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CEOLBEG - "Cairn Water" - Greentrax Recordings CDTRAX188

Peter, Wendy and the boys are back for their fifth album on the Greentrax label, featuring the return of lost boy Gary West on pipes, and new boy Mike Travis of Clan Alba on drums. In twelve tracks and 54 minutes, Cairn Water confirms Ceolbeg's reputation as one of the most innovative traditional bands anywhere.

The seven instrumental tracks clearly bear the stamp of Gary West. As well as taking composer's credits for two of them, Gary brings a fire and freshness which was somewhat lacking on the last album. The three faster sets are all great tunes well played, but they're more than that: they range across Scottish, Irish, Spanish and Nova Scotian piping, taking the best of old and new compositions and producing a snapshot of Celtic dance music which is second to none. "The Return of the Bunny" set will be particularly welcome to Ceolbeg fans, wedding a powerful modern hornpipe to Neil Dickie's wonderfully offbeat jig Not the Bunny Hop.

It's not all pace and power, though. Gary's lament for two brothers "Drumchorrie" is an instant classic: achingly poignant yet full of dignity, it reminds me of Piper Alpha as recorded by Shotts & Dykehead. The arrangement is beautiful: one of Ceolbeg's strengths is their ability to add irresistible lift to some tunes and reduce you to tears on others. The contrast between "Drumchorrie" and "Return of the Bunny" is breathtaking. It's also worth noting that there are no guest musicians on this recording: look, Mum, no extra hands!

The other notable slow track is "Cairn Water", composed by harpist Wendy Stewart. This is a lovely gentle air, sustained for over four minutes by imaginative backing. The front line of whistle and harp works perfectly, with Wendy superbly evoking the rippling water. Wendy also gives us a version of the Burns song "Were I On Parnassus' Hill" set to one of those beautiful sad Gaelic lovesongs.

Rod Paterson provides the other four songs, and they're a very mixed bunch. The best of them is the traditional ballad of attempted rape, "Eppie Moray", the longest track at well over six minutes. Rod's voice conveys the grisliness and scorn of the story, and the eerie arrangement is a tour de force.

Two modern almost-folk songs bring up the tail end of the CD, one from Michael Marra and one from Gerry Rafferty. Neither of them appeals to me, although sixties rock on the highland pipes is interesting: the Rafferty lyrics are rather trite, and as Rod points out they "died a natural death" about twenty years ago, and Marra is probably too deep for me.

Perhaps the most surprising song is Rod's opening "Shoals of Herring". I thought this one "died a natural death" shortly after The Corries got hold of it, but apparently not. Rod claims that the demise of the fishing industry adds poignancy: I would argue that it certainly adds a large helping of irrelevance. What do you think? In any case, the words seem to have rusted from lack of use.

To sum up, if you ignore the three strange songs then this is a very fine album of vibrant traditional music. Rod Paterson may be harking back to his Easy Club days, but perhaps lots of Ceolbeg fans will want to reminisce along with him: and, as they say in the popular music business, nine out of twelve ain't bad.

Alex Monaghan

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This album was reviewed in Issue 38 of The Living Tradition magazine.