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BRIAN McGRATH - Pure Banjo

BRIAN McGRATH - Pure Banjo
Gael Linn CEFCD192

Pure Banjo is a bit of a misnomer as this Fermanagh musician also displays his considerable talents on guitars and keyboards with a long overdue solo recording, and is joined by a few friends: only three quarters of the dozen tracks feature Brian’s brilliant old-style plunking.  The ‘20s and ‘30s sound which Brian champions with the band At The Racket is expertly exemplified by the opening pair of barndances, but most of this album concentrates on timeless classic reels and jigs: The Liffey Banks, The Shaskeen, Scatter the Mud, The Mist Covered Mountain, The Stony Steps and Fasten the Legging, to name a few. Maids of Mount Cisco and Killarney Boys of Pleasure are reels currently in vogue, but you’d struggle to find a better recording.

The three banjo-free tracks are a delight and a surprise.  The charming Carolan air Planxty Davis is not often recorded, but handled with sensitivity and skill here.  The Morning Thrush, popular since the posthumous release of Seamus Ennis’ Return from Fingal on CD, works beautifully on guitar.  Mick O’Connor’s Reels are new to me; they started life as banjo tunes, but transfer surprisingly well to a tenor guitar arrangement at a restrained pace.  Indeed, there’s a sense of controlled energy on much of Pure Banjo, which adds to the excitement, recalling players like Kieran Hanrahan or Mick Moloney.

As well as providing some of the best banjo playing around, this album also helps to dispel one or two old banjo myths. The liner notes feature the uncommon claim that “Brian started playing piano ... and later progressed to the accordion and banjo”, Brian himself uses the term “banjoist” to describe the player not the jokes, and the back cover clearly shows the tuning pegs from Brian’s banjo, proving that there isn’t such a big difference between a banjo and a Harley after all.  If you like your banjo pure, or with a slight twist, and you’re in the mood for some great tunes in the style of the mid twentieth century, be sure to pick up this CD: it should be readily available.

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This album was reviewed in Issue 82 of The Living Tradition magazine.