The cover art for The Tinker's Own's most recent release, Bending the Banshee's Ear, is exquisitely eerie. It blends a faint tracery of Celtic knotwork with a drawing of a lovely Banshee woman in fluttering tatters, and superimposes her over a brilliant sunset. The title track of the album, "Banshee Devil," on the other hand, is a raucous, irreverent song about a fellow who meets a Banshee on his way home from the pub one night. The Banshee, the traditional Irish harbinger of death, tells him that it's his time to die, but he refuses to agree. He argues her down until dawn comes and rescues him from her unearthly call. This contrast between the beautifully melancholy Banshee of the cover art, and the "Banshee devil" vanquished by an old Irishman with the gift of the gab, sets the tone for the entire album. Bending the Banshee's Ear is a blend of old and new, sad and funny, lively and meandering, risque and sweet.
The Tinker's Own is a group based in Orange County, California. Playing frequently at locations principally in Southern California, they perform out of the traditions of Ireland, Scotland, England, and North America. They chose their name in honor of the "Travelling People" of Ireland. At this time, the group includes ten possible players, not all of them able to show up for every scheduled gig. Among them, they play instruments such as the Appalachian dulcimer, hammered dulcimer, fiddle, harp, concertina, whistle, bodhran, spoons, dumbek, mandolin, and their signature instrument, the frying pan, which appears in their group logo. Players who recorded Bending the Banshee's Ear include Karen Curry and Dan Dwyer as principal vocalists, as well as Steve and Michele Dulson, Catherine Kerry, June McIntire, Ben Russell, Tim Weed, and Jack Wingard.
Bending the Banshee's Ear has a definite expatriate feel. Many of the tracks are traditional songs and tunes from Ireland and Scotland. Track 3, "An Buachaillin Ban/Smash the Windows/Mug of Brown Ale," is a lovely set of an air and two jigs, all traditional Irish; the husky throb of Jack Wingard's flute in "An Buachaillin Ban" put a lump in my throat. The seventh track, "Siul A Ruin," is a sweetly mourning love song that dates back to the flight of Irish rebels to France after the failed Irish Revolution of 1789. Even the contemporary pieces on this album take their inspiration from "the old country" or from the experiences of American immigrants. The title song "Banshee Devil" -- which in Track 1 is combined in a set with the traditional reel "Morning Dew" -- was written by The Tinker's Own's vocalist Karen Curry; the song's protagonist could well be in Ireland or America, equally. One of my favorite tracks is track 8, "The Slip Jigs and Reels." This song was written by Englishman Steve Tilston after he saw an American Old West photograph of an Irish gunslinger. How did Tilston know the gunslinger was Irish? To quote the album's liner notes, "In addition to the usual accoutrements of the desperado's trade, this young man had a fiddle strapped to his saddle."
An earlier album by The Tinker's Own, Old Enough to Know Better, is almost identical in sound to Bending the Banshee's Ear. The words for the first track, "Ramblin' the Moors," were written by Steve Dulson in memory of his parents, Alice and Joe; the song gives a cheerful look at the English tradition of "rambling clubs," in which people would turn out on a regular basis to walk the old footpaths of England and keep them in the public domain. Track 10, "I Wish We Could Waltz There Again," a slow, lilting song with a very traditional feel, was actually written in memory of the contra dances at the Anaheim Cultural Arts Center, where several of the Tinkers met. The eleventh track is a set that includes "The Tinker's Black Kettle" and "The Jolly Tinker." "The Jolly Tinker," a bawdy song about one of the "Travelling People," is The Tinker's Own's signature tune, learned by them from the Clancy Brothers. I could clearly hear the frying pan being played throughout the song! "The Tinker's Black Kettle" is a fiddle tune by Charles de Lint. He published the music in his novel The Little Country (also reviewed by Grey Walker for Green Man). He gave The Tinker's Own permission to record the tune, and was pleased with their rendition of it.
If I have any criticism of these two albums, it is that they make me wish I could hear The Tinker's Own live. "Some criticism!" you may be thinking. Well, hear me out. While sad airs and contemplative tunes can easily be listened to alone, humorous and rousing songs seem to require good company to have their full effect. They call for the ability to catch a friend's eye across the table and grin; or to raise your mug in a cheer; or to banter with the band members; or to stand, linking elbows with your fellows and roaring out the chorus. Without this sort of companionship, they fall curiously flat. The Tinker's Own may be trying to create this effect when, for example, vocalist Karen Curry adds a spoken throw-away line at the end of "The Jolly Tinker," mentioned above, but it is not enough. Perhaps some musicians record their albums in front of a live audience to give the listener a semblance of this kind of group participation. To their credit, however, The Tinker's Own does offer plenty of solitary, "musing" songs on each album--and they give performances frequently.
The Tinker's Own have a Web site, which includes links to other reviews of their music, a group biography, and a list of upcoming gigs in California. They also include on their site information about each of their albums, along with audio clips from each album. You can order the albums directly from them, either as CDs or as cassette tapes. They will also, upon request, send you copies of the lyrics, as the liner notes included with the albums do not contain lyrics.