Liz Carroll is one of the finest living traditional Irish fiddlers. When she was just 18, she won the prestigious All Ireland Senior Championship on fiddle. Since then, she has played not just with some of the best Irish and Irish-American musicians, but also with a variety of other greats, from the late violinist Yehudi Menuhin to Don Henley. In 1994, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded her a National Heritage Fellowship — the top U.S. honor for traditional musicians. Not only is she an awesome fiddler, she’s also a fine composer, with more than 200 new tunes to her credit.
While her last album, 2000’s excellent Lost in the Loop, had a more or less even balance of original and traditional tunes, Lake Effect consists almost exclusively of Liz’s own compositions. Although these are very true to the Irish musical tradition, they also push it in exciting new directions. If you think Irish music has to be morose and maudlin, think again; most of Liz’s tunes are fun and often funny, filled more with sunshine than rain.
It’s Liz’s fiddle wizardry that makes Lake Effect such a joy. Her fiddling is strong and sweet, never screechy, digging deep into the strings to express an incredible range of emotions, from blazing fast reels to melancholy airs, playful jigs to stately waltzes. She’s accompanied throughout by ex-Solas guitarist John Doyle, whose highly percussive, rhythmic style makes a perfect complement to Liz’s often more classical approach. Máirtin O’Connor also lends his sensitive, precise accordion accompaniment to a number of tracks, providing an almost uncanny note for note match of Liz’s playing in places.
Although she does a great job with both fast and slow tunes, I really enjoy some of the slower tunes on Lake Effect. One of my favorites is “The Ghost,” which Liz composed for a play. It starts off with haunting fiddle harmonics and slow, sad guitar, then moves into an incredibly beautiful fiddle melody, perfectly evoking a specter sweeping along the ground in a graveyard, trailing mist and memories. Another standout track is a waltz called “Hanley’s House of Happiness,” named after a famous (but long shuttered) South Side pub where accordionist Joe Cooley and other amazing musicians played while Liz was growing up. The fiddle and piano start has a very stately feel, of times gone by but fondly remembered; then bouzouki and accordion come in, with O’Connor’s gentle playing doing an amazing job of sounding like the echo of Cooley’s accordion coming down through the years.
A lot of Irish musicians do have some classical training, but few actually play with classical groups. On one set, “Catherine Kelly’s / Lake Effect,” Liz is joined by the California-based Turtle Island String Quartet for an incredible merging of folk and classical styles that you have to hear to believe. Evan Price, Turtle Island’s violinist, puts together a fun and innovative arrangement for the tunes — jazzy and swinging, with the strings sometimes responding to each other, and sometimes passing the melody from person to person.
Whether you’re a die-hard fan of Irish traditional music, or just coming to it for the first time, you’ll love Liz Carroll’s Lake Effect.