Review by Joseph Sherman
Donnchadh Gough's a demon drummer. Built mast-high and crowned with a mop of unruly hair, he hunches low over his amplified bodhran and whacks the tar out of it with one of his several tippers. Except there's no tar and his playing is actually the subtlest I've heard, bar Donal Lunny's. Not many drummers can command so much of a concert without alienating even die-hard percussionophiles, but young Gough is remarkably adept, as well as engaging.
"Young" and "engaging" apply to all seven members of Danú, an award-winning ensemble that may well be the finest progressive-traditional (my term) Irish band touring today. I measure all such groups against the celestial standard set by the Bothy Band and Planxty a few decades ago. Danú weighs in convincingly.
Prog-trad bands are usually either pipe+flute-or accordion-driven (pipes nucleated the sound of the Bothies and Planxty both), but Danú dares to convene bellows and reeds, offering button and piano accordions (played by Brendan McCarthy and Ciarán Ó Gealbháin, respectively) and Uilleann pipes played by none other than Gough the goater. In fact, one of my few gripes about Danú-in-concert is that you can't hear both bodhran and pipes simultaneously. (McCarthy does tease the goatskin when Gough tweedles, but shouldn't bother.)
Danú's live arrangements are not subtle (though they impress on CD, curiously), and all seven players put out on nearly every tune, which makes for a righteous noise and an abundance of squeezebox. I'd favour a tad more finesse and some selective soloing.
These are impressive individual musicians. Tom Doorley's flute playing is wondrously confident, and Jesse Smith's fiddling is textured and stylized. Any good prog-trad group offers a significant rhythm player or players; here they are Eamon Doorley on bouzouki/cittern and Noel Ryan on guitar.
This was my second Danú show and first full concert-a real test of their stage presence. The boys aren't yet slick and showy, just a bunch of highly talented college-agers who happen to be musically disciplined, if like weary Celtic cherubim (having just flown in from Vancouver). And as much as I loved the jigs and reels -most traditional, some newly composed- the highlights for me were vocal. Ciarán Ó Gealbháin, a child of the Waterford Gaeltacht, is a well-trained Irish traditional singer, and his soulful rendition of "The Fair-haired Child" nailed down the first half, as did his harvest song and a version of "Fair and Tender Ladies" in the second.
In the years since the demobbing of Planxty and the Bothies (both linked to the venerable Chieftains by virtuoso flutist Matt Molloy), I've been hard pressed to find real satisfaction with another Celtic band. There's Déanta and, sometimes, Altan. But the raw spirit that infused my favourites seems reborn with Danú. If they can stick together (there's to be a fiddler changeover this fall), I expect to be listening with great pleasure to their umpteenth CD. They've put out two to date and have built an enviable fan base across North America.
Judging by the enthusiastic SRO audiences at both the concerts I've attended, the PEI roots Danú's put down will remain well watered. Maturity will produce an even richer sound. For now, exceptional musicianship and youthful exuberance are just nifty.
Joseph Sherman is a poet and dilettante bodhran player.