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Irish ayes for a Chicago native

Fiddler Liz Carroll has left her American print on the Celtic music scene. She headlines the summer solstice festival.

June 24, 2005|Andrew Gilbert | Special to The Times

As a female, American-born fiddler who insists on honing an expansive repertoire of original tunes, Liz Carroll has become a revered figure in traditional Irish music despite what many on the scene consider three strikes against her.

In an art form long dominated by men, she's an instrumentalist with such technical poise and unbridled energy that her concerts are thrill-inducing affairs. In a field where a player's sound is often defined by his county of origin in Ireland, Carroll, the child of Irish immigrants, is a product of Chicago's vibrant Celtic music scene. But her most unlikely achievement might well be that Carroll has composed more than a dozen tunes that have become standards among her peers.

Carroll and her duo partner, Irish guitarist John Doyle, explore her captivating music on Saturday night as the headliners at the 23rd Summer Solstice Folk Music, Dance and Storytelling Festival at the Soka University of America in Calabasas.

"I used to get a lot of flak from trad musicians, who'd say, 'Oh, the old tunes are the best tunes,' " says Carroll from her home in Chicago, making her voice low and masculine as she quotes her critics. "It used to be you'd just play the old tunes and fix up a new arrangement, or not. But I've always said, go ahead, compose tunes, and if they're good enough, people will play them."

Judging by the work of her colleagues, Carroll's tunes are as intoxicating as a stiff shot of whiskey, as musicians throughout the Celtic world have included her music on their recordings. Irish accordionist Sharon Shannon digs into a Carroll reel on her new album "Tunes." Cape Breton, Canada, fiddler Natalie MacMaster interprets Carroll's trademark arrangement of "The Silver Spear" on her latest CD, "Blueprint." Scotland's Battlefield Band covers Carroll's "The Sisters Reel" on the 1999 album "Leaving Friday Harbor." And fiddler Darol Anger opens 2004's American Fiddle Ensemble album "Republic of Strings" with a blazing version of Carroll's "Lost in the Loop," the title track of her acclaimed 2000 album.

"Liz is one of the most intense Irish fiddlers on the scene," says Anger, who first gained notoriety as a founding member of mandolin master Dave Grisman's "Dawg Music" Quintet and went on to create the jazz-oriented Turtle Island String Quartet. "She's playing with such heightened emotional and technical concentration that every note is like a dart aimed at the heart, and her compositions reflect her intensity. You can see her thinking, 'How can I stretch this? How can I play something even more amazing?' She'll pursue an idea until she's completely run it down and mastered it."

In Dublin-born guitarist Doyle, Carroll has found a creative partner who shares her musical ferocity. They've been touring widely together for the last four years and are in the midst of recording their first duo album, which is slated for a fall release on Compass Records. As the partnership has evolved, each musician delights in goading the other into ever more breathtaking musical feats, creating a sound so big and full that it often seems to defy the possibilities of an acoustic duo.

"When I listen back to the recording we've been working on, sometimes I just can't believe that's one guitar," Carroll says. "I almost feel we should write a disclaimer on the record, 'It's one guitar. There are no overdubs.' "

Doyle has been a major force on the Celtic music scene since he moved to New York City at the age of 19 and teamed with vocalist Susan McKeown, multi-instrumentalist Seamus Egan and fiddler Eileen Ivers. He and Egan went on to found the popular band Solas, but after several years Doyle decided to launch a solo career as a singer with his 2001 Shanachie album "Evening Comes Early."

At the same time, he became one of the most sought-after guitarists on the acoustic music scene, prized for his propulsive rhythm work.

He and Carroll first played together when Egan, who was producing Carroll's "Lost in the Loop," suggested that she recruit Doyle for several tracks. They quickly formed a close friendship and tight musical bond, which can be heard throughout Carroll's most recent album, 2002's "Lake Effect," which Doyle co-produced with her.

"Liz is a phenomenal fiddle player," Doyle says. "She's not a legend for no reason. Her tunes always stretch the boundaries. She's always up for new stuff, and she's a great crack on the road and stage. It never gets boring, ever."


Liz Carroll and John Doyle

What: Headliners at the Summer Solstice Folk Music, Dance and Storytelling Festival, today through Sunday

Where: Ikeda Auditorium, Soka University of America, 26800 W. Mulholland Highway, Calabasas

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Price: $15

Info: (818) 817-7756

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