Noel Hill and Tony Mac Mahon

I gCnoc na Graí

Gael Linn CEFCD 114; 52 minutes; 2005 CD reissue of 1985 LP


Anyone who doesn’t already own this album should know that that it has long been justifiably regarded as a classic. Recorded  live in Dan Connell’s bar, Knocknagree, with a quartet of Clare dancers, Hill’s concertina and Mac Mahon’s accordion gel together in tremendous fashion. Writing some twenty years ago in the still essential Appletree Press pocket guide, Irish Traditional Music, Ciaran Carson commented ‘Why does it seem a radical concept to record the music in the context in which it is played?’ adding ‘This record is manifestly about something: we need to be reminded more often that music does not exist in a vacuum.” 


Of course, Ciaran is utterly right, but remarkably few similar live recordings have been issued during the intervening years. Sure, there are plenty of live concert recordings, but few which actually take the local as the locale and even fewer which try to capture the atmosphere of an event. Why that should be so is open to debate, but one might surmise that it is so much easier to record in a studio than deal with a pub’s dodgy acoustics or set up recording paraphernalia in one corner only to discover that the musicians prefer another area (see the notes to Music at Matt Molloy’s, for example).


However, I gCnoc na Graí does not simply reproduce the ambience of that night in October 1985, but remains a wonderful testament to the dazzling playing of both Noel and Tony. The latter is, of course, one of the foremost interpreters of airs and there are a couple of examples here which, in turn, both warm the heart and chill the marrow. The first is the astonishing Port na bPúcaí which might even have made Ó Riada recant his description of Mac Mahon’s chosen instrument as an ‘ugly sounding import’. The second, and the album’s closing track, is Aisling Gheal where it becomes almost impossible to understand how Tony transforms such a mechanical instrument as the accordion into an expressively emotive medium.


Noel too is in scintillating form, as his solo reel The Pure Drop fully reveals, but the album remains most memorable for the times when the two box-players (and, let’s face it, men of very different temperaments) are harnessed together and head off into the wilds like a pair of horses suddenly given a whack round the withers with a bunch of nettles.


There are no marked differences between this reissue and the original CD re-release other than a slightly different liner cover and a reworking of the contents of the notes themselves. So again one must query Gael Linn’s reissue policies.


Is it the case that the fifty or so minutes of music on this album represent all that was actually recorded and, if not, why has this reissue not been bolstered by previously unreleased tracks? If this seems curmudgeonly regarding such a vital album, bear in mind that it has been available for twenty years. Oh, and it is a minor point, but why does the disc itself bear the date 1975?


Geoff Wallis


2nd April, 2005


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