Iona, A Celebration of Twenty
(Barnaby Productions).

This 2-CD set, divided between “Deep Roots” and “New Growth” (or the other way around, if you prefer), is from what Steve Wimick, writing for Dirty Linen Magazine, has called, “The only truly pan-Celtic band performing today."

With such a glowing recommendation coming with the package, what can you expect to hear?

Let’s start with “Deep Roots” (altho the accompanying fold-out sheet discusses “New Growth” first, for some reason – I keep hearing “Roots and Wings,” but that’s just me): the lineup of musicians has changed considerably over the years, with Barbara Tressida-Ryan (lead vocals, ) and Bernard Agent (doumbek and bombarde), the co-founders of Iona and its constants, joined early on by Barbara Seymour (flute, whistles, guitar and vocals), Alan Oresky (fiddle), Diane McFadden (cello, mandolin and bouzouki). Eventually, as others came aboard and some of the early members left, the lineup came to include Nick Smiley (double bass and vocals), Mary Fitzgerald – briefly - Celtic harp and vocals), Bob Mitchell on Highland and Scottish small pipes (with Ian Lawther on pipes, “great and small” following Bob), Susan Walmsley (Hyams) on feet  - from 200-2004 – and a lineup that now has Chuck Lawhorn (bass guitars, vocals and low whistles) and Andrew Dodds, on fiddle since 2004. Hah!

All deserve mention because, in one lineup or another, they are responsible for the fifteen medleys on “Deep Roots,” which range thro the pan-Celtic repertoire of Iona, coming up to the present day.  Digitally remastered from the group’s previous five recordings, this is a rich and gorgeous – the only word – array of vocal and instrumental music, with Barbara Tressida-Ryan’s training as a linguist standing her in good stead, not only in the vocal gymnastics required to get her – and the group’s – tongues and throats around the Garlic languages of Highland Scotland, The Isle of Man, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall  and Brittany, but also sending her on a lovely, throaty version of Spanish Cantigas that shows off her naturally deep alto.

( A pronunciation guide, to at least the titles, is provided for the DJ’s who will be one audience to whom this set is directed; it would have been good if there had also been times of medleys included, for the DJ’s, but I found only one set  going as long as 6 minutes – Track 9 on “Deep Roots,” - with almost all of the rest coming in between 3 and 4 minutes in length. Minimal problem, for a subset of the listening audience only.)

Instrumentally, the band, in its various lineups, moves nimbly thro a similar array of dance tunes from the Celtic countries, with a side-trip to Cape Breton for twin-fiddling on some reels (Brenda Stubbart’s, in particular), an throughout , there are those fine bagpipes, “great and small,” from Bob Mitchell and Ian Lawther. On “Deep Roots,” I especially liked Iona’s setting of “Cam Ye Ower Fae France,” which many people know, of course, from Steeleye Span, and a near-waltz arrangement of “Donald MacGillivray.” The Breton “An Dros/Te Traa Goll Thie (It’s Time To Go)” and When First Her Face I Seen,” which close the side form a fitting conclusion to a survey of Iona’s first twenty years. 

“New Growth” – I take it second, but you could take it first – offers eleven all-new arrangements from the band’s current lineup, and pushes further to explore the Appalachian reaches of Celtic music, with an appropriately jazzy syncopation to some of the tunes, which may even remind some listeners of the Red Clay Ramblers’ celebration of the transition from Ireland to America, ‘way back in the flowering of that great band.  “The Emigrant’s Song” is one of those homesick ballads, with the twist that the returned exile finds he is now a stranger in both lands – how familiar the feeling – and the CD goes on to celebrate influences as varied as Galician and Bolivian, Breton, Quebecois, Scottish and Welsh, all filtered thro the hint of Africa in the background (not for nothing does a doumbek come to be featured in the percussion on this side).  Andrew Dodd’s’ Scottish-style fiddling may remind you of Aly Bain in some places, especially on the medley that combines Barbara Tressida-Ryan rippling along on the Gaelic “puirt a beuil” (mouth music)  of “Seallaibh Curaigh Eoghainn” (Look at Ewan’s Coracle), from jig to Strathspey to reel, with Andrew joining in on the Strathspey and finishing up with, “The Haughs of Cromdale,” one of those tunes you can believe was written on a train between Inverness and Glasgow, and why not. The medley finishes with some happy Quebecois “bottine souriante” “laughing boot” percussive accompaniment from Barbara, again. The finale to the side – and to the set – is a combination of, “The Real Old Mountain Dew/ Maggie’s Pancakes/Crossing the Minch” that makes a fine finale to this celebration of 20 years of music-making. So far.

For more information on this pan-Celtic band, go to: www.IonaMusic.com

(Review copyright by John McLaughlin, June 4, 2006)