When contemplating Celtic music in the 1990s, it’s heartening to find that the most important news had nothing to do with Riverdance. That ubiquitous Irish flash stage show did hit the bulls-eye of the American cultural radar screen, providing many talented players with a living for a change, as spin-off troupes crisscrossed the country. But the decade’s real gift to Celtic music is one that will long outlive the Riverdance anomaly. The 90s saw the Celtic stars of the 60s and 70s—those who had reinvented and re-energized Irish and Scottish music—handing the tradition off to the next generation. And boy, how they’re running with it.
It’s been a quarter of a century since Planxty and the Bothy Band first retooled traditional Irish ballads and tunes, stirring in exotic influences and presenting it all with pop power and polish, while Scottish groups like the Battlefield Band and the Tannahill Weavers embraced Highland bagpipes and rocked out with pride. The new generation of Celtic players is proving to be no less inspired than their predecessors, spinning the music off into new directions with a cocky vigor that promises plenty more to come.
A couple of transitional bands led the way for the explosion on the 90s. Altan made Irish tunes sexy and Sharon Shannon made them fun. And both bands made punchy use of the guitar in their ensemble sound. Then came the 90s.
If Micheál Ó Domhnaill’s languid accompaniment with the Bothy Band, played in DADGAG tuning, was the signature sound of Irish guitar a generation ago, the in-your-face inventiveness of John Doyle and Mark Kelly define a fair chunk of Celtic guitar in the 90s.
Doyle’s work with the band Solas is impressive for its variety and tastefully inexorable grooves. He mixes up textures and voicings, driving jigs delicately without sounding a bit like Ó Domhnaill. Altan’s Kelly provides scary flatpick propulsion and wraps Mairéad Ni Mhaonaigh’s vocals in dusky fingerstyle filigrees. DADGAG was largely discarded in the 90s in favor of dropped-D and some alternative low D and C tunings.
First-rate new Celtic bands seemed to pop up out of nowhere in recent years. Déanta, Dervish, Sin É, and Danú, for starters, all hit the road with impressive debut CDs. And then there’s Flook—don’t miss the solid guitar underpinning while you’re busy being amazed at the flute flash. Scotland, too, is alive with youthful energy. John Morran and Malcolm Stitt of Deaf Shepherd are working hard to carry on the tradition of guitars holding their own next to Highland pipes.
And while the gen-X-ers take the music and run with it, the old guard is still thriving. Dougie MacLean’s instantly recognizable guitar style shows no sign of lessening in beauty or intensity. His 1991 CD Indigenous is a classic. Arty McGlynn and Ged Foley have each done stints with Patrick Street, as well as most of the Celtic supergroups, and neither seems to be running out of new ideas. And compare Dennis Cahill’s guitar interplay with Martin Hayes’ fiddle to the classic sound established by Ó Domhnaill and Kevin Burke 20 years ago. Cahill uses standard tuning and jazz voicings to weave a spell that’s no less captivating.
It’s a brand-new century. Celtic music these days is infused with new joy and plenty of inspiration, and Celtic guitarists are faced with boundless possibilities.
- Altan, The Best of Altan, Green Linnet 1177 (1997)
- Danú, Think Before You Think, Shanachie 78030 (2000)
- Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill, The Lonesome Touch, Green Linnet 1181 (1997)
- Dougie MacLean, Indigenous, Blix Street 10060 (1999, originally released in 1991 on Dunkeld)
- Patrick Street, Live from Patrick Street, Green Linnet 1194 (1999)
- Solas, Shanachie 78002 (1996)
- The Tannahill Weavers, Epona, Green Linnet 1193 (1998)