Touchstone may be the first American- based Irish band to have a major impact both at home and in their spiritual home. Of course, it helps that the most compelling voice belongs to clavinet-synthesizer player Triona Ni Dhomhnaill, the Donegal-born singer who was a founding member of two seminal Irish groups, Skara Brae and the Bothy Band. She's moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and hooked up with three young Americans: flutist Mark Roberts, banjo-mandolin player Claudine Langille and guitarist Zan McLeod.
What's an Irish band without a frenetic fiddle or pulsating pipes? Touchstone rides a compelling rhythm track on strings plucked and planked, and proves as adept as Planxty or the Bothy Band in setting down hearty dance steps; in fact, with a five- string banjo abetting the tenor banjo, and a mandolin echoing the sprightly runs on McLeod's bouzouki, Touchstone mixes the livelier elements of American mountain music (old-timey division) with some of its own source material, though the dominant spirit wears the Green.
Like most Irish albums, "The New Land" has a full complement of jigs, hornpipes, reels, polkas (Langille and Roberts are outstanding), but the telling comes in the singing. Triona's voice, bell-clear and full of delightful ornamentation, is astounding in "Song in F," a chamber-folksong in the manner of Kate McGarrigle, simple graces speaking to the heart. Langille's voice is not as compelling, but the two sound fine together, often trading off verses. The songs are well-chosen (there's one in Gaelic that's a tongue-twister if you follow the lyric sheet), though a bit more of Triona's sterling vocals wouldn't hurt. This is a powerful and promising debut, the settling in of a new tradition.
ON RECORD, ON STAGE
TOUCHSTONE -- The New Land (Green Linnet SIF 1040).
TOUCHSTONE -- Tuesday at the Birchmere, 8:30 and 10:30.