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Buille @ An Droichead, Belfast


Irish folk music, for the most part, remains strongly traditional. That said, it’s easy to forget that the ubiquitous bodhrán – an ancient instrument – didn’t claim widespread legitimacy in the Irish folk idiom until the 1960s, much in the same way that the cajon only filtered into the fiercely conservative flamenco tradition in the 1970s. Traditions evolve, even in seemingly diehard cultures, just as everything else in nature evolves.

Buille, which means ‘beat,’ has danced to its own rhythms since it was formed by Cork-based Armagh brothers Niall and Caiomhin Vallely in 2005, releasing three albums of roots-based, genre-bending music to international acclaim. More of a collective than a stable group, concertina player Niall and pianist/keyboardist Caiomhin have welcomed numerous musicians into the fold over the years and two concerts rarely boast exactly the same line-up.

That fluidity in personnel, the openness to creating new music each night, is essentially what defines Buille and what makes its music so rewarding each time. This four-date tour, a Moving On Music production, sees the Vallely brothers joined by acoustic guitarist Ed Boyd and special guests, trumpeter Neil Yates and bodhrán player Jim Higgins.

The evening, however, kicks off with a short slot from recently formed band Briste. The trio of bodhrán player Alison Crossey, flute/whistle player Emma Robinson and banjo player Joanna Boyle may only have been together since late 2015, but all are seasoned musicians who collectively have played with the likes of Francis Black, Fluke, Beoga, The Olllam and Four Men and a Dog, to name but a few.

With guest guitarist Jonny Toman lending additional rhythmic gusto, Briste launch into a set or reels steered by Robinson’s soaring flute. Boyle and Robinson’s fluid and note-perfect unison playing is spirited and joyous. Boyle sings lead on country mega-star George Strait’s ‘A Showman’s Life’, with Crossey harmonizing. The crowd in An Droichead is a little smaller than the 104,000 who attended Strait’s farewell performance in Texas in 2014, but it shows warm appreciation for Briste’s heartfelt delivery.

The cheery melodicism of traditional song ‘William Taylor’ – beloved of English, Irish and American folk musicians alike – is strikingly at odds with a tale of soap opera proportions that relates pressganging, cross-dressing, adultery and murderous revenge.

A final set closes an impressive performance in style, moving from gently stated lyricism to gutsy, flowing virtuosity, with effective changes of gear along the way. With its debut CD due for autumn release, and with a new website just launched, Briste seems set for a bright future.

It’s worth noting too, that Jonny Toman – on banjo – has just released “Living Roots” (2016) with fiddler Brendan Henry – a splendid meeting of Irish and Appalachian tunes.

After a swift turnaround, Buille sets off with a couple of breezy sets of reels, the second of which, ‘Dog a L’Orange’ features Niall Vallely’s dizzyingly fast concertina playing.  Melody, however, is always to the fore, no matter how accelerated the music. Higgins and Yates join the trio on the lovely ‘Bell Harbour’ – one of several tunes from Buille’s latest CD, “Beo” (2015) – with Yates’ drawn out notes and Higgins’ brushes-stroked bodhrán adding subtle dynamics and textures.

With Caiomhin Vallely on keys sounding the familiar intro to Miles Davis’ ‘So What’ the concert takes a left-field turn away from straight-ahead folk. ‘What So’, as the title suggests, takes playful liberty with Davis’ iconic tune, blurring the lines between folk and jazz with some panache.

The adrenaline-charged stomp ‘Clifton Road’ is followed by the episodic ‘The Oblique Tune’; forged in the key of F minor and named after pianist Glen Gould’s comment that F is the most oblique of all keys, its dancing melodies, pedal effects and galloping rhythms entwine potently. The first set concludes with ‘The Wrong House’, a heady reel that races towards a storming finale.

Gorgeous balladry from the original trio opens the second set, with concertina and then keys in turn caressing a melody of melting lyricism. Boyd’s assertive strumming lights the fuse, ushering in rushing, celebratory concertina lines and sympathetically buoyant rhythms. Yates and Higgins return on the pastoral reverie of ‘The Speckled Water’, the trumpeter weaving gently seductive contours. Yates – one of the UK’s most respected jazz musicians – shows tremendous feel for traditional music on ‘Humours of Ballyloughlin’, his infectious jig inspired by legendary flutist Matt Molloy’s version.

The seamless melting of Irish trad with other musical traditions is beautifully exemplified on Joe Zawinul’s hypnotic tone poem ‘In a Silent Way’. Faithful in spirit to the Weather Report leader’s original composition, ethereal concertina, keys and trumpet waves gradually embrace more clearly Irish sonic terrain, though the reverie remains unbroken as musical borders disappear.

There’s still plenty of juice in the tank, as the melodically and rhythmically persuasive ‘Junctions’ demonstrates, where collective brio reigns. ‘A Major Minor Victory’, brings the concert to a climax, with pronounced concertina melodies and driving rhythms the stuff of festival fever.

Common sense dictates that the band stays put for an encore – another wonderfully tuneful reel with which to intoxicate further still the audience.

Uplifting, chemistry-altering magic from one of Ireland’s very best contemporary trad/roots outfits. Ian Patterson