It's been a lousy year, but one would never know it listening to Sharon Shannon’s joyous new album, which was conceived, made remotely and released through the early months of the coronavirus pandemic. We’ve been told that during this dark, turbulent and grueling year to find our little joys. And damned if Shannon hasn’t done just that, finding joy in her little squeezebox, tootling out tunes with a band of co-conspirators from around the world, managing a virtual worldwide trip while staying locked down in her County Galway home.
Since Sharon Shannon’s debut solo album exploded on the Irish music scene in 1991, becoming the best-selling Irish traditional album in the UK, she has become more than just a gifted instrumentalist to her fans, connecting with them in a personal way even before the era of social media. Throughout the pandemic, she has virtually invited fans into her pet-filled home, playing impromptu Facebook Live concerts, taking time to cheerfully respond to those saying hello from around the world.
With The Reckoning, Shannon once again will no doubt delight her fans. She brings her customary sunniness to the fore, with song after upbeat song. As she did on her first album and many subsequent ones, she explores sounds atypical to her native Ireland tradition, bringing the Irish swing of her button accordion to a range of Celtic diaspora and other styles. Inspired by a bit of a dare from her manager at the beginning of the pandemic, Shannon wrote all the tunes on the album and hustled to finish it before a planned TV gig in December. Despite the pandemic challenges and tight deadline, Shannon has produced an album that stands with many of her best collections, once again reproducing the festive fellowship of a gaggle of musician friends playing at a local pub session.
Staying close to her musical roots, she salutes her dad and her home with “Daddy Shannon’s Jig/Bealacana Jig,” a set of tunes that starts with an easygoing rhythm and then kicks into high gear, highlighting her own dexterous playing and the tight ensemble work of guitars and violas that comes together despite the remote coordination.
On two cuts she plays with London-born guitarist Justin Adams, who spent childhood years in Egypt and teamed in 2007 with Gambian griot Juldeh Camare. On “Timbuktu,” Adams and Shannon create a song enfused with the rhythms and sonorities of North Africa and their “Unlocked” is a slow-rolling hybrid that makes the electric guitar and accordion sound like they are native to the Sahara. On the way to North Africa, the album takes a side trip to Quebec in a collaboration with Vent du Norde. “Refrains d’Irlande” features the neo-trad group’s Quebecois vocal harmonies and the soft, but steady undercurrent of metallic tapping of Olivier Demars on “feet.”
The lovely “Harmony Hall,” is another international collaboration; this time with a Scandinavia trad-cum-classical trio called Dreamer’s Circus. The arrangement is indeed a bit dreamy and ethereal, bringing out an evocative, beautiful side of Shannon’s playing that is often overlooked against her more typical jaunty tunes. As the tens of thousands of her Facebook followers know, Shannon picked up a ruby red Flying V electric guitar as a result of a charity challenge in the spring and in five days learned to play what became the rocked-out tune “The Jolly Roger” on her album, as well as being reconstituted with lyrics for the title song “The Reckoning.”
On her new album, this former County Clare farm girl has gone about as far afield as she has ever gone, without literally or figuratively leaving her Irish home, showing the rest of us that it wasn’t an entirely bad year.
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