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The New Irish Harp: James Conway's Mouth Box

by Jeff Ulmer

Irish folk music is a genre steeped in tradition, but Chicago harmonica player James Conway lends a new voice to this style with his latest independent release. This collection of time-honored instrumentals takes on a new dimension, and even teaches this old dog a few new tricks.

It isn't everyday that I am forced to reevaluate my attitude towards a musical instrument. It is safe to say that I have never been particularly fond of the harmonica in any of the applications I've experienced in my decades of listening to music, so when James Conway's new CD, Mouth Box, arrived on my desk, my initial reaction was less than enthusiastic. However, once I gave the album a chance, I soon discovered that my aversion to the harmonica was seriously misplaced, and was truly amazed by the diversity of the instrument as demonstrated in this collection of traditional Irish folk music.

The title is a reference to one of Conway's playing techniques, of which there are many in these sessions, where he makes the instrument sound almost like a accordion. This isn't just some gimmicky effect, it works extremely well within the context of the material on this disc, which covers reels, jigs, polkas and slides with a nice range of tempos and textures. Conway is certainly a master of his instrument, able to conjure a multitude of timbres and tones, from the throaty drones that open Humours of Ballyloughlin to the gentle lyricism of Give Me Your Hand. Through the course of the album, his arsenal of harmonicas are accompanied by different traditional Irish folk instruments, including tin whistle, uileann pipes, bouzouki, fiddle, bohdran, hammer dulcimer, mandolin, along with guitar, piano and banjo. The songs are arranged well, and selections flow seamlessly into each other during the medleys.

The production quality is very good, with a minimalist approach that suits the music very well. Instruments are balanced and the stereo imaging makes each one easily discernable, and ambience is tastefully applied. My only real criticism of the CD would be in its packaging, which doesn't really convey the feel of its contents—I would never have guessed this was Irish folk music without having read the song titles. Liner notes include an introduction to Conway's upbringing with the harmonica, and the instrument's incorporation into this musical genre. For those who enjoy traditional Irish folk music, this is a worthy addition to any collection, and it certainly gave me a newfound respect for what can be done with a harmonica in the right hands.

The CD is available from Conway's website, and features guest performances by Gerry Alyward, Chris Bain, Andrew Bird, Dennis Cahill, Jim Dewan, Kay Eggleston, Howard Levy, James McCandless, Mark McGowen, Jackie Moran, Kieran O'Hare and Gwen Sale. The full track listing is as follows:
Ash Plant, Black-Haired Lass, Wise Maid
Young Tom Ennis, Brendan Tonra's
Humours of Tullycrine
Ballydesmond, Memories of Ballymote, Gurteen Cross
Battle of Aughrim, O'Neill's Cavalcade
Earl's Chair, Humours of Ballyconnell, Flowing Bowl
Carolan's Concerto
Humours of Ballyloughlin, Mooncoin
Delahunty's, City of Savannah
Clog, O'Keeffe's, Denis Murphy's
Tom Billy's, Tar Road to Sligo
Peacock's Feather, Mikey Callahan's, Harvest Home
Concertina, In the Tap Room, Imelda Roland's
Tatter Jack Walsh, Knights of St. Patrick, Cook in the Kitchen
Give Me Your Hand
Castle Kelly, Farewell to Ireland