Timeless, flawless, innovative and award-winning Irish-American Celtic roots music.
After four superb studio albums the brilliant Runa release a live album, imaginatively titled Live, that captures perfectly the sound of this amazing band. With a pedigree second to none, made up of vocalist and step-dancer, Shannon Lambert-Ryan of Philadelphia, Dublin-born guitarist, Fionán de Barra, Cheryl Prashker of Canada on percussion, Dave Curley of Galway on mandolin, vocals, bodhrán, and step-dancing, and Maggie Estes of Kentucky on the fiddle they are surely bound to hit the heights again with this album and they have deservedly earned their reputation as one of the most innovative and unique Irish bands of recent times.
Live begins with Set one and opening track the eerie ‘Ain′t No Grave’ written by Claude Ely in the 1930’s. Claude was a evangelical preacher, faith healer and singer-songwriter who helped popularise the music of the Appalachian mountains and was one of the fore-runners of the birth of rock’n’roll. Great percussion here keeping a fantastic beat while Shannon’s beautiful voice confers the greatest respect for Claude’s music. The opening song contains all those elements that make Runa such an interesting band. Based in the music of the celtic nations there is so much going on here that to simply call it celtic music does not give you anything like the full story. ‘The Hunter Set’ is the first of many traditional reels on Live and is utterly brilliant. First appearing on their last album Current Affairs it is a lively fiddle led collection of tunes centred around hunting from across North America.
Follows is another old song ‘Bedlam Boys’ but this time from the 1720’s! First published in 1720 in Thomas D’Urfey’s Pills To Purge Melancholy and has changed only slightly since. Most notably recorded by Steeleye Span and Martin Carthy the song relates to ex-inmates of Bedlam which was the name given to the famous insane asylum, St. Mary Bethlehem hospital in London.
“Still I sing bonnie boys, bonnie mad boys,
Bedlam boys are bonnie
For they all go bare and they live by the air,
And they want no drink nor money”
In the 18th century it became a popular diversion to visit the hospital to watch the antics of the poor inmates. Admission was one penny and the hospital realized an income of four hundred pounds a year from visitors. The song ‘Fionnghuala’ is a beautiful acapello version of the Scottish Gaelic song that was originally sung by working women to break the monotony. Most famously recorded by the Bothy Band on their 1976 album Old Hag You have Killed Me. Guitarist Fionán de Barra takes over vocal duties and Runa’s version doesn’t stray too far from the Bothy Band’s but would find it hard to top. Shannon gives an interesting intro to ‘Mae Colven’ about a Scottish women turning the tables on her would be murderer. Excellent fiddle and a real thigh slapper that gets the audience here really involved and singing along.
“False Sir John’s a wooing gone
To a maid o’ beauty fair
May Colven was this lady’s name
Her faither’s only heir”
‘Paddy′s Lamentations’ will be known to many having been recorded numerous times and having featured on the soundtrack for the hit film Gangs Of New York. Dating back to the American Civil War (1861-65) it tells of an Irish soldier conscripted into Lincoln’s Union Army crippled in the fighting far away from home where he wishes to return but knows in his heart he never will.
“Then myself and a hundred more to America sailed o’er
Our fortunes to be making we were thinking
When we landed in Yankeeland they shoved a gun intae our hand
Saying, Paddy you must go and fight for Lincoln
General Meagher to us said, If you get shot and lose your head
Every mother’s son of you will get a pension
In the war I lost my leg, all I’ve now is a wooden peg
By my soul it is the truth to you I mention
Now I think myself in luck to be fed on Indian buck
In old Ireland the country I delight in
And with the devil I do say, Oh Christ curse America
For I’m sure I’ve had enough of your hard fighting”
One of the saddest of the Irish emigration songs it is unusual in that songs of that time were written by the people escaping the ‘famine’ back home and extolling the virtues of the ‘land of liberty’. To put it glibly ‘out of the frying pan and into the fire’. Truly not every man is a king in the US of A. Fionán takes over the lead vocals again and his whispered hushed tones fits perfecting the sadness in the song. ‘Farewell to Tarwathie/ The Last Leviathan’ has two parts, the first a traditional Scottish whaling song while the second part, written by Andy Barnes. The stereotype of whale fishermen is a of a hairy chested, hard working, hard drinking, hard fighting men of the sea and while, no doubt the description fitted many of them, they often showed a strong liking for gentle ballads like these. The first parts tells the whalefishers story while part two tells of how closely we came to the extinction of this majestic animal.
