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By Deirdre Cronin, Irish Music Magazine
Wonderfully diverse songs from the esteemed San Francisco-based Shay and Michael Black in a CD where the highly-acclaimed producer, musician and composer John Doyle trusts and draws upon the uncluttered flow of emotional meaning in their singing.
By Tom Clancy
The Black Brothers, Shay and Michael, have made their homes in the San Francisco Bay Area for many's the year now, where they are the backbone of the local live Irish music scene. They normally play a series of shows around Northern California early in the Spring. This year's gigs were cut short by the arrival of Covid-19 but fortunately, the brothers had completed a brilliant new album, Glackanacker, before the pandemic, placed everyone under house arrest.
Their new album opens up a whole new sonic landscape. Their voices, bright and pure, are paramount: there are two tracks where the voices alone are the instruments. But the CD is suffused with a richly textured sound palette launched by John Doyle's bouzouki underlay and Mike McGoldrick's pipes and whistle on the first track, Home by Barna. Doyle produced the album and his care for every musical detail is omnipresent. As a fine singer and songwriter himself, he knows how to present songs with the best possible setting and arrangement.
Shay and Michael are the emigrant branch of the illustrious, multi-generational musical Black clan. Many of the extended family sings on this album and a number of other Irish exiles also contribute. They are known for their store of Dublin songs but they also specialize in restoring obscure songs and rescuing others from years of abuse in pub sessions. Sometimes a song (and the singer) needs room to breathe and all of the tracks here get that precious space.
Exhibit A in the latter category is Shay's glorious reimagining of that old chestnut, Muirsheen Durkin. He drops it into a minor key, slows it down so that the song's strong parts can be admired, before reassembling it into a thing of beauty. The arrangement features lovely playing from Eamonn Flynn on piano. McGoldrick on low whistles and Felim Egan on accordion take it off into Lunasa land. It's very akin to what Martin Hayes has done with old dance tunes like The Wind Swept Hill of Tulla. The singalong version of the song will fade from memory if you go along with the reinvention.
Black Coddle is a striking new song from the band's piano player, Flynn, another displaced Dubliner who features on almost every track. Michael's strong tenor voice is showcased with Roisin O and Aoife Scott on backing vocals. John McCusker plays poignantly on fiddle and whistles and Duncan Wickel adds a lovely cello line. This song covers a lot of Dublin territory, past and present. It's a fine example of a contemporary song with a shot at becoming an immediate classic, like Aoife Scott's Down by the Shellybanks or Mick Fitzgerald's Black Dodder Flowing.
The Man from the Daily Mail is another recovery job on a song that deserved reviving. It's an effervescent, music hall parody song using the Percy French melody, The Darling Girl from Clare. The arrangement features honky-tonk piano and banjo, and the legendary Rick Epping on harmonica. The song is about one-hundred-years-old but it's sad that this British tabloid is still a worthy object of satire when it comes to covering Ireland.
Shay weighs in with a revival of the great Stan Kelly-Bootle and Leon Rosselson classic, I Wish I Was Back in Liverpool. Luke Kelly has the benchmark version but this is an acapella triumph with Michael, Martin Black and their nephew Eoghan Scott backing Shay. Essequibo River is a sea-shanty collected by another Stan, Stan Hugill. This is another voices-only delight with a Caribbean tempo with Eoghan, Martin and Mary Black provide backing to Michael.
Doyle's contributes a crafty, catchy song of his own, Exile's Return. Shay and Michael share the vocals. Green Among the Gold is a sweetly rhythmic Australian song of Irish emigration. The Blacks usually incorporate a few songs in Irish into their shows. Fiach an Mhadra Rua is paired with the Mason's Apron and the Wonder Hornpipe for a full-on ceili band vibe.
Rathlin is a meditation on the island off the coast of Antrim which is the Black's ancestral home on their father's side. The album title refers to a vista on the island. Erica Pagels supplies the poetic lyrics and Colm O'Riain, another exiled Irishman, plays some delightful fiddle and viola. Grace O'Malley is a driving, upbeat song by Cathie Ryan. The album closes appropriately with Journey's End by JB Goodenough, a song favored by the Clancy Brother's. Michael adds a verse in Irish he learned from Eilis Kennedy. Every song on the album is praiseworthy, meticulously chosen, and the liner notes provide rich and fascinating details.
The album will enhance your appreciation for artists like the Black Brothers and their musical community who grace this CD. The brothers are the real deal, musicians with day jobs and families, who are deeply committed to playing and performing at the highest level. They take their responsibility to entertain seriously (expect to sing at their shows) without ever taking themselves too seriously. And, they rarely turn down opportunities to play for good causes.
This joyful album will lift your spirits, raise a smile, and might even inspire a desire to visit Rathlin when international travel reopens. It will certainly make you long for the time when the Black Brothers and many other artists can play live concerts again.