Reviews of VT160CD 'The Cat's Rambles'
This could be the find of the year. Launched last October at the return to Camden Town Festival, Michael Sheehy is a graphic designer from the North of England who now lives in Suffolk. His graphic work showing a cat playing an accordion graces the cover of the album. It looks playfully pleased with itself as Michael should be about this new album.
The music here comes from deep within the Sheehy family. The tunes were learned from Michael’s father Mick, who came to Britain in the 1950’s from Kerry. This is essentially an album of Sliabh Luachra music, but it’s not your standard Sliabh Luachra Music. In many respects music from the Cork, Kerry and West Limerick area was the last to be discovered; the boys with their tape recorders didn’t get deep into polka country until the 1950’s and 60’s. The music that emigrated with Mick Sheehy was strange, local and not much in demand in the Irish clubs and bars in Manchester. Consequently what we have here is a wonderful collection of music that has been cherished in the Sheehy family, played at home, in the kitchen and between father and son.
Veteran Tapes of Suffolk are a small independent label, best known for their extensive collection of archive and field recordings, this dovetails into their catalogue. Michael plays a piano box, but his style is such that you’d think it was an old push and draw melodeon, it adds to the authentic, vintage sound of the album.
The title track is from the slide The Cat’s Rambles To The Child’s Saucepan which Michael teams up with The Boys Of Bunratty /The Templeglantine. There are polkas such as The Weaver’s Delight /Dan O’Leary’s /The Blue Riband, just one set of jigs: I Will If I Can /The Priest In His Boots /John Mahinney’s, a moving pair of waltzes Garten Mother’s Lullaby /We Bring The Summer With Us. Track 12 might be the find of the album in that it is a selection of reels; Mick Sheehy’s and The Glountane. There are excursions in ensemble playing too when Michael is joined by Ed Barrett on fiddle on tracks 3, 9 &17, Alan Block on fiddle on tracks 5 &12 and John Howson on guitar on tracks 6 &15. This is an essential album for anyone who plays Sliabh Luachra music; it is a goldmine of new music over 60 years old.
Irish Music magazine
Subtitled Music From The Sliabh Luachra Tradition, this recording is notable for several reasons. Firstly, it is a fine example of the aural tradition, Michael having learnt his style and repertoire from his father Mick, a button box player from West Limerick, isolated from the Irish tradition after moving to Manchester in the 1950s. Mick does seem to have had some wider influences: the music he taught to his son contains several tunes from beyond Ireland's shores, such as The Fairy Dance and Hexham Races. By contrast, Mick Sheehy's Reel, which Michael never heard anyone else play, is clearly a version of the well-known Cronin's Hornpipe, and another family rarity, Balliniska Band, is very close to the English polka Jenny Lind.
The second notable aspect of The Cat's Rambles is that Michael Sheehy plays piano accordion - a full-size box with around 100 bass buttons by the look of it - but he generally limits his left-hand accompaniment to the small number of possibilities available to the eight-button bass of his father's instrument. This keeps his Sliabh Luachra heritage alive, but produces some unexpected effects, such as the clashing chords on Art O'Keeffe's Slide where the button box has no good options but the piano box has several. I can't think of another piano box player who has stuck within these constraints, only hitting the occasional bass note or following the narrow choices of button-box accompaniment. Michael Sheehy does branch out into more conventional chords on the waltz Gartan Mother's Lullaby, but otherwise his left hand is sparse or silent.
Polkas and slides, hornpipes and barndances, all well known to devotees of Sliabh Luachra music from Murphy and Clifford to Breaking Trad: there are plenty of classic tunes here, some with new names, with fine fiddle added to the box on a few tracks, and a touch of guitar. Sheehy throws in a handful of jigs and reels, although one or two of these started life as slides or hornpipes. The recording quality is flawless, and the notes are informative and interesting, so if you're partial to the likes of Dan O'Leary's and Scattery Island you'll enjoy following The Cat's Rambles.
The wonderful and unique music of Sliabh Luachra
forms the repertoire of Michael Sheehy. Much of his repertoire comes from the
playing of his father who came from West Limerick to work in Manchester. Though
he had a period away from the music in his art college years, Michael has now
returned to the music and this album shows that he has become a master of it.
