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Brenda Castles is from County Meath in eastern Ireland, a place of rich musical tradition. She learned concertina from Rena Traynor and concertina maestro from Mícheál Ó’Raghallaigh. As both a solo and group competitor, she has earned several All Ireland Fleadh titles as well as having been a finalist in the Young Traditional Musician of the Year award (sponsored by Irish Music Rights Organization and RTÉ, Ireland’s national broadcaster).
Her music has been featured on numerous radio and television programs for RTÉ, and in 2013 she worked on a show for TG4 called Glaoch an Cheoil. Currently based between Dublin and New York, Brenda performs and teaches music all around the world. In December of 2016 she released her debut solo album, ‘Indeedn’t You Needn’t Bother.’ She was expected to teach at Irish music festivals and events across America this year, but the pandemic restrictions intervened. She has performed in two Celtic Sojourn productions based in Boston and joined the Green Fields of America collective for concerts from 2016 to 2020, including a concert at the Flynn Center in Burlington in March 2019.
Brenda is currently isolating in Ringsend, Dublin since leaving New York. She had planned to stay in the United States for 3 years, but then Covid-19 hit and she was only able to stay for 10 days.
Brenda begins with three jigs, each of a steady tempo. Each jig becomes progressively more complex. The first begins with an emphasis on melody with beautiful accompanying chords, and as the set continues, harmonies up the octave as well as long chordal drones are added. The last tune of the set is a reel. The reel transitions between high and low intensity, with the lower octaves feeling fuller than the artfully restrained higher range. The first jig was titled Miss Welch’s Jig, which she learned from a fiddler from her hometown. The second jig has a Gaelic name, the third she learned from a musician from Limerick that is currently in Boston, and the reel is titled John Francis Fitzgerald, which she learned from a Texan flute player named Dan Lowery.
A set of Vincent Broderick compositions she grew up playing follows, the first called Planxty Aisling O’Neill and the second a reel titled The Fox on the Prowl. The first tune is soothing and simply wonderful to listen to, and then she speeds up into the reel. The reel has great energy, rhythmic diversity, and chords. A story also happens to accompany The Fox on the Prowl. It goes like this: Once upon a time there was a husband, a wife, and a daughter. The daughter had a boyfriend that the mother knew about, but the father wouldn’t have approved so he did not know. Therefore, the only way for the boyfriend to meet the daughter was to rattle the chicken coop. When the mother would hear the noise, she would say, “Daughter, out you go now, the fox is on the prowl again.” And that is how the daughter would know it was her boyfriend.
The next is a song about the Scottish plowhorses’ last day on the job, as modernization creeps closer. It is called The Last Trip Home and written by Davy Steele of the Battlefield Band. Brenda’s used to performing this song with at least one other person or more, so performing it with just concertina and voice is something new, but no less appreciated! Beginning with a concertina introduction, Brenda soon adds her vocals with chordal accompaniment from the concertina. Interspersed with concertina interludes and harmonies, both vocals and instrumentals become more complex and emotional with, “extra chords for good measure!” as said by the performer herself.
Her next set is a collection of hop jigs. The first hop jig is bouncy and fun, while the second has a more saucy sound. There are playful rhythms, chords, and dynamics. The third is a mix of the two, switching from serious to light-hearted before going into what sounds like a faster-paced tune with a funny rhythm.
Now on her low concertina, Brenda plays a short, slow air titled The Dark, Slender Boy as translated from Gaelic. A balance of low and high ranged notes, the dynamics are engaging, the passion is captivating, and the tune as a whole is simply stunning. I could have listened to that for forever.
A few slip jigs from her album are next. They are all rhythmically complex, and just pull the listener in. Each tune has its own unique groove and feel, yet each blend together so perfectly. A balance of pure melody, harmonization, and chords create the set. It ends with a slowed tempo and a drone. The first slip jig she learned off of a recording by Michelle O’Brien, the second a Welsh tune called Good Beer, and the third The Exiles’ Jig.
For this next song called Pretty Susan, Brenda brings out her guitar. In the song, Susan meets up with this guy, but when he runs out of money she ditches him. He then emigrates, but never stops thinking about her, evidently. While we only hear the story from this guy’s perspective, one can conclude that Susan was not very polite. The song begins with guitar on chords, then Brenda adds her voice. The song continues with both guitar and vocals, until Brenda isolates her voice with singular chords. She finishes with both her guitar and voice, slowing down for the end.
A hornpipe and barndance set follows, The first tune has a bit of a bounce on the offbeat, and the second The second consists of complimentary chords and is titled The Forgotten Fling, a composition of Connie O’Connell’s. The last are upbeat and have great energy. Just a pleasure to listen to!
A set of jigs come after. The first feels almost nostalgic with a low beginning, high harmonies, and a steady beat. Brenda adds interesting chords to transition to a different jig. The next jig contains melodic jumps, into a jig that starts low and climbs high. The third jig has a very gritty beginning, but when it jumps high it feels more restrained and beautiful. The last jig is similar, but there is a greater presence of the higher range and greater contrast between the low and high notes. The first was titled Larry the Beer Drinker, the second The Clare Shout, onto Pat McKenna’s, and finishing with an unknown title.
This last song is one Brenda heard from Seamus Begley in Sligo, called My Bonnie Blue Eyed Lassie. A beautiful song, beginning with a soothing guitar intro soon joined by Brenda’s vocals. I would include more detail, but the best way to do it justice is to encourage you to listen to it yourself!
Thank you Brenda for that wonderful concert!
video link for the concert here: https://www.facebook.com/YoungTraditionVermont/videos/620618415236320/