Seán Laffey penned this review.
For those unfamiliar with the full panorama of the Clannad sound archive, these two discs might come as a surprise, as they contrast the band’s acoustic roots with more recent, perhaps familiar work, which is all too often formulaic, elegiac and in the hands of their most successful scion, Enya, totally commercial. (So studio-polished in fact that she rarely if ever performs live; a myopic “artistic policy” that was glaringly obvious at this year’s Oscars where her performance was shall we say ring-rusty). Clannad by the way is a contraction of the Irish Clan Na Gweedore, literally the family from Gweedore, the family being, three Brennan siblings and their twin uncles, Noel and Padraig Duggan. Along with sister Enya they have turned “Celtic Music” into a dynastic oil field.
This CD anthology was compiled by Irish Music Magazine’s John O’Regan (the Jimmy McGhee of Irish Folk – for readers outside the Emerald Isle, Jimmy is a veteran sportscaster with such an encyclopaedic grasp of his subject he is nicknamed “the memory man”). Liner notes are extensive and the booklet is beautifully illustrated with gorgeous photographs, dating I would judge by the permed hairstyles and general makeovers to the latter three years of the 80’s (although for context’s sake it would have been nice to match the photo-shoot to one particular album or tour). To save those with an extensive Clannad collection from doubling up on original material I’ll name the albums that have been mined for tracks, so here’s the list, take and deep breath and begin: Dulamán, Crann Uil, Fuaim, Clannad, Legend, Macalla, Sirius, Anam, Banba, Lore, Landmarks and Robin the Hooded Man.
Back to the sports metaphor for a moment: like footy, domestic or otherwise, this collection is a game of two halves. Half time for the band happened around the early 80’s. I remember sneaking into a Clannad sound check at a Donegal festival around 1981 — this was when the band had home field advantage and around ten years on the circuit to whip up the local fan base. They were an impressive acoustic act, blending jazz influences into traditional music, and I use the word “into” carefully; they had a genius for hearing the jazz possibilities in Gaelic song, and all that, and a bit of history too, are on these discs. Listening to Nicky Ryan mix the vocals that day was a foretaste of the Celtic New Age ambience that was to come later on (or sooner as it happened), and which both Clannad and Enya (Eithne Brennan, one time singer and keyboard player with the band) have developed over the past 25 years. Not that this was universally accepted in Ireland; indeed the gauntlet for acoustic Donegal music was taken up by very near neighbours Altan, fronted by Mairead Mooney (there’s a five minute car ride between the homes of the Brenanns and Mooneys via the coast road to Crolly). And let us nor forget that were it not for two very successful theme music commissions for British TV (“Harry’s Game” and “The Celts”) the Clannad/Enya experiment might have ended in rumour rather than dollars.
In this compilation, Disc One charts their transition from folk to cool, opening with “Nil Se Ina La” from the 1973 studio album Clannad and closing with “Newgrange” from Magical Ring, an album assembled in London and with Richard Dodd stepping in for Nicky Ryan as engineer. (Ryan switched horses at this stage and moved on to the management of Enya, a job he still does very successfully today). Fair play to Rhino for not messing around with the original sound and keeping the 70’s vibe running, so that we hear the big contrast between the Cran Uil Abum (1980) and Magical Ring (83).
For my money the best album of the period was the live Clannad in Concert, recorded on tour in Switzerland in 1978. On this compilation the chosen track from that epic recording is “Down by the Sally Gardens”, but the real standout number from the LP was the ten-minute version of the Tory Island drinking song “Nil Se Ina La”, the theme of which is ” OK lads it isn’t daylight yet so we can keep on drinking until the cock crows.” This was Clanand at their extemporising best, as wild and dangerous as the water’s between Gweedore and Tory Island.
Disc two is music from the BMG years, and as you’d expect from an international label the choice is more commercial — lush in fact. Tracks include “Banba,” “Oir”, “The Poison Glen”, “In a Life Time” and “Now is Here” amongst a total of 18. Personally I preferred the edgier, experimental, earlier acoustic stuff before the reverb took over and the money came rolling in, so when it comes my time to revisit this compilation, odds on I’ll go for disc one.
As you’d expect from John O’Regan there is a comprehensive discography that is cross referenced to each track, so if one particular style of Clannad intrigues you there are no excuses for NOT pursuing your fascination. As a slice of musical history there’s more sugar than blood on the tracks, but for fans and critics alike that’s what happened at half time back in the 80′ s, when the band went into the dressing room, changed strip and came out sounding all refreshed playing Harry’s new game. As you can hear for yourself, they kept the sport alive for many years, which was easy really; they are in a league of their own.
The album is available online and negotiations are currently underway to secure overseas distribution, the Irish office of BMG are currently reluctant to release or promote it in the home country, and that by the way as Jimmy McGhee, might say is, “Ireland of course.”