Review By Steven Stone
When Sharon Shannon says "big band" she means it. As Ireland's best-known female accordion player, Shannon has the "juice" to pull together a roster of Irish players that reads like a virtual "who's who" of contemporary Celtic music. The liner notes have a picture of the whole band taking a curtain call; I count nineteen people on stage.
The music is decidedly modern. With sax, electric keyboards, electric bass and guitar, and a full drum kit the arrangements lean well into the category of Celtic-influenced soft jazz. Authentic roots fans may find this strong contemporary slant not completely to their tastes, but the music's arrangements are true to popular music in Ireland today. The band has a wonderful tight/loose sound wherein at first blush it appears that everyone is just sort of playing along, but after a couple of listens you begin to notice the subtleties of this special musical style.
Musical highpoints include Jon Kenney's spirited version of "Big Rock Candy Mountain" which draws heavily on the British vaudeville tradition for inspiration. The Brennen Sisters' contribution, "Hand Me Down My Bible," features tight four-part harmonies and a clever acapella ending. Singer/songwriter Damien Dempsey's first song, "I Have No Alibi," has caustic lyrics that answer the burning question, "How many syllables does the word "shite" have? Dessie O'Halloran's version of "Come Down From The Mountain Katie Daly" contrasts dramatically with the American bluegrass rendition of the same song. Finally the instrumental "Bag of Cats" features four fiddles (including Ms. Shannon) playing in lockstep perfection.
Released simultaneously as a two-disc CD and a DVD, both releases feature the same musical material organized in an identical manner. The DVD has some extra features, including interviews with Sharon and other band members, band bios, and audience interviews. The DVD is in 16x9 letterbox format, but is not high definition. At times the picture gets noticeably soft. Sonically the DVD and CD are more than adequate with excellent clarity and detail, but neither have what you would call sumptuous sound. The mix is probably an accurate representation of the live sound at Dolans, but Dolans ain't exactly symphony hall. The only annoying sonic aspect to Live at Dolans is the sound of Shannon's accordion. It has a stuttering quality that cuts in and out rapidly like a badly calibrated noise gate. Perhaps this is intrinsic to the instrument's sound, but I found it grating nonetheless.
Live At Dolans delivers just what it promises – over two hours of live music performed in a genuine Irish venue by a coterie of top-flight Irish musicians. Now, if I could only get a fresh glass of Guinness draft to enjoy while watching the DVD I'd be authentically in Ireland...