Heaven for both the seasoned banjophile and the banjocurious, steely Dan may even convert the odd banjophobe.
Release date: 24th February 2023
Label: Rooksmere Records
Format: CD / digital
Oho, so what do we have here? Walsh the superbly accomplished banjo man, as happy with the Irish as the Old Timey, in a near solo tsunami of tunes that, as the name suggests, err this side of the Atlantic, even if his clawhammer style sits more comfortably the other. WTF, you say, 51 minutes of instrumental banjo music? I do, I do and, sure, I get your angst and uncertainty, but, honestly, it’s fine. Really. You will even suss most of the tunes, or certainly many, and can play spot the source, at the same time as re-evaluating that reflex fear of the instrument. And if you are not adept at air banjo come conclusion, well, I despair.
Walsh has been slowly but surely building a reputation these past few years, crossing stages labelled folk and stages labelled Americana, unfussy as to where he gets labelled. He often works alone these days, but is also a member of the celebrated Urban Folk Quartet, as well as working in duos with artists as varied as concertina man, Alistair Anderson and guitarist, Brooks Williams. (That last one, we have reviewed, of course.) Here he is alone, if in his own company, double tracking allowing his just as celebrated guitar to add depth to the music, with him playing banjola on a couple or so of tracks, a banjo mandola hybrid. Sometimes he even triplicates himself with the addition of bòdhran, not that, strictly speaking, it is always necessary or noticeable, given the rhythmic plunk of his stringplay. All the 37 tunes, spread over 15 tracks, come from O’Neill’s Collection of Irish Dance Tunes; helpfully they all get categorised into whether they be jigs, reels, hornpipes or slip-jigs, for the easily muddled and ignorant. Like me. Plus, if you want to take that air banjo forward, a book of the tablature is available, for that gift to yourself, O’Neill’s Tunes For Clawhammer Banjo.
Clearly, I can’t run through ’em all, but, as stated, many will be familiar. Or seem so. The set of reels that open the set immediately have you feeling you have stumbled into an impromptu pub session in Skibereen. There are also the evocative names given many the tunes; Jenny Picking Cockles is one such, in the first salvo of reels that open the album and which leads into The Salamanca Reel, one that aficionados of the Bothy Band will maybe remember. There are also moments where it seems that Walsh’s fingers have taken flight on their own, unbidded, in a dance of St Vitus. Strop The Razor gives one such jaw-dropping instance, which he then repeats, to show nor fluke or unintended spasm.
Moving on and cherry picking, Cork Hornpipe has you scouring the old grey matter, ahead of remembering the Dubliners, that also the moment you realise that stripped of accompanying fiddles, flutes and whatnot, these are just as enjoyable without the additional players. Talking of instrumentation, Contradiction Reel shows off that Walsh is much more than rhythm alone on guitar, opening with some tasty picked guitar. The following slipjigs, Roudledum and Dairy Maid, which introduce the banjola, the sound a little like a mix of the parent instruments, if with a greater tonal link, smoother and less percussive, to the mandola. A lovely sound, either which way.
Few can fail to look up in recognition as Drops of Brandy blends into Last Night’s Fun, even as it becomes, next, The Rising Sun, there being a slightly less than loose similarity with what a certain Oxfordshire band called Dirty Linen. But whether you know the tunes or not, it seems barely minutes before you have completed this enjoyable romp through O’Neill. And, if your ability to recall the difference between the Moincoin Jig and the Mooncoin Reel remains, which, respectively, close the last two tracks, fear not, for, as you play it again, it gets no easier. But fun to try. (Clue: jig is the Steeleye favourite of long gone.)
All in all, what might seem a specialist release, and of appeal only to the niche enthusiast or player, it turns out to be quite the opposite, and would grace the shelves of anyone with any love at all for Celtic music, in whatever form. Indeed, with the current tide of Celtic punk bands flourishing across the circuit, yer Ferocious Dogs and the like, this might be a primer for any of their legion of fans.
Here is Walsh, without himself on additional guitar or bòdhran, playing the penultimate track neat; just him, his fingers and his banjo: