In a musical context, the word “trad” is shorthand for “traditional,” often used to describe ethnic folk music that’s been vigorously preserved and passed down over many generations. Sadly, for a large segment of the music-listening population, the idea of “traditional music” is shorthand for an infinitely more sinister adjective—”boring.” There’s an underlying assumption that anything several hundred years old has long since reached its expiration date and should rightfully be tossed aside to make way for the next model, the newest installment (a feeling that’s all too relatable for Apple fans such as myself). Well, I’m here to make a case for Irish trad by running down a few of my favorite bands in the genre. Irish music is a living, breathing organism. Even while it’s existed for so many years, every new artist to touch it, leaves a few fingerprints behind. This isn’t a list of the greatest Irish bands of all time. It’s simply my list, which means it’s as personal as the tradition itself.
Clean out your ears, set aside all thoughts of leprechaun-costume-wearing midgets and Bud Light spiked with green food coloring, and let’s dive right in.
Lúnasa just celebrated their 10-year anniversary in 2007 and, despite a few changes in personnel, have been rocking like a hurricane ever since. Good luck finding a contemporary band playing Irish trad that can match these guys’ rhythmic intensity. The ensemble plays with absolute cohesion, working tirelessly to find creases in the music that even the hardest-core Irish-music fan never knew existed. Gorgeous, heartfelt instrumental tunes by some of Ireland’s greatest living musicians.
For starters: Check out the band’s greatest hits collection just released on Compass Records, The Story So Far.
4. The Bothy Band
The Bothy Band were only together for three short years during the mid-to-late ‘70s but their musical legacy is a ferocious one. Composed of some of the most supremely virtuosic players in Irish music, they were a revelation to younger fans who were drawn to the group’s thrilling, breakneck tempos. Check out the video below and try not to get thrown by the wildly outdated hippie threads and hairstyles. In fact, you may want to just close your eyes and just let it wash over you. If you choose to keep your eyes open, enjoy the blur of Paddy Keenan’s fingers as he somehow maintains absolute technical precision on the uilleann (pron. “ILL-uhn”) pipes.
For starters: Track down the band’s first live record, After Hours, which managed to bottle the electricity the group generated onstage.
County Sligo’s Dervish has become one of the preeminent standard-bearers of traditional Irish music, accompanying Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern on a trade mission to China and even representing the country as the first trad act to ever compete in the massive Eurovision Song Contest in 2007. The group has no shortage of instrumental virtuosity, but the glittering gem at the center of Dervish’s crown is vocalist Cathy Jordan, whose voice displays a gorgeous sensitivity and utterly distinct tonal character.
For starters: The band’s 2004 release Spirit is fantastic. Buy a copy for yourself. And a few extras to pass out as gifts to friends on St. Patty’s Day.
The group Planxty formed at a crucial time for Irish music at the dawn of the ‘70s. While many younger folk musicians in Ireland were abandoning traditional music for the exciting, fresh sounds of rock ‘n’ roll, Planxty kept the Irish tradition alive with crackling urgency. Like many other Irish supergroups, the band had a revolving door of talent that brought into the mix amazing players like flautist Matt Molloy (who also played with The Bothy Band and later The Chieftains) and guitarist Paul Brady. Below you’ll find a 1979 video featuring Johnny Moynihan on lead vocals. The original lineup reformed in 2004 for a series of wonderful reunion concerts.
For starters: Pick up Live 2004 and then work your way back to the group’s auspicious beginnings.
1. The Chieftains
It can’t be overstated how important the Chieftains have been to not just sustaining the Irish music tradition but spreading it around the globe. The group has served as Ireland’s official musical ambassador and collaborated with a vast array of notable pop artists from Mick Jagger to Gillian Welch. The several-decades-old group has lost members to the grave but it’s never lost its enthusiasm for Ireland’s most profound cultural treasure.
For starters: The band recently released a wonderful two-disc Essential Collection that covers both its traditional offerings and most noteworthy collaborations. You’ll find a mountain of wonderful stuff on there.