A musician once described traditional Irish music as something that "brings people to their senses." It's a music that combines passion, imagination and vitality, which may be why Washington has taken it so much to heart in the last decade. Home to sterling groups like the Irish Tradition and Celtic Thunder, Washington is also a must stop for any group from the British Isles. On Saturday, De Danann will perform at the Departmental Auditorium, preceded by a stylish new album, "The Star Spangles Molly" (Shanachie 79018).
The album is semi-conceptual, focusing on the heyday of Irish-American music in the '20s, when there was a huge and influential ethnic record business catering to the thousands of recent Irish immigrants who flocked to dance halls and vaudeville theaters to sustain their cultural pride. John McCormack was probably the most famous tenor of his day, and soprano Maura O'Connell gives an appropriately teary-eyed reading to the poignant romanticism of his "Maggie," as well as to "Come back again to me, Mavourneen." O'Connell's glistening vocals also grace the beery-eyed "stage-Irish" sentiments of "My Irish Molly-O," while the '20s concept is extended through the irreverent "I'm Leaving Tipperary" and the propulsive "New Irish Barn Dance."
De Danann confirms its reputation as a tightknit instrumental outfit given to a driving, exciting sound. "Molly" contains sets of jigs, reels and hornpipes projected in a style that's punchier, less ethereal than the Chieftains'. The group features Frankie Gavin's fiery fiddle, Alec Finn's percussive textures on bouzouki and guitar, Jackie Daly's swirling accordion, Charlie Piggot's insistent banjo and "Ringo" McDonogh's sly syncopations on the bodhran; they are virtuosi creating an authoritative and joyous pub sound that hasn't been bettered.
There's a wild charm and buoyant spontaneity to De Danann's music, the different voices weaving and blending to an unsurpassed rhythmic lilt that resolves itself in stirring displays of ensemble playing. As with most Irish music, the hand-me-down tunes are traced through generations and regional styles, always credited to their original composers, but De Danaan looks forward as well; their version of "Hey Jude" is one of the most unique and enthralling Beatle arrangements ever.
The Chieftains, who inspired the traditional music craze in Ireland, have always been known for tasteful settings, faultless rhythms and unforgettable expressiveness; "Chieftains 10: Cotton-Eyed Joe" (Shanachie 79019) extends the chamber music grace that separates them from almost all other Irish groups. The Chieftains -- Derek Bell on celtic harp, Paddy Maloney on uilliean pipes and fiddlers Sean Keane and Martin Fay in particular -- have developed a subdued sound that's intended for the concert hall, not the pub. Even the jigs and reels seem overly contained, but what's lost in exuberance is compensated for by the mysticism and subtle wonder of the whole. "Cotton-Eyed Joe" has the eclectic Chieftains' breadth: O'Carolan harp tunes, a Hindu wedding melody and tunes from the Isles of Man and Breton, all sandwiched between a paired Christmas reel/carol and the Texan country dance tune that gives the album its name. It's all marvelous.
The Irish Tradition has been regaling Washington audiences for years, and much of the credit must go to accordionist Billy McComiskey, who has just released his first solo album, "Makin' the Rounds" (Green Linnet SIF1034). His playing is irresistible and forceful, combining compulsive rhythms and propulsive finger-work. McComiskey, who sounds like a gangbuster duo even when he's playing alone, is joined on various cuts by one of his teacher/influences, the great Sean McGlynn, fiddler Pat Keogh and step-dancer Donny Golden (who sounds like an animated bodhran). The mass of reels, jigs and set dances evoke distinct moods and textures filled with triplets, rolls and other spontaneous (and complex) variations and embellishments. McComiskey, an emotional player with a supple, intricate melodic sense, applies and combines elements of traditional and contemporary styles without ever betraying the uniqueness of a given melody. In Irish music, as in jazz, that's a sure sign of virtuosity.
Several other new releases should be noted: The Boys of the Lough's ninth album, "In the Tradition" (Flying Fish FF263), continues its heady mix of Irish, Scottish and English tunes, with several outstanding slow airs; "The Apple in Winter" (Green Linnet SIF1035) focuses on Sligo-style twin fiddling from New Yorkers Brian Conway and Tony DiMarco; De Danann's Jackie Daly combines with fiddler Kevin Burke for some vivid duets on "Eavesdropper" (Green Linnet LUN039); and both appear, along with Planxty's Donal Lunny, behind the marvelous traditional singer David Hammond on "The Singer's House" (Greenhays GR702). All in all, some wondrous, spirited Irish music sits waiting to be heard. The melodies are sometimes uncatchable; the mood is almost always unforgettable.