Tommy O’Sullivan




Song Ablaze


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Own label – no catalogue number; 40 minutes; 1993/2003



Several years ago, while researching The Rough Guide to Ireland, I came across the original cassette version of this album while trawling through the Irish Traditional Music Archive. Unfortunately, this was shortly after a trip to Kerry where I’d managed to catch Tommy playing with Séamus Begley in Derry’s An Droichead Beag one Sunday night (and had the great pleasure of Tommy’s company over a late breakfast the following morning).


I did not ask him about Legacy then and Tommy was far too modest to mention its existence. So when I came across ITMA’s copy I vowed to acquire my own the next time I visited Dingle. Unhappily, when this finally occurred, Tommy was across the pond touring with Paddy Keenan.


Therefore, I was extremely pleased when this digitally remastered CD version of Legacy dropped on my doormat and even happier to discover that my memories of Tommy’s versatility as a guitarist are so vividly captured on this album.


For those unfamiliar with Tommy O’Sullivan, apart from his work with Paddy Keenan (which produced The Long Grazing Acre), he is also a member of the trio Sliabh Notes while his track record include spells with the bands Ash Plant and Skellig (the latter also included flute player Cían O’Sullivan and accordionist Derek Hickey – see the Magnetic Music album 5th St. Patrick’s Day Celebration Festival: A Hurricane of Novelties) and has recorded with the likes of Cathal Hayden. My paths crossed Tommy’s on several occasions during the 1980s (though neither of us could recollect actually meeting) since he played regularly at the old Victoria on Holloway Road with the likes of Jimmy Power and occasional sessions in the Queen’s Head, Crouch End, while also working as bookings manager at the much-lamented Weavers Arms near Newington Green.


Legacy is a short album by modern standards but packs a variety of treats into its twelve tracks. Tommy is, of course, well-known for the quality of  his voice – a prominent feature of a Sliabh Notes gig – and the emotions he manages to convey through trusty delivery of a wide repertoire of songs. Four feature on Legacy, two of which he has subsequently re-recorded elsewhere: Tony Small’s The Welcome also features on the Sliabh Notes album Gleanntán; and, The Maids of Culmore appears on both the Erne album and The Long Grazing Acre). The other two songs are the very well-known The Water is Wide and the bluesy The Factory Girl (which must be popular down in Dingle as Eilís Kennedy has also recorded it on her Time to Sail CD).


However, the stand-out tracks for me are those where Tommy exhibits his guitar skills, whether playing solo on The Plains of Boyle/Off to California or in combination with Cían O’Sullivan’s low whistle on Tommy’s own now pretty well-known composition Jutland. Finger-picking comes to the fore on another tune from Tommy’s pen, The Lispole Polka, where he is joined by Steve Cooney on a second strummed drone-like guitar, which runs into a Mick Hanly tune, Jessica’s Polka, where Matt Cranitch’s fiddle joins the fray to provide a rousing finale.


Albums featuring Irish traditional music played on the acoustic guitar are a relative rarity so it is apt that Arty McGlynn, supplier of the genre’s best-known release, McGlynn’s Fancy, should supply the liner notes to an essential addition to that small, but well cultivated field.



Song Ablaze


Own label – no catalogue number; 47 minutes; 2006


Eventually, after some twenty years as a professional musician, Tommy has finally released his own album of songs and it’s deserving of far more attention than, sadly, it’s ever likely to get. Of course, there’s one simple reason for that. This is an ‘own label’ recording and, though the singer sometimes occupies the same territory as, say, Tommy Fleming, the lack of a label’s clout and associated PR means that Song Ablaze is doomed to sell more copies at Tommy’s gigs than in Ireland’s ever-declining number of record stores – and more’s the pity!


Anyone who’s ever attended a recent Paddy Keenan gig or those now rare occasions when Sliabh Notes tour will be well aware of Tommy’s astute ear for a song suitable for his expressive tenor voice. There’s a ten-pack here which fits the bill. Three come from the pen of Jimmy McCarthy, including a reprise of Tommy’s Sliabh Notes showstopper The People of West Cork and Kerry.


Three more are traditional, including a silky version of She Moved Through the Fair (embellished by atmospheric O’Sullivan guitar work) while Tommy also provides two excellent self-compositions, including the jazzily-arranged Make Me Believe. Of the other two tracks, the most notable is the closing rendition of Tom Waits’s Shiver Me Timbers, featuring eloquent piano from Catriona McKay. As Tommy notes, Waits actually lived in Cahirciveen in the 1970s and it’s possible that the song dates from that time.


Lastly, a key point needs to be made about this thoroughly enjoyable album. Both its production and the accompaniment (from Catriona, Chris Stout, David Robertson and James Blennerhasset) provides a suitably mellow framework for Tommy’s equally melodious vocals. Additionally, fellow Kerry resident Éilís Kennedy’s there to offer apposite harmonies while, thanks to the Web and the wonders of Dingle’s Internet Café, there are also contributions from Tim O’Brien (vocals and mandolin) and Pete Grant (dobro and banjo).



These are original reviews by Geoff Wallis.


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