“My soul has been torn from me and I am bleeding
My heart it has been rent and I am crying
For the beauty around me pales and I am screaming
I am the last of the Great Whales and I am dying”
Set One comes to an end with ‘The False Knight Upon The Road’ an English folk song first put down on paper in 1947 telling of a meeting between a young boy and a false knight (the devil in disguise). The child gets the better of him and damns him back down to hell. Steeleye Span, Oysterband, The Blue Velvet Band have all recorded the song and here Runa give it as good as anyone with Shannon’s vocals shining out. So ends Set One and begins Set Two.
All rested Runa return to rapturous applause and kick off their set with ‘Jewels on The Ocean/ Michael Connell′s Reel’ is another two parter staring with a slower traditional instrumental before going into Liz Carroll’s upbeat fiddle led song that again gets the audience going. Liz is an award winning Irish American fiddler and composer born to a Irish musical family in Chicago, Illinois. next up is ‘The King′s Shilling’ and although it may easily be taken for another ancient traditional song it was i fact written by Ian Sinclair, guitarist and fiddler with Scots folk group trio Mirk, in the 1970’s. The King’s shilling was the coin used to induce young men to join the army. By accepting it was regarded as a binding agreement to join up. ‘A Stór, A Stór, a Ghrá’ is a bitter love story from Donegal sung by Shannon in Irish.
Reminding me of Irish-American legends Solas it soon swirls upwards into a sprightly and frisky song that belies it’s sad words.
“Mhí mise lán den tsaoil is bhi cion amuigh is istigh orm
Nach mór a dáthraigh an saol nuair nach bhfuil eion ag duine ar
bith orm? / At one time in my life I was dearly loved by everyone
Haven’t times changed when no one cares a whit for me?”
‘Seinn O Ho Ro/ The Holy Ground’ is a two part track opening with the slow and sad trad Scots song normally performed unaccompanied while ‘The Holy Ground’ is not the tub-thumping (“Fine girl you are!”) version beloved by Irish pub dwellers worldwide but another less well known song written by Gerry O’Beirne about a man who leaves Ireland and ends up in the America southwest, eventually dying fighting and dying for the Mexican Army in the San Patricio Battalion (St Patrick Brigade).
“There the winds of change they blew so far
Of liberty and revolution
And it seemed that each man heard in his breast
the drumming of a nation”
Beautiful and poignant and full of emotion the voice of Shannon dominates with the band fading into the background somewhat except for Fionán’s guitar and some wonderfully understated backing vocals.
Set Two ends with more Irish songs and ‘The Wind That Shakes The Barley’ is up next. written by Robert Dwyer Joyce (1836–1883) it tells of a rebel fighting in the 1798 rebellion preparing to go into battle against the British and explaining to his true love that he may not return.
“Twas hard the mournful words to frame
To break the ties that bound us
Ah, but harder still to bear the shame
Of foreign chains around us
And so I said, ‘The mountain glen
I’ll seek at morning early
And join the brave united men’
While soft wind shook the barley”
Needless to say, this is Ireland after all, it all ends in tragedy and utter sadness. Barley came symbolise the spirit of Irish nationalism which could not be destroyed and would always be reborn stronger than ever before. Runa dispel the blues next with the utterly fantastic ‘The Star of Munster Set’ based around three songs- Drums, Gan Aimh and The Star Of Muster- which begins with a sort of duelling banjo piece with Cheryl’s percussion and drumming and Fionán’s bodhran going hell for leather before some spirited fiddle and mandolin step in. ‘Fear a Bhata/ Aoibhneas Eilís Ní Cheallaigh/ Filleadh An Bhadora‘ is a three part song with the first part (‘The Boatman’) written by Sìne NicFhionnlaigh in the late 19th century who was courting a young fisherman from Uig. The second part is a traditional Irish jig and the final part is written by Fionán. The album comes to an end with another three parter ‘Jealousy/ Dan Breens’s/ Crooked Road To Dublin’. It begins with what Shannon calls their ‘relatively happy song’, written by American artist Claudine Langille it’s followed by a loving tribute to my Grandad’s favourite politician and gunman (and neighbour) Dan Breen and ends in a burst of fiddle and positive exuberance bringing the end to this great album and sending the audience out singing.
Jealousy (2009) * Stretched On Your Grave (2011) * Somewhere Along The Road (2012) * Current Affairs (2014)
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- For the review we published of the last Runa studio album Current Affairs check here
Tagged: Bothy Band, Martin Carthy, Oysterband, Runa, Solas, Steeleye Span
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