Danú give their All to the tradition of Irish music—hornpipes included

By Dave Aftandilian

I first heard Danú play live five or six years ago, right around the time they released their second album, Think Before You Think, which is still one of my favorites. They were a lot younger than most of the Irish traditional bands I’d heard play before; most of the members were still in their late teens, so they weren’t as polished as players who had decades of experience. But they still had an incredible, infectious energy that drew in even the most jaded listeners. A lot of water has flowed under Danú’s bridge since then—the band has a different fiddle player and singer now, and they recently released their sixth album, When All Is Said and Done. But they still put on a great live show, and you don’t have to take my word for it—you can hear them for yourself at the Old Town School of Folk Music on Sunday, March 12.

Danú has seven members, which lets them try more instrumental combinations in their arrangements than most traditional bands. The result is a nicely varied sound; you never know which instrument is going to get featured next, which makes listening to their sets a lot of fun. And all of them are great musicians—Tom Doorley has a really fast, clean flute style, for instance, and Brendan McCarthy has a lovely light touch on the button accordion, fingers flying as he sets your feet tapping. (In fact, I think Danú could stand to foreground McCarthy’s accordion playing more than they do.) Eamon Doorley and Dónal Clancy provide great rhythm on bouzouki and guitar, respectively, while Donnchadh Gough not only beats his bodhran drum, but also plays a mean set of uilleann pipes. (Gough runs a pub in Ireland, so he hasn’t been with the band the last couple of times I’ve seen them, but I’m hoping he’ll be along this time.) And although I don’t think his playing fits the band’s style quite as well as their earlier fiddler Jesse Smith, I’ve been increasingly impressed with fiddler Oisín MacAuley each time I’ve heard him—he’s been integrated well into the band now, playing as if he has been with them forever, and he also composes some of their tunes.

There are a lot of great instrumental sets on When All Is Said and Done, but one of my favorites is a set featuring hornpipe and two reels, called “The Peacock’s Feather.” The hornpipe blends fiddle, guitar, bouzouki, and uilleann pipes, with the smooth and sweet pipes stealing the show. The flute comes in to join the pipes before taking off, flying furiously with the bouzouki in hot pursuit—and then the pipes come roaring back in. The last tune in the set also has a nice mix of pipes, fiddle, and flute, giving it a great lift and drive that amps up the whole set. I’m also really fond of “Dermie Diamond’s Barndance” from the “Around the House” set—the jaunty guitar, accordion, and fiddle on this tune are so fun you can’t help but chuckle and tap your toes in time with it.

Danú used to have one of the finest younger male sean nos singers I’ve ever had the pleasure to hear, Ciarán Ó Gealbháin (who was also no slouch on the piano accordion). Although their second singer, Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, doesn’t quite measure up to Ciarán’s impossibly high standard, she does have a lovely voice, low and warm and comforting. She also picks an interesting mix of songs, some contemporary and some traditional, some in English and some in Irish, although I often think the songs she and the band choose to play live are not the best songs on the albums. This album has two contemporary songs, including Bob Dylan’s typically deep and dense antiwar song “Farewell Angelina,” and three traditional songs, one in English and two in Gaelic. My favorite song on the album is “An Cailin Deas Crúite na mBó” (“The Pretty Milkmaid”), which really showcases Muireann’s strengths as a singer, her gentle voice filling your ears and heart with feelings of wistful longing for someone far away, backed by very tasteful guitar and fiddle accompaniment. In a couple songs on the album, Oisín provides some of the most sensitive fiddle accompaniment for a singer that I’ve ever heard and he does just as good a job live.

When All Is Said and Done is a very enjoyable album from a very enjoyable band. But Irish traditional music always sounds better live, so I encourage you to make the trek from Hyde Park to catch Danú’s set at the Old Town School. See you there!