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It's Ridiculous If You Don't Own This
on May 26, 2004
As funny man Jack Black once said in "High Fidelity", "It's ridiculous if you don't own this album." ....and that goes double for those who are fans of Van Morrison or Celtic music. "Irish Heartbeat" was a landmark album because it was the first attempt by Celtic traditionalists, The Chieftains, to collaborate with well known popular music singers. Contrary to the complaints of a few "critics", (aye, me friends, they are likely to be agents of the Royal Ulster Constabulary), Paddy and his lads from Dublin do some of their most inspired playing behind Van's soulful crooning. It is a snapshot of Van Morrison riding the crest of his longest wave of artistic success. Arguably the five year period between 1985 and 1990 was the most sustained upward arc of the long and frequently mercurial career of Morrison. The line-up of the Chieftains is also their most musically accomplished grouping in their long 40 plus year history. The six man Chieftain unit on "Irish Heartbeat" played together longer than all other editions of the group combined.
When I first purchased "Irish Heartbeat" in 1988, I confess I did so with a great deal of trepidation. I've never been a fan of collaborative albums by "superstar" musicians. Frequently these albums bring out the worst performance impulses of the musicians. Too often these collaborations becomes a game of musical brinkmanship where musicians play against each other for dominance; or even worse, in an attempt to accommodate each other, musicians play from a banal template, rather than risk being branded a "solo hog" or a "glory hound". I had seen both the Chieftains and Van Morrison live and had nightmarish visions of Van dropping to the floor and lurching into one of his signature stream of consciousness "soul raps" with the clueless Chieftains trying to "get funky with the rhythm." Of course, it didn't work out that way because the collaboration between Van and the Chieftains turned out to be one of those rare matches improved the performance of all the musicians. As it turned out Morrison had considerable depth in his in his renderings of these Celtic standards, but the real surprise is how readily the Chieftains can push Van into some of the most impassioned vocals he's ever done.
Almost every song on "Irish Heartbeat" is a traditional Celtic songs but Morrison's unique treatment of them, make them sound as if he wrote them. Moloney and Morrison, as co-producers, made the right decision to showcase Van's vocals, but the Chieftains sound so comfortable with Morrison's idiosyncratic vocals, it's as if they had been backing him for years. The flute and pipes with the intertwining of stings are sparse enough to give adequate space for Morrison's voice to wander. Morrison is not a traditional "pure" Irish tenor, but he brings his considerable skill at interpreting American rhythm and blues to great effect. Though the music stays traditional, Morrison's unorthodox vocals breathes a fresh perspective into the familiar classics. High points include Van's wickedly hedonistic interpretation of "Marie's Wedding" over the irresistible pulse of Kevin Conneff's Bodhran drum. The "Star of County Down" a frequent set list song for the Chieftains never dazzled as much as on "Irish Heartbeat." The real revelation is the old Irish drinking song "Carrickfergus". This ballad of the tribulations of the drinking class is sung with such searing melancholy by Morrison that it will bring a tear to the eye and a lump to the throat. Morrison's plaintive yet passionate rendition of "Carrickfergus" is the high point of an album that is the benchmark by which great accomplishments in both pop and folk music should be measured.