The big surprise when listening to these recordings is that you are listening to a piano accordeon. His father played the push-pull button box and somehow Michael has been able to mimic this on the instrument that is anathema to many Irish musicians. His contact on the melody keys is light and nimble with the staccato touch that brings discernable gaps between each note. His subtle use of the bass end is delightful with the typical stabs of individual buttons rather than a pattern of accompanying chords. His playing is bound to astound many who are not used to the accordion being played in this manner.
The producer John Howson plays guitar accompaniment on a couple of tracks and John is to be praised for an excellent and informative folding digibox design that incorporates a couple of Michael’s cartoon illustrations. One or other of Michael’s two fiddle playing mates joins him in duos on a few tracks.
Michael Sheehy grew up in Manchester, later lived in London and is now in Suffolk. He learned his music from his Father who had come over from the Sliahh Luachra region of South West Ireland whose traditional music he had absorbed. Though father played button accordion, for some reason Michael preferred the piano accordion. He says “Dad always told me to ‘put a hit of life into it’ and that’s what I try to do”.
He certainly does, too! His articulation and lightness of touch set an example that many other piano accordion players would do well to emulate. Also copied from typical Irish button accordion styles is his very sparse use of the bass buttons, really more for ornamentation than supplying a constant rhythmic beat. All the rhythm comes from the Lune itself, as it should. The pace is never rushed, but full of bounce and lilt.
As you’d expect with music from that corner of Ireland, there are many polkas and slides, but there are reels, hornpipes, jigs, a waltz and a barndance too. He is joined by fiddlers Ed Barrett and Alan Block on some tracks, and by John Howson on guitar on two others.
The notes on the tunes and biographical details are entertaining and informative, and the beautifully produced gatefold package showcases Michael’s graphic talents in a magnificent cartoon self portrait as a ginger Tom cat. Delightful all round!
Michael is a box player in the Sliabh Luachra
tradition; his father Mick, rooted in that tradition, was also a box player.
Therein, then, lies both the similarity and the difference between them; the son
learnt much of his repertoire from his father, who moved from West Limerick to
work in Manchester, but whereas Mick was an exponent of the traditional
push-pull button box, his son Michael plays the piano accordion -and (here's the
rub) does so in the style of his father, which is quite extraordinary and which
I've never before heard amongst traditional players who use that instrument.
Basically, instead of the expansive, swirling wall-of-sound of the conventional
piano accordion style, Michael gives us a nimble, nifty, light-textured approach
and sound more akin to the button box or concertina. Delicious staccato stabbing
of the buttons takes the place of the chordal accompaniment to the melody, and
the rhythm becomes more an integral part of the whole sound. I love it! (And so
will you - the most well-known of the tunes, The Jolly Beggarman, is an absolute
The material played on this CD takes in a joyful plethora of polkas, slides, reels and hornpipes, with the occasional jig or even lullaby. Many have been sourced (via and/or in tandem with father Mick) from great box players of the region like Jimmy Doyle and Jackie Daly and concertina player Ella Mae O'Dwyer, and fiddlers Denis Murphy, Julia Clifford and Pádraig O'Keeffe. And for those who might feel a little daunted at the thought of 17 tracks of solo box, Michael has enlisted the help of fellow sessioners on a total of seven tracks - on fiddle (Alan Block or Ed Barrett) or guitar (producer and label boss John Howson). Whether solo or in cohort, though, Michael's playing is scintillating: delicate, poised, and yet intently passionate in its own way, and full of vitality. Since no archive date is specified, I'd imagine the recordings were made very recently - not that we need worry when they sound as good as this. And the accompanying notes, printed on the extensive multi-folded digipack itself, are right up to the usual excellent Veteran house-standard. And by the way, the disc's title (nicely illustrated by Michael's own cartoon artwork) is a shortened version of The Cat's Rambles To The Child's Saucepan (the first tune of the track 5 set of slides). What a wonderful picture that conjures! This fascinating disc is available from the above website.
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