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Not All the Ayes Are Irish for Celtic Music

Belfast's Craobh Rua quartet tries to bring a fresh sound to acoustic-driven jigs, reels and waltzes.


Craobh Rua rarely performs alongside rock 'n' rollers. It's usually older folks who appreciate the quartet's traditional Celtic fare, a rich music defined by its acoustic-driven jigs, reels and waltzes.

But during one European tour stop this summer, the Belfast-based group found itself smack in the middle of a boisterous, two-day rock festival in Slovenia. Worse, the promoter sandwiched them between acts by Slovenian and Croatian rock bands.

"It was a little intimidating. I mean, here we were in front of three or four thousand noisy youngsters," banjo-whistle player Brian Connolly recalled by phone during a recent road stop in Olympia, Wash.

"And at first, they looked at us like we had just landed from another planet. But once we got going, they warmed to us. I think they got caught up in the spirit of the moment, in the life that breathes in this great music. So, by the end of our performance, they were clapping and cheering us on. We couldn't have asked for a better response."

Craobh Rua (pronounced "creev-roo-ah"), a well-known name in Celtic history of the Red Branch Knights of Ulster, also features fiddler Michael Cassidy and two new members, Uilleann piper Diarmaid Moynihan and singer-bouzouki-guitar-player Aaron Jones. The lads return to a more intimate venue tonight with two performances at Shade Tree Stringed Instruments in Laguna Niguel.

The group, formed in 1986, has built a loyal following by touring and releasing four albums on the Irish import BTB/Lochshore label. Its latest, "Soh It Is," delivers more of the same mix of traditional and original Irish folk music, sung in English and Gaelic. The rich blend of tin whistle, pipes, mandola, fiddle, bohdran, mandolin and voice only sparingly includes pretty-sounding guitar and banjo embellishments.

The challenge for this group is to make each new album fresh--yet familiar.

"We try to bring a bit of a different flavor to traditional music," said Connolly, who learned music from his grandfather and picked up the banjo after hearing Barney McKenna of the Dubliners. "But not so much that it's not Craobh Rua."

On "Soh It Is," a pair of guest players help tweak the sound. "Tom Wetmore added some real nice grooves with his double bass on 'The Tosa Waltz,' and Scotland's Tom Smith sings beautifully and plays mandolin on a couple of tunes," Connolly explained. "You know, those kinds of subtle variations."

The musicians say they have been inspired but not surprised by their reception in Slovenia and in the United States.

"Years ago, people would listen only to whatever's popular at the time," Connolly said. "Now, it's much more open. Folks listen to classical, traditional Celtic, rock . . . and various combinations of them. I really believe music lovers have broadened their tastes.

"You can play Celtic [music] traditionally or perhaps with an orchestra or even put rock 'n' roll to it. Just look at the Chieftains [who have performed with Van Morrison, Roger Daltrey, Nanci Griffith and others]. They used to look for pop, rock and folk acts to play with. Now those musicians are searching them out."

* Craobh Rua plays tonight at Shade Tree Stringed Instruments, 28062 Forbes Road, Suite D, Laguna Niguel. 7:30 (sold out) and 9:30 p.m. $15. (714) 364-5270.

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