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Last Night's Fun "Dubh" ADA Recordings ADA. 102CD

The eternally youthful concertina player Chris Sherburn and singer/guitarist Denny Bartley have, after years of ultra-hard gigging as a well-respected duo on the folk circuit, finally teamed up on a permanent basis with elfin uilleann piper Nick Scott, calling themselves Last Night's Fun. But you'll have fun a-plenty on every single night you see them live, for a typical gig is as likely to leave you just as breathless with laughing (at Chris's introductions), as speechless at the trio's superlative individual and collective virtuosity and musicianship. This CD, the trio's second release (a live album came out a couple of years ago), takes the LNF experience onto another plane entirely.

Even if you accept their considerable instrumental and vocal prowess as given, the power of the performances on "Dubh" is literally quite stunning. The first thing you'll notice is that it's abundantly clear all three musicians are totally into the music, and play with a passion, determination and unstinting commitment that's hard to beat among contemporary exponents of Irish traditional music, certainly among those based in this country. The second thing you'll notice is the complete assurance of their technique (whether on tunes or songs), creating a vital and immediate listening experience each time (this is no mean achievement, especially considering the number of times you hear indifferent versions of some of the pieces elsewhere!). Yet the trio take the brave step of beginning this album of Irish music with the eight-minute Ploughman And The Furrow, which ingeniously marries the slow air Roisin Dubh with Denny's singing of a version of John Barleycorn taken from a poem by Orkney writer George Mackay Brown. Pretty unusual, but the way Denny builds and develops the vocal line from out of Nick's quiet, eerie drone is nothing short of amazing. And, like much of the rest of the album, recorded in one live take.

Don't be intimidated by the band's cover portrait, or by the album's title (a Gaelic word meaning variously "dark, black, brooding, mysterious", which is more a reflection of its seriousness of purpose and its overall majesty and scale, as subsequent tracks reveal. Perhaps the most immediately noticeable progression from Chris and Denny's duo recordings is artistic rather than obviously colouristic; Denny has always impressed me as a singer of real distinction, but lately, with the recent release of his solo album (Midnight Feast), his interpretative powers have moved onto another plane, on which this new LNF album focuses. There's a high degree of measured breadth, strength and internal discipline in his readings, giving the performances an almost epic quality that befits the timelessness of the tradition within which he's working. All of which is stated not in the least to denigrate or belittle the stirring contributions of both Chris and Nick. Their absolute tightness and togetherness when playing in unison makes it all the more effective when they veer away on independent lines. And with Denny's fantastic guitar underpinning and developing the rhythm, who needs bass and drums and programmed beats? The sheer sense of drive and momentum on the instrumental sets is thoroughly contemporary in sensibility, but never merely thrashy. The album's closer is a masterstroke, where a spirited tune-set falls away onto the bleak and intense sean-nůs of Aisling Gheal. This album is stupendous, both a landmark release and a seriously important contribution to the modern presentation of Irish traditional music.

David Kidman

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This album was reviewed in Issue 50 of The Living Tradition magazine.