Yer a quare brave man, Brian Houston! Albums of Irish traditional songs have been done before and when you go this road you are immediately competing with Van Morrison and Brian Kennedy.
Well, as usual Houston more than holds his own. Though I love Morrison’s Celtic Heartbeat, a collaboration with The Chieftains, and Kennedy’s two On Song albums Houston just has them. Songs From My My Father is a little more focused and more carefully constructed than Van’s and has a little more rock n roll authentic clout than Kennedy’s.
When I say more carefully constructed, there are not the number of instruments at work in Houston’s songs. It is based around Houston’s guitar which might have been flashier across his catalogue but rarely as dexterous, rhythm driving or authoritative as on Whiskey In The Jar or Irish Rover. Added to Houston’s maturity of arranging and playing there is really only uilleann piper and low whistler John McSherry.
West Belfast’s McSherry’s trad genius is what sweeps Irish grace notes across the piece. Indeed the throwaway pipes jam Ode to Jenny, that became a Houston/McSherry original, might be the song that would be most at home in a West Belfast bar session. East and West of Belfast collaborating in a toe tapping celebratory jig for these wonderful new peaceful days of our city. More of that says I!
Indeed the record is topped and tailed by songs that speak into these Northern Irish post conflict days. The Battle’s O’re strikes a chord, with its:
“March no more my soldier laddie,
There is peace where there once was war.
Sleep in peace my soldier laddie,
Sleep in peace, now the battle's over.”
Then at the end, and maybe the highlight for me, is the least Irish song on the collection. The Band Played Waltzing Matilda was written by a Scottish born Australian Eric Bogle. Though covered by Irish folk singers like The Dubliners, Liam Clancey and Christy Moore ,it is very much about Australian soldiers fighting in Gallipoli in the First World War. That experience was probably very much what Houston’s East Belfast fellow citizens experienced at The Somme which we remember 100 years ago this July. The song is as good a piece of art about the futility of war as any poem from Wilfried Owen or Siegfried Sassoon and Houston gives it a powerful poignancy, McSherry tugging emotions throughout.
Songs From My Father is exactly that, songs Brian Houston’s father used to sing. It is Brian Houston ploughing new fields. It yields a wonderful harvest. There might be more to glean. Across the hedge from this field, a neighbouring field has fertile collaborating instruments of fife and drum. I’d be fascinated with what that might conjure… and an album of Houston/McSherry originals would be very welcome too… maybe with fife and drum on them!
In the meantime… I'll take four nights in Ballygrand... Sweet!