Five years after his solo debut, Cormac Begley has released another heartstopping collection, this time focused on the bass and baritone concertinas. Many listeners are well acquainted with the concertina, but hearing it in all its full-blown glory, mining the much lower registers that Cormac is drawn to, is a revelation akin to discovering a hitherto unknown older sibling.
This is a collection that swoops and soars on the back of surprise interpretations of familiar (and some not so familiar) tunes; that shakes, rattles and rolls in between the remarkably percussive qualities of the belly-deep bellows, the bespoke drones that he’s had designed into the instruments and the grooves and rhythms of the buttons themselves at times. And stitched in between each set of tunes is that characteristic Begley wit – never taking itself too seriously, but always alive to the intricacies and sensitivities of each tune, and how it might marry with its companion pieces.
There’s a subtle running theme of battle, with O’Neill’s March in the opening set followed by Begley’s own fine tune, To War, and the final hidden track, Brian Ború’s March, and other tune sets taking old tunes and rending them anew (Bean Pháidín, Tá Dhá Ghabhairín Bhuí Agam) as if through detonation. Which is not to say that this collection lacks heart and soul. It’s simply that it draws deep from the heart of west Kerry, where landscape shapes songs, airs, polkas and slides every bit as much as it does townlands, livelihoods and homesteads.
It might have been tempting for Begley to cleave to slow airs, given the stateliness of his chosen concertina registers, and where he chooses these (Slán le Máigh is a standout), they certainly shine in startling new ways. As does The Old Waltz, borrowed from Séamus Ennis. But it’s the surprise choices that keep the listener’s ears pricked. Begley takes the genteel concertina, often enjoyed for the finesse of its tone, and makes it anew, full of muscle, sinew, sweat and blood. This is a solo album but feels more like a mini orchestra, thanks to the breadth and depth of sounds he creates.
And then there’s the loving detail etched in the hexagonal album cover and liner notes, which in itself is worth the price of admission, and the best reason to invest in a good old-fashioned CD. Multilayered to represent the inner workings of the concertina, Dómhnal Ó Bhric’s design has embedded key features of west Kerry’s landscape into the cover so that with each return visit, new elements reveal themselves, musically and visually.
The gift that keeps on giving.