Saturday, September 23, 2006

Green Fields of America at the 2006 Dublin Irish Festival

This past August I caught Mick Moloney's band Green Fields of America at the 2006 Dublin Irish Festival. The announcer noted that when the festival began 19 years ago and was held in a tennis court, there was only one band the first year: Green Fields of America. This year the festival spanned several acres and attracted 80,000+ people, plus many well-known bands, and once again Green Fields of America played.

Green Fields of America is not so much an ongoing band as it is Mick Moloney and his rotating crew of Irish music all-stars. This year the band consisted of

  • Mick (guitar, mandolin, tenor banjo, and vocals)
  • John Doyle (guitar, vocals)
  • Billy McComiskey (box)
  • Robbie O'Connell (guitar, vocals)
  • Athena O'Lochlainn (fiddle)

I have heard some of Mick Moloney's recorded music before; I just bought the CD which accompanies his book Far from the Shamrock Shore a couple of months ago. But while that CD, and most of the other recordings I've heard from him, lean almost entirely towards song, the Green Fields of America performance had a roughly even mix of songs and dance tunes, and featured local, live dancers for two of the sets. Mick's albums of song aren't bad at all, but in the end I decided that I like his dance tunes even more.

Friday's performance started late due to problems with the monitor mix, which seemed not to be resolved for the whole show; John Doyle left his chair several times during the show to have a word with the monitor mixer. The front of house mix was some better, but the guitars were way too high in the mix; they frequently drowned out the other instruments. Even at the Irish festival I sometimes wonder if the mixers realize that the guitars are frequently playing accompaniment. Sunday's show seemed to be much better mixed overall.

Athena O'Lochlainn was a new name to me, but as soon as she started playing it became clear that she had more than enough talent to earn a place with such distinguished company. Her fiddle playing was simply delightful, packed with lift and cheer. It was fun to watch her face as she played; she seemed to react to the sounds coming from her instrument in much the same way as the audience did. According to her personal site she has a CD, produced by John Doyle, in the works.

Three guitarists might seem like rather a lot for an ITM group, but the performance would not have been the same without Robbie O'Connell's excellent singing. You can sample his songwriting at his web site.

I didn't recognize Billy McComiskey by sight and had missed his name during the introductions, so I didn't realize who he was at first. In retrospect, I really respect the way he held back for the better part of the performance, letting other band members take the spotlight. But when it came time for him to let loose and show the audience what he can do, I realized that he was a first-rate talent. When I finally caught his name at the end of the show all of the pieces fell in place. Like John Doyle, his talent comes not just from his ability to play his instrument really, really well, but also his ability to not overwhelm the rest of the band in every number.

At the end of Friday's show, the band was joined by bodhrán builder and player Albert Alfonso, who provided rhythmic accompaniment for the last two sets.

Green Fields of America can be an elusive band. They don't tour a lot, and as far as I can tell have only one album in current release. That's a shame, because the two sets I caught at the Irish festival showed the current lineup to be a remarkably cohesive band. The music they played wasn't what I had expected, but I have no complaints at all. The band played great dance music punctuated with occasional songs, and seemed to enjoy listening to each other.

Family obligations caused me to miss many of the other performers at the Irish festival this year, but I think I caught the best show there. This was easily the best show I've seen all year.

Monday, September 18, 2006

The Whistle Is Not a Fixed-Pitch Instrument

From time to time, one or two sentences will change the way I approach this instrument and this music. Here's an example, written by Peter Laban:

Complaining your C's are out of tune on the whistle is a bit like a beginning fiddleplayer complaining his notes are off when he puts down his fingers.
This is not a fixed pitch instrument, it's, for a good part at least, your job to play in tune.

Before I read that post this fact had never occurred to me before. But it makes a great deal of sense. Instrument designers must adjust the size and position of the tone holes in order to compromise between:

  • The pitch of "regular" notes like G, A, B, etc.
  • The pitch of "cross-fingered" notes like C natural
  • The two octaves most commonly used, and the fact that we must over-blow to reach the second octave
  • The cylindrical body of most whistles
  • The fact that a whistle "embouchure" cannot change for different notes in the way a flute player's embouchure can
  • The desire to have a consistent tone and volume across the scales

Despite the efforts of many talented instrument builders, and despite over 100 years of research into the subject matter in the flute trade, there is no perfect solution to all of the above.

Don't believe me? Think that this doesn't apply to those who play certain premier brands? Well, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Can you play any note over the first two octaves with precisely the same breath pressure?
  • Can you play out of tune if you choose to?

Clearly, breath pressure has an effect on pitch!

Hence, while some whistles may be easier for some players to keep in tune, and while some whisles may be impossible for anyone to play in tune, we shouldn't consider a whistle defective because we must adjust our breath and fingerings in order to play in tune. That's the nature of the instrument. People who don't like this fact can take up the concertina.

The best way I've found to practice playing in tune so far is to play along with CDs.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Growing Pains

I'm updating this site to the new Blogger beta version, so you'll see some new features like labels ("tags") appearing on the posts. I'll be going back through my old posts and tagging them to create an index to topics I've discussed. But the new Blogger is really different than the old version, so if you see odd formatting and other problems over the next few weeks, please be patient while I get everything sorted out.