|Posted by Bill Leslie on November 1, 2015 at 7:10 AM|
Review of Across the Waters by Garry Crites
There is a wonderful Celtic legend about an Irish lord named Cenn Faelad who, in battle, suffered a terrible injury to his “brain of forgetfulness.” From that moment on, he was unable to forget anything. The wounded prince was taken to the village of Tomregan in County Cavan to recover. Now, in this town, there were three roads leading to three different schools. One school taught the intricacies of Celtic poetry to those would become bards. The second explained traditional Irish Law for those who would become brehons. A third school taught Latin learning for those men who were called to the priesthood. Cenn Faelad would spend his days wandering from school to school, listening to the lectures through open windows. That night in bed, unable to forget any of the three lessons, he would weave the lessons into a single narrative.
This tale gives a perfect picture of what Bill Leslie has done on Across the Water, his most recent CD. Like Cenn Faelad, in this exploration of Irish music, Leslie weaves three musical traditions together into one seamless album. The first tradition draws on the repertoire of traditional Irish tunes. “The Irish Girl,” with its wonderful piano score reminiscent of James Horner, is rustic, traditional, earthy. The arrangement of “The Boatman” is masterful, leading the listener on a haunting, emotional journey, capturing the ancient Irish yearning to sail dangerous waters until one reaches the mist-covered shores of Tir na nÓg, the land of Eternal Youth. It is perhaps my favorite song on the album.
The second strand that Leslie weaves into his narrative are the songs from his own musical past, birthed when he was part of the fusion band Bragh Adair. He has chosen three of the best songs from the album Grace in Stone, released in the year 2000: “Cloud of Witnesses,” “Gaelic Ghost,” and the beautiful “Lorica.” The arrangements are new, but comfortably familiar. When I first listened to this version of “Lorica,” I was briefly disappointed that the Gaelic words of Patrick’s Breastplate were not sung, as in the original. But by the time the melody was taken over by Melanie Wilsden’s moving oboe, I was won over.
The third tradition that Leslie explores fills the largest portion of the album, namely, his new songs. While these works bear the unmistakable imprint of Bill Leslie’s musical style, their wonderfully unpredictable use of different instruments makes them fresh and innovative. Take the plaintive and beautiful title track, for example. The melody line of “Across the Water” is quite simple, but it is passed from one instrument to another—from violin to cello to oboe. The traditional instruments of guitar and whistle are there, of course, and they ground the songs superbly in Celtic tradition. But the unexpected instruments give the songs their distinctively Irish pathos. It is interesting that, other than the “Lorica,” coming from its provenance in Northern Ireland, most of Leslie’s songs are of the West. You won’t hear him singing about the lights of Dublin; he prefers the hills of Connemara, the ancient sites on The Ring of Kerry, and the lake at Gougane Barra in County Cork. But maybe this isn’t surprising after all. Bill’s music has always had a fascination for wilderness, for rural history, and for the sacred spaces of a distant past.
As one who has studied Ireland for decades, I am grateful to Bill Leslie for taking me back to the sites I love so well on this lovely album. Like Cenn Faelad, he has woven a storyline that teaches us the unique heritage of the Blessed Isle. As always, the musical journey led by North Carolina’s Bard is well worth the time.
Garry Crites Duke University