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MICHELLE BURKE - Step Into My Parlour

MICHELLE BURKE - Step Into My Parlour
Kilcronat Records KLC002CD

Although hailing originally from rural east Cork, Michelle subsequently spent only two hectic years (2008-2010) in the role of lead singer with long-established American-Irish outfit Cherish The Ladies. And that profile’s been a hard one to shift, even though she’s been based in Scotland for well over a decade and regularly surrounds herself with creative musicians from the thriving Scottish scene, many of whom had contributed to the success of her 2010 solo album Pulling Threads.

Michelle’s never lost sight of her musical roots though, and in 2012, in tandem with her long-term musical partner, pianist James Ross, she staged a quirky little programme at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe that, with its apposite mix of traditional and music-hall songs, brought back the aura of the family gatherings with which she grew up. Indeed, the idea for the show had been triggered by the discovery of her great-grandmother’s dusty old scrapbook. Enticingly named Step Into My Parlour, the show has since been staged several times, most recently at this year’s Celtic Connections festival. Here, then, is what amounts to an audio equivalent – but it’s much more than that, for Michelle has managed to persuade a stunning array of guest singers and musicians to participate in the recording, including her mentor Cathal McConnell and Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Rhiannon Giddens (who join their voices with Michelle on two tracks apiece), Maura O’Connell and Heidi Talbot. Keenly idiomatic instrumental support comes courtesy of James Ross, Anna Massie, Brendan Power, Martin O’Neill, John Kenny, Kathleen Boyle and Euan Burton.

But it’s Michelle’s own intensely seductive voice, with its natural, proudly genuine Irish accent, that remains the star of the show – as well it should be. She enters into the spirit of these songs readily, almost as a reincarnated soul, yet tempered with all the affection of deep hindsight. The mix of material generously reflects that which might have been performed at the family singsongs: the delightful traditional ditty A Kiss In The Morning Early, the coquettish opener Eileen O’Grady, the sad tale of Dan O’Hara (from the singing of Delia Murphy), the old Platters’ doowop standard Twilight Time and My Boy Billy (learnt from Jimmy Crowley, and here done as a family-get-together piece). Two recently-composed songs are also included: Alan Bell’s poignant anthem So Here’s To You and Sandy Wright’s Dublin Diner. Michelle’s pared-down (mainly voice and piano) account of The Gypsies is a standout amongst the altogether lighter fare of the majority of the menu, while at the other extreme an intentional highlight of the disc comes with great-aunt Peggy’s famous, silly party piece Whooped And Died, where Michelle enthusiastically gives her all, riotously supported by a host of cousins and family friends.

Altogether, Step Into My Parlour is a gently heartwarming record, which makes a virtue of sentiment rather than a vice of sentimentality, for one of its key qualities is its puckish vivacity, which serves to keep any potential mawkishness at bay. Inevitably, there will be some listeners who will consider much of the material, and to some extent its presentation, mildly “staged” and thus will remain impervious to Michelle’s charms, but for me the appeal of her vocal personality easily overrides any reservations on that count.

David Kidman

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This album was reviewed in Issue 107 of The Living Tradition magazine.