2012 was a great year for Irish music - a rundown from Luka Bloom to Patrick Clifford

Colm O'Brien
If you’re looking for some great tunes for the Irish music fans on your “nice list” this year, you can’t do wrong with the bumper crop of new music we harvested in 2012. Merry Christmas, dear reader, and all the best for a prosperous New Year! Here’s our annual list, in no particular order:

Luka Bloom’s The New Morning: After spending a couple of years looking back on his long career with a reworking of his classics with the Dreams in America album and tour, Luka Bloom begins book two of his musical history with the aptly titled This New Morning. The Kildare native takes the traditions of Irish musical storytelling to heart, using the folk medium to comment on the issues of our time and in the process, leave an archive for the next generation. “A Seed Was Sown” was inspired by Queen Elizabeth’s historic visit to Ireland last year in which she bowed before a monument honoring fallen Irish heroes. “She lowered her head down/and held the pose/my tears flowed freely/God only knows/she remembered our losses/she remembered her own/and in that moment/a seed was sown,” he sings atop sparse acoustic accompaniment. “Across the Breeze” decries the law passed this year that bans the cutting of turf in Ireland. “I see the turf smoke rising/carrying our stories and songs,” he sings.

Colm O’Brien’s “Back to Work?” former Prodigals singer Colm O’Brien has created a spirited yet essential item that takes you from a history lesson to a pub and back! O’Brien’s voice is a tarnished, gravelly instrument that sounds like he pierced his tonsils.  Like Rod Stewart, he uses his God-given raspiness to his advantage.  He not only blends obscure trad ballads into his repertoire, he makes some modern ones of his own. “I got me a job at a small company and the money began to roll in/but I tried to pay what I owe/but the big banker man said this house is no longer you own,” he sings, spitting out a bitter story on “The Big Banker Man” about losing a job and finding yourself in a black hole financially. It could be an anthem for Occupy Wall Street. For more information, check out www.colmobrien.com.

Donegal X-Presss’s Paid Off the Boom: Featuring 12 new tracks, including covers of Steve Earle’s “Johnny Come Lately” and Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel,” Paid Off the Boom is the sixth studio album and an audibly artistic detour from their previously recorded material. Brad Dunnells (guitar and vocals) and Jason Tinney (harmonica and vocals) began collaborating and writing songs in the late 1990s with the hope of rejuvenating Irish American music.Right out of the gate, they won an album of the year nod from the Irish Voice back in 2001 for the classic Quinn’s Diaries. They have veered off into other projects over the years that include the Wayfarers and the Publicans, amassing country and traditional influences on some of those side streets. Those influence play well on Paid Off the Boom, an engaging mixture of southern fried Irish soul. Check them out at www.dxplive.com

Together For Christmas: A Contemporary Celtic Christmas Collection, a compilation assembled by promoter Anita Daly. Daly has worked with everyone from the Pogues to Black 47 and opened her little black book to create an unparalleled look at contemporary Celtic sounds. If your tastes veer toward the traditional, you will delight at the sounds of the “Deck the Halls” Christmas melody from Joanie Madden and Cherish the Ladies.  The Celtic Tenors offer a spine-tingling read of “Silent Night,” while tough guy Damien Dempsey offers a surprisingly touching rendition of “Oh, Holy Night.”Daly’s collection is so much more than a run-through of shopworn classics. It is a showcase for new voices with new things to say about the holidays. Tara O’Grady ends the collection on a jazzy note, with a flirty fiddle dancing with her during a sultry read of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Visit www.togetherforchristmas.com/about.html. The CD is available on iTunes and directly on the album’s website.

Van Morrison “Born to Sing: No Plan B:” Morrison delivers a winner that will make everyone feel glad.
“Close Enough for Jazz” is a track that started off as an instrumental that he reportedly added words to at the last minute; the extended chatter between an electric guitar and sax conjures up a swingin’ supper club vibe before Van’s husky voice cautions you that “there’s no use feeling sad, no use feeling bad.” To be sure this romantic poet is Ireland’s answer to Barry White, and “Goin’ Down to Monte Carlo” at 8:12 is a delicious and sexy jam.

Enter the Haggis’s “Whitelake,” a complex blend of sounds that stretch their Irish and Celtic roots into new territory. Old fans of the band shouldn’t be too freaked out by this.  Songs like “Follow” are one of a handful of toe-tapping tracks that blend the Irish melodies with the warm harmonies and stomping drums that you’ve come to expect at their legendary live shows.

Haggis has shifted their songs away from an overtly Celtic vibe, yielding a sound that touches on folk, classic rock, and country blues.“The Flood” is a gorgeous ballad anchored by nothing more than a fiddle and banjo riff, while “Devil’s Son” is a back porch stomper. This standout track is a complex masterpiece. Check them out at www.enterthehaggis.com

Patrick Clifford’s: Chance of a Start, showcases the talents of one of the most compelling singer/songwriters that has crossed my path in many a moon! The former Four to the Bar singer and bassist weaves hand drums, piano and fiddle to create a reflective read of the trad staple “The Parting Glass.”  His voice is crisp with a hint of melancholy that is a prerequisite for any good Irish balladeer. Fans of Glen Hansard and Christy Moore will love Clifford, especially his version of “The Auld Triangle.”  He re-imagines six classics by 20th century Irish and folk songwriters such as Pete St. John, Ewan MacColl and Dominic Behan, revitalizing them for a new generation, lest they be forgotten or (worse yet) fall into irrelevance for a lack of thoughtful stewardship.Clifford is not just an interpreter of other songwriters. He does a fine job crafting stories of his own in the four tracks he penned on Chance of a Start. On “The Morning Sun,” the sunny acoustic alt-country arrangement hides the down-on-his-luck character. “Rent’s late again, skies are all gray/You wish you could be 100 miles away/If you only had the money you’d go/She’s complaining again, about this, that, and drinking,” he sings before a convergence of bluegrass, harmonica and Irish fiddle provides an uplifting bridge to the other side. For more information, log onto www.patrickclifford.com

Album of the Year: Mickey Finns’s Prayers and Idle Chatter

Co. Clare singer/guitarist Kelly’s whiskey-soaked voice should be familiar to fans of Irish music. He was one of the original members of the jig punk band The Prodigals and his ragged voice, so perfect for the punk idiom, adds a spicy outlaw vibe to the southern-fried Celtic country rock that is the Mickey Finn sound. He is joined by fellow Prodigal Brian Tracey in the band, who mans both the drum kit, writer, and producer’s chair on the album. He lets loose on “Loop Reels,” a percussive delight that infuses funk to the folk of the fiddle.

“We definitely feel like it was a big step for us,” says Tracey of the new album. “There was something extra special for us in the making of it and we were hoping that people would appreciate it. We didn’t expect it to reach this many people! We got a request for the lyrics to McGuinness’ Mass from a family named McGuinness in Melbourne, Australia. We expected it from family and close friends, but didn’t expect random people that never really heard of us were able to find us.”

Songs like ‘Return of the Prodigal Son’ and ‘The Jester’ have become crowd favorites in their ferocious live shows.

“The fan reaction is amazing,” says Ray Kelly. “It was so great to see Brian come into his own with the writing. Just hearing some of the rough tracks he came up with, you knew we had something. After some hard work, we really found our sound. I am so proud of this album!”

As well he should be! This is the tastiest southern-fried shamrocks you’ll ever feed your ears!

Drop by and see them at Paddy Reilly’s Pub in Manhattan on any given Saturday night or for more information, log onto www.themickeyfinns.comwww.themickeyfinns.com.

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