In the constant onslaught of Irish and/or Scottish music under the general heading of “Celtic,” we tend to forget that the Celts dominated most of Europe for quite a long time; the Gauls whom Caesar fought in what is now France, and the inhabitants of Europe in Spain and north of the Roman Empire for centuries before that until the arrival of the Germanic peoples, were Celts. Celtic traditions seem to be enduring: there is still a strong thread of these folkways not only in the British Isles, but in places such as Brittany and even Belgium.
This is brought home in Celtic Café by Karen Ashbrook and Paul Oorts. Ashbrook is a highly regarded Irish hammered dulcimer player, while Oorts, a native Belgian, performs a variety of plucked string instruments — guitar, mandolin, bouzouki, among others — and musette accordion. The selections, accordingly, range from Irish jigs and airs and Scottish strathspeys to a Belgian jig set, a Flemish lament, and the disc even begins with a Breton dance coupled with an Irish reel.
“Breton Dance/Star of Munster” begins as an ethereal, almost wistful tune that slides imperceptibly into the “Star of Munster” and then back to the Breton song. Ashbrook’s hammered dulcimer is perfect for the Breton parts, and Oorts’ guitar work on the reel is impeccable. The following “Irish Maidens Set” begins with “Máirin de Barra,” a guitar solo by Oorts that in some ways is reminiscent of sections of Mars Lasar’s Olympic National Park, if only from the handling of the guitar, but Mark Hillman’s entry with the uilleann pipes brings it back firmly into the Celtic camp (although it is probably fair to say that Lasar’s piece and Oorts’ guitar playing reflect a much wider tradition). The second part of the set, “Siobhan O’Donnel’s/Handsome Young Maidens,” is a respectable rendering in which Ashbrook and Oorts are joined by Andrea Hoag on fiddle, but I, with a recent hearing of the incredible fiddle work of Oisín Mac Diarmida and a broadcast concert by Téada fresh in my ears, kept wishing they would cut loose a little bit. The fun starts with “Style Musette,” a wonderful piece that calls up visions of cafés on the Left Bank, in spite of the combination of mandolin and pipes as the lead instruments.
The final section is supertitled “Napoleon Suite.” Drawn from Scottish and Irish sources, it gives notice of the impact of Napoleon’s career on the hopes of the Irish for liberation, and offers some interesting variations on tradition, but again, is too civilized.
This is not to denigrate the musicians — the playing by all hands is exemplary, and there are passages eminently deserving of admiration. (There are, by the by, impressive forces arrayed here: Ashbrook and Oorts are joined by Hoag and Dave Wiesler on piano (with whom they make up the contra dance band Cabaret Sauvignon; Hillman, and Bonnie Rideout on Scottish fiddle and viola; Bobby Read on woodwinds; Dwight Purvis on French horn; Ralph Gordon on bass; and Paddy League on bodhran and an assortment of other percussion.)
My major dissatisfaction with Celtic Café is that, while the sources are as sophisticated as the performances, incorporating not only traditional Celtic songs from both sides of the Channel but reaching as far as reggae and African music, they are just too well behaved to be as exciting as I, at least, think they should be. My remark about Mac Diarmida and cutting loose was not lightly made: part of the joy of Celtic music is that it, like all traditional music (at least, the traditional music that has escaped the hands of anthropologists), is an excuse to let go, particularly in the case of something as infectiously lively as a jig or reel. This is not a context for “cool.” There are a few places that come close — not surprisingly, the track titled “The Celt Goes South” (at least, so titled in the notes; it is a rendition of “Behind the Bush in the Garden,” “Sgt. Early’s Dream,” and “Lady Anne Montgomery”) which includes the reggae passages, incorporates some amazing playing on the pipes, guitar, and fiddle (courtesy of Hillman and Hoag, who join Oorts for this one — contributions to individual tracks are noted on the back, but not in the notes, which is annoying), but they are all too few. Needless to say, the album is stronger on airs and ballads — the “Lamentation for the Fallen Heroes of Waterloo” is particularly affecting, a sweet, sad song that avoids the maudlin but brings a real sense of loss.
My final impression is that Celtic Café owes as much to “new age” as it does to Celtic traditions, which makes for a pleasant album, but not one that is going to stop you in your tracks.
(Maggie’s Music, 2001)