The Vallely brothers on an Irish tour

While Niall (concertina) and Cillian Vallely (uilleann pipes) play concerts and tour in the USA together from time to time, and have recorded an album, Callan Bridge (2002), together; and Niall and Caoimhín (piano) are in Buille together, the three sons of Brian and Eithne Vallely of Armagh Pipers Club fame, have never toured together.

All three happening to be free at this time, they decided to tour together, recruiting Scottish guitarist Ross Martin to join them. He played with them in their audio-visual Rakish Paddy Blues show t0 celebrate the 20th William Kennedy Festival in Armagh and Glasgow.

They will be playing traditional material on this tour rather than “what Buille does”, but there will, unsurprisingly, be tunes that both Niall and Cillian have written, and with their propensity to improvise freely in terms of ornamentation and melodic variation and to accentuate rhythm, there will undoubtedly be fireworks galore. “It’s simply that we enjoy playing together,” says Niall.

I asked Niall the dreaded “state of the nation” question in relation to Irish traditional music, and about his role in it:

“I’ve never thought of it as or set out with the intention of changing anything… or indeed as there being A thing that needs to be changed. I’ve tended all along just to find things to do [musically] that I like. Sometimes that leads me further away from traditional music and sometimes it leads further back into it.

I think part of that comes from a kind of confidence in the music … a confidence that the music exists, and is THERE, and is all around us. For me, it’s what I grew up with. I don’t really feel it as something that you fight against or anything like that. So, in terms of there being a general feeling among musicians that more people are experimenting, trying different things, maybe sometimes that is down to a more general confidence in what you already know and in what you do…

In terms of the professional end of it or the commercial end of it, if you want to call it that, it’s not actually an awful lot of people. It has always boiled down to what individuals or small groups of individuals do at any given time. In the past that might have been Patsy Touhey or Michael Coleman or Seán Maguire or Joe Burke … At different stages, different types of people, who just take it on themselves to do things, end up having an inordinate “influence”. And maybe it feels like they change things, but I’m not sure whether they actually do or not. Obviously those people from the early days of recordings, it feels as if they had a much bigger influence [but only] because we don’t really know what it sounded like before that. There was a point when Seán Maguire was the thing that changed loads of fiddle playing, but at the same time as lots of fiddle players tried to emulate him, lots of them didn’t, lots of them actively disliked it and did something completely different. I think these things go both ways; and it’s never as simple as a traditional-modern divide or a looking forwards-looking backwards. With most people it’s usually both at the same time.

The influence these guys have had on music is subtle and comes, to my mind, through people actually learning and playing (particularly) Niall’s tunes and embracing their playing style. Given that influence, I wonder would Niall Keegan, five years on, still bemoan that “traditional ensemble work … is dominated by the echoes of sounds established nearly forty years ago”? Keegan concluded his Journal of Music review: “If we are going to avoid the artistic cul-de-sac of endless variations of the same formulae to a dwindling audience of cultural tourists, it is artists such as Niall and Caoimhín Vallely who will put up the signposts we need.” I think those signposts have been seen and heeded.

Meanwhile, I’m delighted to hear from Niall that recordings of the last tour Buille did will form the basis for a new album, which should be out in early 2015. And likewise his tour with whistle player Brian Finnegan (Flook, Kan), harpist Ailie Robertson (The Outside Track), fiddler Donald Grant (Elias Quartet), Swedish accordion player Nikolaj Busk (Dreamers’ Circus), and cittern player Ale Carr (Dreamers’ Circus, Basco), going under the name Northern Lights, was also recorded and should result in an album in the near future. Caoimhín has been collaborating with two French musicians, accordian player Sebastian Le Grange and piper Gaël Rutkowski and playing a lot in France. And of course Cillian has been busy with Lúnasa‘s non-stop touring schedule.

Their September gigs are as follows:

17 Cork Coughlan’s
18 Castlebar, Co Mayo Linen Hall Arts Centre
20 Hollywood, Co Wicklow St. Kevin’s Church of Ireland, Music Under the Mountains Festival
23 lunchtime Limerick Irish World Academy of Music and Dance
23 Limerick Dolan’s
24 Carrick on Shannon, Co Leitrim The Dock
25 Armagh Marketplace Theatre
27 Belfast An Droichead


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