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In September 2001 this reviewer enjoyed the pleasure of seeing Seán McGuire and his band playing at the Hammersmith Irish Centre. Seán would have been 73 or 74 years of age at the time, but was as dapperly dressed and as sprightly as ever, even if disease had ravaged his vocal cords, leaving all the stage announcements to be made by another virtuoso musician, his keyboard player and a wonderful man for dealing with hecklers, Patsy McCabe. Actually, there was only one heckler and he was one rather intoxicated and very illustrious London-based Irish musician who kept demanding particular tunes and producing such voluble interjections as “Good man, Seán, you taught me all I know” (except, clearly, politeness!). The rest of the band (whose names, with apologies, have slipped into the ether) consisted of an accordionist from County Armagh, wielding a mammoth three-row box with more bass buttons than one could possibly ever imagine using, and a rather shy, but highly proficient acoustic guitarist.
The outgoing McCabe and these two anonymous lads clearly form the band that backs Seán on Fiddle on the Fiddle, although, if one looks closely at the liner scan, this collection might appear to have any number of different titles. Indeed, if one were to take ‘the definitive collection’ at face value, then the assumption that this is some kind of ‘greatest hits’ collection might spring to mind. That is exactly what Fiddle on the Fiddle is, albeit with then new recordings of tunes associated with Seán’s playing, such as The Mason’s Apron and Bonnie Kate.
Also it would be fair to argue that this album does virtually replicate that aforementioned stage performance, even if the track listing is not the same as the order of the tunes which Seán played that night. So there is a mixture of very fast reels (who said speed in Irish music was invented in the 1980s?), played very much in hoedown mode, such as The Mason’s Apron and Wild Irishman, and no fewer than seven slow airs (out of the total eighteen tracks). In one of these, The Resting Chair, Seán demonstrates his use of pizzicato and, unquestionably, Fiddle on the Fiddle demonstrates just how much his technique has been influenced by his Classical training and listening to other violinists.
Arguably, Fiddle on the Fiddle might be viewed as an attempt to show the sheer range of McGuire’s playing, although, if that is the case, it is not entirely successful. For instance, the slow air Meeting of the Waters features all manner of slurs and other shifts, but, in the process, Seán somehow manages to lose the key.
There is a strong sense too (reinforced by personal witness) that showmanship often overrides taste. Too many of the arrangements, exemplified by the coupling of Segs and The Weeping Hebrew, smack of over-rehearsal. The frantic pace of the reels, most of which have virtually identical backing also means that the listener is left with a repeated sense of dèja-vu.
Yet, despite all the above, McGuire’s music remains ultimately inspirational (but perhaps not when he murders Dawning of the Day by transforming the air into some kind of BBC Light Entertainment show theme tune halfway through).
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More often than not when a renowned musician dies the market is suddenly flooded with stacks of newly reissued compilations (some of very dodgy vintage) celebrating his or her renown. Unusually, considering the respect which he engendered, this has not been the case with the late fiddler and occasional uilleann piper Séan McGuire. Indeed, since the demise of the Outlet label, for which Séan released at least eleven albums, trying to track down any McGuire albums proves to be a virtual impossibility. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that Séan also recorded for numerous other labels, some long defunct and a notorious other which seldom advertises its products let alone distributes them effectively. Surely, here is one musician who really does deserve a proper retrospective collection?
In the interim, not so much a flood but a small trickle of old Outlet stock seems to be available in the north of Ireland, not least in Belfast and counties Sligo and Donegal. It was in Dungloe that this reviewer acquired a pristine copy of Man of Achievement for the regal sum of €3.99. The album was originally released by the long extinct Top Spin label of Castleblayney, Co. Monaghan in 1975 and resurfaced on Outlet in the 1980s.
It was one of six albums recorded by Séan in cahoots with Josephine Keegan and consummately summarizes both the breadth of the fiddler’s repertoire and his seemingly instinctive musical relationship with the pianist. So alongside familiar Irish tunes such as The New Policeman reel, The High Level hornpipe or The Wheels of the World jig, plus several melodies of Scottish origin, the listener will also encounter one of McGuire’s ‘classic’ slow airs, The Harp That Once Through Tara’s Halls, as well as the Hungarian dance which remained at the centre of his live performances for the following thirty years, Czardas, and a minuet. Additionally, Josephine plays an emotive, yet ever precise solo rendition of O’Carolan’s Draught.
McGuire was clearly on the top of his game when this album was recorded, his playing not just inspired by sundry delights and demons, but exhibiting all the spirit and panache, coupled with the sheer technical expertise and agility which characterised his music. Josephine Keegan provides an object lesson in the accompanist’s art, innately aware when to remain in the back seat and when, via subtle emphasis, a rolling chord or just an accentuated bass note, to drive the fiddler onwards. Such a powerful and intuitive combination achieves its apogee on McDermott’s reel which Séan, being Séan, plays in the key of E, one of the least favoured by piano accompanists because of its inclusion of the dreaded B chords, replete with numerous # keys.
30th September, 2005