Steve Reel’s Celtic Knights and The Unfortunate Rakes’ Rakes Alive!

cover artThis review was contributed by Mike Stiles.

These two CDs benchmark the glorious growth of the guitar in Celtic music. I encourage those readers who haven’t yet checked out the Celtic scene to do so by bouncing off some familiar reference points and into these two recordings. For the rest of you, we’ll be calling up some old friends to help put these artists in the limelight they deserve.

Let’s start with Celtic Knights. This is one of those have-to-hear-it-to-believe-it solo efforts by Steve Reel (with a name like that, how can you not play Celtic?). Steve plays nothing less than guitars, ouds, lutes, flutes, banjos, bodhrans, fiddles, dulcimers, bagpipes, drums, and various sequencers. Cathie Reel joins in with keyboards on “Bonnie Dundee.”

Steve’s guitar playing draws from many sources, but to give you a rough idea, its foundation rests on the flat-picking styles pioneered in the Bluegrass tradition by Doc Watson and cohorts. You will also hear more than a passing strain of Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull.

Celtic Knights opens strongly with “Napoleon Crossing the Rhine.” There’s a great front-end presentation of drum beats that breaks out into some really decent lead guitar, ebbing and flowing between traditional transcription of the tune and some searing acoustic improv. Speaking of percussion, the second piece, “Scotland the Brave” has some great drum work in it. It’s reminiscent of what came together of Tim Newton’s work on SixMileBridge’s No Strangers. The layers on this set of tunes include a stint of bagpipes for the Scottish segment followed by a guitar rendition of the American standard “Turkey in the Straw.”

“Jug of Brown Ale” juxtaposes Irish and Afro melodies and rhythms in its bridges. “Fiesta del Sol” works from Galician and Spanish glosses, and Steve does a commendable job of flat-picking Flamenco. “Dance of the Woodsprites” and “Fairies’ Waltz” put out the lilting Celtic delivery on the strings while providing a quite satisfying inter-weave of keyboards.

One strategy behind Steve’s versatility is to break the melody out into flat-picked guitar lines and then layer in the other instruments and percussion. Celtic Knights is really fun to play along with, especially if you like to invent rhythm guitar lines. Add to that the imaginative artwork of the liner notes, and you have a CD that definitively belongs in your collection.

I must warn, however, that if you insist that your rock ‘n’ reel be hard-driving and non-stop, this CD will not appeal to you. For example, the Greenland Whalefishers do a much more hard-core Pogues-like rendition of “Rising of the Moon” than Steve does. The only criticism I have of Celtic Knights is that at times the production is a bit on the slick and studio-bound side. Perhaps the best thing is to recommend that you buy this CD (did I say that already?) and then catch Steve at one of his many live gigs for comparison.

(Gaia’s Light Records, 2003)

Rakes Alive! is certainly alive with the magic of three different minds disciplined to ravel their instincts together, apart, together again – jump now! – back off, together once more, and the song goes ever onward. The Rakes are Michael DeLalla (guitars, bodhran, vocals), Chas Fowler (pipes, whistles, vocals), and Bruce Wilkin (fiddle, banjo, vocals).

Michael DeLalla’s finger-style guitar genius is akin to that of Tony McManus and of the inspired constructionisms of John Doyle of Solas. He also is of a class of what I call the Unholy Triumvirate of the American Acoustic Guitar: David Bromberg, John Fahey, and Leo Kottke.

Rakes Alive! is indeed a live recording, and it’s always great to hear an appreciative audience respond to a group that’s been at it for a while. And they start it all off on the right foot with their banner set, “Opening Air / The Unfortunate Rakes / The Road to Lisdoonvarna / Morrison’s Jig.”

“Merrily Kissed the Quaker / Cunla” serve up second and reveal the deeper intimations of Michael’s guitar. This set is an advanced study in the playing of melody on the high strings while dancing the rhythm off the lower ones, with nary a finger left unemployed through the whole lot. What makes the experience even more remarkable is that Chas and Bruce hold their own throughout, believe you me. And that applies to the rest of the CD — by no means do I intend to dis the other band members by dint of my bias towards guitar players.

The Rakes do vocals, too. They get beaucoup bonus points for including “The Ould Triangle,” a song written by Brendan Behan about his stint in Mountjoy Gaol. “Ne Bado Ket Atao! (This Will Not Last Forever!)” was penned by Yann-Ber Piriou to commemorate the struggles of the Celtic inhabitants of Bretagne. And speaking of revolutionary sentiments, I became a solid Rakes fan while listening to their rendition of “The Rights of Man,” a traditional Irish reel dedicated to the ideas of Thomas Paine.

There’s no lack of versatility to this CD, either. You get an O’Carolan (“Mrs. Sterling”), polkas (“Port Lairge / Spanish Ladies”), and an American Civil War number (“The Eagle’s Whistle”). And for as much as Michael is a guitar guru, the group freely admits that the particular instrument is fairly new to the Celtic tradition and so omit it from the set “Man of the House / Touch Me if You Dare.” They of course follow it up with “Return to Fingal / Banish Misfortune / Julia Delaney,” which boasts one of the finest guitar arrangements of the concert.

So there you have it, two CDs that feature different philosophies on how to play Celtic guitar. In my world there’s plenty of room for them both, as well as for any other artists that combine the various styles, invent new ones, or play the ones in between.

(Falling Mountain Music, 2003)

Diverse Voices

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