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New Classics from Ryan, Casey

By Paul Keating

You might have expected that my preoccupation with traditional music was a given growing up in a household where my Clare parents revered the Clare sets and the music that spawned them.

While I was certainly aware of the Tulla and Kilfenora and Willie Clancy on vinyl all reinforced weekly by the Irish Memories radio show hosted by Dorothy Hayden, my journey towards personally embracing them was a more crooked path not unlike many Irish Americans.

Cathie Ryan

Ironically, my fascination with American folk music and its message-driven material with catchy melodies was a high school and college obsession in the ever so meaningful 1960s. Folk singers who could drive home universal truths with equal aplomb about love, politics and inhumanity all wore out my record player back then as the latent magic of the Clancy Brothers was also coming to the fore leading me back to my roots.

The melding of both traditions were never far from my mind as I sampled two recordings just released last month by Shanachie Records, Karan Casey’s Chasing the Sun and Cathie Ryan’s The Farthest Wave.

Ryan and Casey dominated the ranks of Irish singers initially for their vocal work while singing for groups like Cherish the Ladies and Solas, respectively, which certainly helped spark their performing careers.

Both came under the spell of master singers in the Irish tradition like Joe Heaney, whom Ryan often visited in Brooklyn, and Frank Harte, who bonded with Casey one Catskills summer and has continued to inspire and appreciate her own creativity.

American and Irish folk songs infused their own sensibilities and awareness, so much so that the need for self-expression and solo careers blossomed along with their talents and mastery of folk performance over the years. They share a hard-lived maturity at this stage of their lives, which gives a greater poignancy to their music as expressed on these new recordings.

It was important for both performers to feature their own written material. They have done so without diminishing their own knack for choosing solid songs and lyrics (and songwriters) that compliment their highly personal and quite different styles.

It is equally important to note that each has a firm grasp on how the musical arrangements affect their rendering of a song and they carefully choose musicians who recognize that essential element of their appeal.

Casey’s Chasing the Sun is her fourth solo effort for Shanachie Records (www.shanachie.com) and with six of her own songs, she has boldly moved out onto the singer-songwriter platform.

It was a natural evolution for the Waterford songstress who relished the traditional idiom and singers but needed to voice ideas about a rapidly changing world. Spending time with her mate Niall Vallely and daughter Muirin has given her time to think quietly and write about her own life and thoughts and still give out at times in folk singer mode.

This recording doesn’t skip a beat, however, in unveiling new songwriters like Brian Kerr who has three songs on it as well as the noticeable touch of her mentor, Frank Harte, especially for the song “The Brown and the Yellow Ale” which she sings with an modern twist.

By balancing the new, the old and the personal on this new recording, Casey has proven herself a polished performer who seems to just get better with age while still taking risks professionally.

In addition, her band of Niall Vallely on concertina and whistle, Robbie Overson on guitar and Paul Meehan on guitar and mandolin add just the right touch.

Ryan’s The Farthest Wave is also her fourth solo CD on Shanachie Records. She feels it is her best work to date and many are inclined to agree with her, including this writer.

The production and musical arrangements are first-rate thanks to John McCusker and compliment a wide-ranging collection of songs that reflect a very personal life’s journey for Ryan.

Strong images of nature and the sea all create an effective backdrop for the emotional struggles that life sends her way. They are captured most vividly in her own creations like in her title track “The Farthest Wave” but also in “What’s Closest to the Heart” and “Be Like the Sea.”

Resiliency is also a key emotional tool to let loose our feelings and appreciate the freedom and beauty of “Wildflowers” as penned by John Spillane, or the ode to growing old “As the Evening Declines,” adapted musically by Dermot Henry for his former wife from the Francis Higgins poem.

Ryan captures the sentiment of both as not giving in to typecasting or convention but rising above it and even “flowering, not merely surviving.”

This is a recording that grows on you as you experience the songs anew depending on the time and place and your own mood, and you’ll find yourself humming the words or the haunting melodies often. In other words, it’s a classic.

Karan Casey

Casey and her band (www.karancasey.com) are in the midst of a brief U.S. tour with a Thursday night CD launch scheduled for Satalla (www.satalla.com) at 9:30 p.m., the Chelsea home for world music in Manhattan. John Doyle, who was also a founding Solas member with Casey, will be a special guest that night.

Then it is on to Chicago for the Gaelic Park Irish Festival May 27-29, and a June 3 show with Garrison Keillor’s Praire Home Companion from the Hollywood Bowl for airing on public radio.

Cathie Ryan and her band (www.cathieryan.com) appear at the Jack Frost Celtic Festival in the Poconos on Saturday, May 28 from 3:45 to 5:15 p.m. and on Sunday, May 29 down in Alexandria, Virginia at the Lyceum at 8 p.m. (800-404-9049).


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