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SEÁN DONNELLY - The Winding Banks Of Erne

SEÁN DONNELLY - The Winding Banks Of Erne
Private Label LTCD9008

Seán, originally from Omagh, Co. Tyrone, has for the past two decades been resident in Newcastle, Co Down; a fixture on the folk club and festival circuit, he’s released no fewer than six albums to date, and yet he remains a best-kept secret, a true “quiet man” of folk in both senses of the term. When you encounter Seán for the first time, you’re reduced to silence in the nicest possible way, captivated and enraptured, for he’s a thoroughly charming, gentle soul with a velvety voice to match and an uncanny ability to select just the right songs for his special kind of delivery.

On his latest CD, these include a number of songs with Ulster connections: I Wish My Love Was A Red Red Rose was learned from Sarah Makem, and is an oft-requested number from Seán’s very first album now revisited for today, while Johnny Lovely Johnny has specific Tyrone connections, Come O’er The Mountain comes from the singing of Len Graham and the wonderfully melancholy Now The Swallows Are Away comes from the pen of Martin Donnelly from Co. Antrim.

Album highlights include the two songs in which Seán himself had more than a hand: his own beautifully poignant composition I’m A Stranger Here (which presents the salutary lesson that looking backwards too often isn’t such a good idea), and the disc’s title song, a setting by Seán himself of a William Allingham poem which tellingly develops the theme of reconstruction in the mind of a lost place. Connected to these two songs in more than just spirit is Seán’s tender rendition of Eamon Friel’s slightly enigmatic word-picture of Derry, Hard Town. Another standout song is The Blackbird Of Slane, the moving story of Irish First World War poet Francis Ledwidge. The tracklist is completed by three rather more well-known songs: Percy French’s immortal The Mountains Of Mourne (in whose shadow Seán lives – so that gives him an excuse to record it!), Dave McEnery’s Ballad Of Amelia Earhart (originally made famous by Plainsong) and Gerry O’Beirne’s genial truck-driving opus Western Highway.

All of these are rendered with Seán’s own understated brand of simple and unfussy vocal magic, which trips along unhurriedly to an admirably restrained, gentle accompaniment from Seán’s own guitar with careful embellishments from album producer Gerard Dornan (piano), Brendan Monaghan (uilleann pipes, whistle) and Siobhan Skates (backing vocals on three songs). If there’s anything to criticise – mildly, I hasten to add – it’s that the pace is too even and the soft-focus almost too consistent over the disc’s 46-minute span.

David Kidman

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This album was reviewed in Issue 88 of The Living Tradition magazine.