If ever you’ve been mid-St. Patrick’s Day party hunting through your collection for the perfect blend of Irish music, this is the CD you’ll wish you had.
The Ultimate Guide to Irish Folk is the best collection to be released covering the genre in years. Released by ARC music with liner notes written by John O’Regan, the two-disc set is well curated to demonstrate not only the best ornamentation and depth of Irish folk, but also just how sonically diverse the genre has grown. Covering the classics into the not-so-traditional expansion of Irish folk, The Ultimate Guide to Irish Folk is a perfect sampling of the different flavors of Irish music. It’s a comprehensive introduction to Irish folk for newcomers and a nice exploration for veterans who might be in need of some new artists in their rotation.
Beginning with classics like Luke Kelly’s “Raglan Road” and Lúnasa’s “Morning Nightcap/The Malbay Shuffle,” the Ultimate Guide does well to balance not only the traditional with contemporary, but also modern artists with legends. For the traditional ear, Kevin Burke and Martin Hayes represent current artists with that classic sound on the collection. Both showcase a new school of trad artists whose command of rhythm and ornamentation has launched them to modern legends in folk. Hayes (fiddle) is accompanied by decades-long musical partner and legend himself Dennis Cahill (guitar) for an energetic “Paddy Fahey’s Reel.”
Marquee names like Sinead O’Connor also grace the set. The Ultimate Guide does not shy away from some of the more experimental artists of Irish folk. While it might not make the most traditional of fans happy, the collection does stay in the realm of accessible experimentation. More contemporary artists featured include the Scream Orphans, the female quartet who might be best described as a pop rock group with a very distinct Irish accent. Singer-songwriter Luka Bloom is another modern artist on the collection whose acoustic style brings a very simple sweetness to the collection.
Another modern favorite, Cherish the Ladies, make an appearance on the second disc with a medley that leads perfectly into the following track by Caladh Nua. The collection is on the whole very well put together; it flows from track to track quite effortlessly, delighting and subtly educating the listener.
What makes this guide truly fantastic are the liner notes by Irish journalist John O’Regan. Clocking in at 31 pages, complete with a small history of Irish folk and a brief biography of each artist on the album, they serve as a tiny tour guide through the album. Large musical anthologies like this often ward off new listeners as overwhelming, but this collection screams beginner-friendly. It is the ideal launching point for a self-education on Irish folk. As O’Regan writes, “While Irish folk and traditional music never needed a revival like those in Britain and the US during the late 50s and 60s, there were times when folk music was often in danger of being forgotten or rendered obsolete as a term of social expression.” He details the years when it seemed Irish folk was in crisis to the booming success of the Clancy Brothers. O’Regan gives a superlative summary of the early influences on the genre right up to the flourishing college programs at Irish World Academy of Music and Dance at the University of Limerick that now offer graduate focus on Irish traditional music.
The title doesn’t lie. The Ultimate Guide to Irish Folk is exactly that. It is the perfect blend of tracks trad fans are looking for and the ideal teacher for new listeners.