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JAMES KEELAGHAN - History:The First 25 Years

JAMES KEELAGHAN - History:The First 25 Years
Borealis Records BCD222

This a 2 disc set: one a CD covering key songs from Keelaghan's pen, looking back over the first 25 years of his career; and the second is a DVD covering the stories behind the songs. Whilst both are rewarding, it is the DVD that really pays dividends here.

So, as if a 78 minutes CD of quality performances of his back catalogue was not enough, Borealis Records provide this wondrous DVD of Keelaghan talking about what prompted him to write the chosen songs.

How it works is this: on the CD there are 18 studio versions of some of the songs James cherishes the most, and 18 corresponding DVD items. The latter (being his explanations) help put additional clothes on the bones of the former. Actually these interviews are more than explanations as to the birth of each song: they also include him recounting unusual aspects regarding performances of the songs, down the years.

I found the DVD riveting. If I am honest, probably more so than some of the songs on the CD. That said, when the songs worked for me, they really delivered the goods.

Take a song I thought I was well familiar with, the opening track Abraham. The harmonies in the chorus just put fire through my veins and I got to thinking, why is it so much more impressive this time than on his 1993 album? Is it just that the mastering by Harris Newman makes this version seem so much better? So much crisper, with so much more oomph.

I decided no. Yes of course it was a factor, but then I realised that vitally, producer Andy Frank had now the pure nous to move the song way up the batting order from #10 in the 1993 album, to opener in 2013. And what a decision! The perfect opener. Made even more perfect when you watch the DVD explaining the origins of the song.

There are some well-crafted songs here. I have favourably reviewed his recording of his songs Fire Of Calais and Cold Missouri Waters in these pages before: this time it was his ambushing me with his choice of that fine old ballad originally from the 1920s, Spanish Is The Loving Tongue, that knocked me for six. Delicious.

Nice to see Kiri's Piano there too, even if I somewhat part company with his conclusion in the last lines of one of his most universally loved songs. And of course, one cannot in all conscience write a review of this record without mentioning the magnificent Oscar Lopez, whose guitar work is so scintillating that many a decent fellow guitarist down the years, must have either drawn huge inspiration from him or else decided that the easier option was to switch instrument!

Is this a suitably impressive way to mark a glittering career of a quarter of a century? Oh yes, no danger of it not being. I especially appreciated that classy DVD, and hope that other Folk artistes will take a leaf out of the Keelaghan book. After all, this dual format is almost de rigueur these days with major classical and MOR artistes.

What a refreshing change it is to have someone explain how a song came to be written, and then follow that up with some fascinating peripheral detail regarding that song. Apart from being a blessing to the fan who buys the product, the CD Reviewer like myself, really appreciates this valuable access and insight into the whole creative process.

And it sure beats the normal cop-out by many recording artistes of keeping their customers happy with a liner booklet containing nothing but lyrics. And even here Keelaghan comes up trumps, with a handsome liner booklet of 28 pages of pictures and text from his own pen, and blessedly not a song lyric in sight.

Dai Woosnam

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This album was reviewed in Issue 99 of The Living Tradition magazine.