Music | MUSIC NOMAD

Tradition and innovation in modern Celtic music

Julie Murphy and Sharon Shannon are two of the most talented, forward-looking and musically challenging women in Celtic music. Both have captured the spirit of the times, setting a benchmark for a new generation of musicians in their respective traditions. They will soon be performing in Japan with fine bands, in gigs that should not be missed by anyone with even a passing interest in Celtic or roots music.

Fernhill’s Andy Cutting, Cass Meurig and Julie Murphy

Welsh music isn’t obviously “Celtic” music at all, sharing few similarities with its better-known Irish or Scottish cousins and their medieval and baroque elements. While Welsh rock bands from Manic Street Preachers to Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci were putting Welsh contemporary music firmly on the music map — sometimes even singing in Welsh — nobody had really picked up the mantle for the traditional music with the same zest. That is, until Fernhill arrived on the scene with its first album in 1996.

It came as quite a shock to discover that the voice behind those Welsh lyrics, delivered with a remarkable intensity and beauty, was in fact that of a woman from Essex, England — Julie Murphy.

Murphy had met Welsh multi-instrumentalist and composer Ceri Rhys Matthews while studying in England, after which they relocated to a Welsh-speaking village. In the mid-’80s they and flutist Jonathan Shorland formed the group Saith Rhyfeddod, a forerunner to Fernhill.

Out of a recording session for a track on a Celtic compilation album, Murphy, Matthews, Shorland and Andy Cutting, a button accordion player, formed Fernhill. Cutting, who had played on one of Murphy’s British Council-sponsored solo tours, was already well-known as a member of the defunct Blozabella, as part of a duo with fiddle player Chris Wood and from his work with Sting and June Tabor.

Fernhill’s first album, “Ca ‘Nos,” only hinted at the brilliance of the following two. The second, “Llatai,” explored the links between Breton and Welsh music, gave traditional songs a new richness and displayed the group’s inventiveness as a songwriting team.

Now Fernhill is without Shorland and is operating as a trio. On its latest album, “Whilia” (Welsh for “talking”), the band has put traditional narratives to music to form a cohesive and picturesque whole. Liner notes provide a translation, but the music can stand on its own. There are several great dance tunes with clarinet, pipes, guitars and fiddles, and Murphy’s voice is pure and lyrical.

For Fernhill’s Tokyo concert, Murphy and Cutting will perform without Matthews but will be joined by guest fiddle player Cass Meurig.

Sharon Shannon

Sharon Shannon and her band, The Woodchoppers, are just about the hottest thing around in Irish music right now. For years, Shannon’s amazing dexterity as an accordion player has been well-known. But though her first solo album was released 10 years ago, it’s only relatively recently that she has really come into her own as the leader of a band.

From Corofin, County Clare, she grew up listening almost exclusively to traditional music. Over the years, she developed an unquenchable thirst for other music styles and had the talent to absorb them organically.

The musical adventure of the shy but affable Shannon began in a supporting role for the Waterboys. She toured with them for 18 months, during which, bursting with ideas, she was anxious to get in the studio to record a solo album.

It says something of her standing that she was able to enlist the help of not only various Waterboys, but Adam Clayton of U2 and Liam O’Maonlai of Hothouse Flowers. Some tracks on her sophomore release, “Out the Gap,” were produced by reggae producer Dennis Bovell, while the Donal Lunny-produced third album, “Each Little Thing,” included songs by Grace Jones and Fleetwood Mac.

Shannon’s accordion continued to adorn other projects. She was a member of Lunny’s group Coolfin, and her rousing tune “Cavan Potholes” was the outstanding track on another Lunny project, the “Common Ground” album — even in the company of such luminaries as Elvis Costello, Bono, Adam Clayton and Kate Bush.

Shannon’s latest album, “The Diamond Mountain Sessions,” includes more heavyweight musical guests than ever before, including Steve Earle, Jackson Browne and Hothouse Flowers. Still, the standout tracks are the instrumentals, in which Shannon’s playing is brought to the fore.

On stage, Shannon is out front, bouncing away with zest and freshness, reaching dizzying heights of prowess on her accordion. Like her, The Woodchoppers are all young, technically brilliant and look like they’re having a great time on stage, making sure the audience does, too.

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