable, with bands constantly breaking up, re-emerging with slightly altered lineups, switching members like trading cards, etc. For what it’s worth then, here is a roughly chronological guide to the best that this confusing genre has to offer:
Fairport Convention -- The definitive Celtic Rock band, at least in its earliest and best incarnation. Best albums are Unhalfbricking, What We Did On Our Holidays, and Liege and Lief. The band has limped on to the present day, with about thirty different lineup changes, the British version of The Beach Boys. None of the current members were in the original band.
Steeleye Span – The, umm, other definitive Celtic Rock band. Best albums are Below the Salt and Parcel of Rogues, although anything from the ‘70s is very worthwhile. Maddy Prior was a great vocalist, the equal of Sandy Denny. And although Steeleye couldn’t compete with the jaw-dropping guitar work of Richard Thompson, they made up in volume and power chords what they lacked in virtuosity. A couple of their late-seventies albums, notably All Around My Hat and Commoner’s Crown, could best be classified as Celtic boogie, a sort of Foghat-meets-Folderol approach that is surprisingly effective.
The Pentangle – Featuring more marvelous vocals from yet another thrush, this one named Jacqui McShee, and some stunning intertwined guitar work from John Renbourne and Bert Jansch. Best albums are Sweet Child and Cruel Sister. There’s a strong traditional Celtic flavor to the music, but the band was surprisingly versatile, as witnessed by their inspired cover of Charles Mingus’ “Goodbye Porkpie Hat.”
Martin Carthy – Carthy was in and out of Steeleye Span a couple times, but he’s best noted for a fine solo career, which continues today. His best solo albums are probably Byker Hill and Landfall, although you can’t go wrong with anything he’s recorded. He also has a highly distinctive guitar style that profoundly influenced everybody’s-favorite-morose-suicide-not-named-Elliot-Smith, Nick Drake.
John Martyn – Another great and largely unrecognized guitarist who mixed jazz chops and sensibilities with more traditional Celtic sounds. Best albums are the lovely Sunday’s Child and his moving tribute to Nick Drake, Solid Air.
June Tabor – The singing librarian. Shy, bookish June Tabor may be the best interpreter of traditional Celtic music who has ever lived. Her rich alto is best in evidence on ‘80s albums such as A Cut Above, Some Other Time, and Freedom and Rain, although she’s made great music throughout the past thirty years.
Silly Wizard and Andy Stewart – Arguably the greatest traditional Scots band, Silly Wizard featured two dazzling instrumentalists in brothers Phil (accordion, keyboards, whistles, guitar) and Johnny (fiddle) Cunningham. They can be heard to best effect on Wild and Beautiful and Live Wizardry. Although lead singer Stewart sometimes undermines the band with his mawkish over-emoting, he has a pure tenor and winsome burr that would melt the heart of the most critical listener, and his solo debut By the Hush is worth hunting down, if for no other reason than to hear the title track, the bitter, beautiful lament of a soldier who has escaped the potato famine in Ireland only to be conscripted into the Union army at the onset of the U.S. Civil War.
The Pogues – The best band of the ‘80s. Period. Sorry Bono, but Shane MacGowan wrote better songs. It was an idea whose time had come – the combination of raw punk energy and attitude with traditional Celtic instrumentation – and the sonic assault this band delivered was wondrous. But behind MacGowan’s perpetually slurred vocals and besotted countenance was the heart of a poet, and his songs could break your heart. Best albums? Start with Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash and If I Should Fall From Grace with God, but buy them all.
Dick Gaughan – Gaughan has had a mercurial career as a musician, actor, and early web designer, but 1981’s Handful of Earth forever sealed his reputation as a great, soulful singer and songwriter, offering definitive takes on the traditional “Erin Go Bragh,” the Robert Burns song “Now Westlin Winds,” and the decidedly populist sentiments of “World Turned Upside Down” and “The Worker’s Song.”
Boiled in Lead -- Celtic by way of Minneapolis, Minnesota, Boiled in Lead combined the thrash of city mates Husker Du and The Replacements with traditional Irish jigs and reels, while tossing in tributes to East African guitarist Thomas Mapfumo and a crazed cover of The Hollies’ “Stop Stop Stop.”. Best albums are From the Ladle to the Grave and Orb.
Van Morrison and The Chieftains – The Chieftains are normally a little too soporific and PBS-ready for me, but they perform flawlessly and energetically on Irish Heartbeat, Van’s only foray into traditional Irish music. Van’s voice, of course, is far too influenced by American gospel and soul to pull off a couple of the more schmaltz-laden numbers, but hey, he’s Van. He could sing “Danny Boy” in a faux-Irish pub in County Prefab U.S.A. and it would be great.
The 1990s and Beyond
Black 47 – The best of the political Celtic bands. Named after the most dire year of the Irish Potato Famine, Larry Kirwan’s band is loud, rowdy, and highly agitating, mixing sentimental ballads of the Auld Country with incendiary calls to arms (or at least rocks) and impassioned, elegiac tributes to heroes such as Brendan Behan and James Connelly. The rap with bagpipes is a little strange and offputting, but still they get me all riled up, and I’m ready to go out and throw stones at the English bastards myself. Then I remember my ancestry, and I get conflicted. Best albums are the eponymous debut and Fire of Freedom.
Damien Dempsey – Dublin native Damien Dempsey only has two albums thus far, but those albums, They Don’t Teach This Shit in School and Seize the Day, are revelations, equal parts Dylanesque protest music, reggae riddims, and traditional Celtic instrumentation. He’s a talent to watch.
Eliza Carthy -- The daughter of British guitarist/vocalist Martin Carthy and vocalist Norma Waterson brings blue hair, tattoos, piercings, and the corresponding attitude to Celtic music. Every album from her prolific 10-year career is worthwhile, but she started out good and she’s getting great, a highly encouraging trend. Check out 2002’s Anglicana or 2005’s Rough Music for a taste of rarely heard traditional music, world-class fiddle playing, and beautiful singing.
Kate Rusby – Kate Rusby is probably the best known of the current crop of traditional and traditionally-influenced performers. And with good reason. This Yorkshire lass has a pure folk soprano that is a wonder to hear. I’m partial to her early albums such as Hourglass and Sleepless, but her last few albums are very good as well, and, like Gillian Welch, she has developed the ability to write original tunes that cannot be distinguished from her ancient source material. Don’t miss her collaborations with Kathryn Roberts and The Poozies, either.
Susan McKeown – Sandy Denny lives. McKeown’s stately, gorgeous alto is featured on mostly straightforward adaptations of traditional English and Irish folk songs, but she occasionally throws in a curveball, as in her collaborations with the Malian ensemble Tartit and the Mariachi Real de Mexico on her latest and best album Sweet Liberty. 1998’s Bushes and Briars is great, too. But the real reason to check out this music is and will always be the Voice. Rediscover the fine art of singing.
Flogging Molly – Shane MacGowan lives, even though he’s not quite yet dead. Sure, it was probably done slightly better in the ‘80s, but Dave King has the songwriting chops and the snarl, and Flogging Molly has the hyperkinetic drive that marked the best work from The Pogues. Drunken Lullabyes and Within a Mile of Home are the best punk/Celtic hybrids that have been released in many years. And Lucinda Williams never sang a duet with Shane MacGowan.