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Susan McKeown and The Chanting House


Country of origin:

Ireland/U.S.A.

Type of music generally:

Traditional-flavoured folk/rock, contemporary folk

Status:

Most recent release, Prophecy (2002)

See also:

Susan McKeown's site

The Ectophiles' Guide entries for Susan McKeown's solo work, her work with Lindsey Horner, her work with Cathie Ryan and Robin Spielberg, and her work with Johnny Cunningham

Comparisons:

There are the inevitable comparisons to other well-known Irish female vocalists such as Mary Black, as well as to legendary groups such as Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span; though with their East Village sensibility, the Chanting House are definitely in a league all their own. (meth@smoe.org)

Katell Keineg. (jsutton@rahul.net, kcd@cray.com)

Covers/own material:

Own material, though well-placed covers crop up occasionally as well.

General comments:

Susan is the kind of artist when you first hear, you get the feeling you will be enjoying her music for years to come. I don't know how to describe her music, I hear a lot of different influences that she seems to have integrated into her unique music style. Her voice and some of her style reminds me a lot of Katell Keineg, another fine Irish artist. (jsutton@rahul.net)

Comments about live performance:

At my first time seeing Susan McKeown & The Chanting House they just completely blew me out of the water. They are *so* good! Between the show and the album they have vaulted immediately into my top 5 favorite artists. I saw Susan perform with various incarnations of the Chanting House about 15 times in 1997, and every show was great. They are amazing live. I always go to Susan's shows expecting great things, and I have yet to be disappointed. I can't say enough good things about her. I've been lucky enough to have seen Susan perform live many, many times and it amazes me that I still enjoy every show so much. (mcurry@io.com)

Not that they were lacking before, but every time I see Susan McKeown and The Chanting House the music has even more passion in it than the last time. (psfblair@ix.netcom.com)

Last night Susan McKeown and the latest incarnation of The Chanting House returned to Fez in NYC. The show was very much worth the trouble in getting there. As Mike Curry put it afterwards, "you mean they got better AGAIN?!" Last night's lineup consisted of Susan (of course) on vocals, guitar, and bodhran; Jon Spurney on guitars and piano; Lindsey Horner (yay!) on electric and acoustic bass and bass clarinet; and Alison Miller (occasionally of Mila Drumke's band, among many, many other things) on drums and percussion.
     The set included a few songs from Lowlands ("The Hare's Lament", "To Fair London Town", "The Snows They Melt The Soonest"; several staples of the Chanting House repertoire from the past few years ("Seven Cold Glories", "Fuck You", "Wheels", "The River"), some surprises (a jazz number called something like "Ribbon Bow", "Curiouser", the ubiquitous "Son Of A Preacher Man" and "Snakes", and ... a new song called "South", and after it was done we all looked around at each other, stunned. When I saw Susan later I was moved to bow down at her feet—I think she was a bit surprised at how much people liked it (the applause after it ended was particularly loud and long). She said she had just put the finishing touches on some of the lyrics that afternoon. Musically, it's what Mike called "her goth song", but I was reminded a bit more of something you'd have heard on the Peel Sessions in the early '90s. It was all electric guitar, electric bass, and drums, minor key, with some serious vocal stuff going on on top of it all. It comes from the same planet that brought us "Heart", "Salome" and "I Know I Know". (1/01)
     It's always a special thing seeing the full Chanting House. The reworked version of "Lowlands", which I immediately dubbed "the Red Rocks Amphitheatre version" was literally stunning: Spurney laid down a wall of sound with his highly-reverbed electric guitar (implementing e-bow when necessary), over which Lindsey bowed his bass and Alison played her bass drum with mallets, and Susan wailed on top of it all. Unbelievable. The rest of the set consisted of some Celtic stuff mixed in with Chanting House standards ("Seven Cold Glories", "Wheels Of The World", "The Chariot") as well as new stuff ("South", and a brand-new song I don't know the title of), and a great rendition of "Who Knows Where The Time Goes". (12/01, meth@smoe.org)

     Susan McKeown's connections to the Pacific Northwest make it probably the second-best place to live if you're one of her fans. This is the second time in a year she's made it out here to Eugene, and I'm glad she came back so soon.
     She had a somewhat modified Chanting House lineup with her, with Jeff Allen on bass, someone whose name I can't remember but who was identified as a Portland native on drums, and Jon Spurney on guitar. She did her fairly standard assortment of songs from various albums, covers like "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face", "Son of a Preacher Man", and "Who Knows Where the Time Goes", and a new song called "South" that definitely had a certain moody Ecto sound to it.
     Susan's in as fine a form as ever. (9/01)
     The show was excellent, and Susan is cementing her place in my personal Ecto pantheon. The full Chanting House lineup was there, including their drummer who couldn't make their last Eugene show. Everyone was in fine form; in particular Jon Spurney played guitar with his usual animation and gave me a bit of a surprise by doing piano accompaniment on a couple of songs.
     They played many of the usual favorites you've heard before. The things I thought notable were a nearly heavy-metal version of "The Lowlands of Holland"; Susan asking Lindsay Horner to play "Blue Moon" and telling everyone about his upcoming wedding on February 23, and that she wanted to sing "Blue Moon" for him at his wedding except that he'd be too busy to play accompaniment; and a encore with the song "Prophecy" from her new album of the same title. She told the story about how she wrote the song "Bones" at the end of recording that album, and named the album after it, and similarly she and Jon Spurney wrote "Prophecy" in a day at the end of recording the new album, and named the new album after it, and how both songs, which she described as "weird", are favorites of her father. (2/02, stevev@hexadecimal.uoregon.edu)

Recommended first album:

Bones or Prophecy

Recordings:


The Chanting House

Release info:

1990—independent cassette

Availability:

Out of print

Group members:

Susan McKeown—vocals
John Doyle—guitar, backing vocals
Donogh Hennessy—mandola, mandolin, whistles
Mark Crickard—fiddle
Brian Doyle—bongos, bodhran, guitar
Mik Kappler—fiddle
Jim Tate—bass

Produced by:

John Doyle and Susan McKeown

The Chanting House—Live

Release info:

1992—independent cassette (recorded in Ireland)

Availability:

Out of print

Group members:

Susan McKeown—vocals
John Doyle—guitar, backing vocals
Eileen Ivers—fiddle
Seamus Egan—flute, whistle, banjo

Edited by:

Jimi Zhivago

Snakes

Release info:

1993—Sheila-na-Gig Music

Availability:

Out of print

Group members:

Susan McKeown—vocals
Chris Cunningham—guitars
Michelle Kinney—cello, additional vocals

Produced by:

Jimi Zhivago

Bones

Release info:

1995—Sheila-na-Gig Music—SNG-701/1996. Re-released 1996—1-800-PRIME-CD

Availability:

Available throughout the United States, Ireland, and Europe, or directly from PRIME-CD or at shows

Ecto priority:

High, especially if your tastes run toward the Celtic end of the spectrum

Group members:

Susan McKeown—vocals, guitar, bodhran, backing vocals
Chris Cunningham—guitar, harmonium, bouzouki
Lindsey Horner—bass, bass clarinet, tin whistle
Michelle Kinney—cello, accordion, background vocals
Joe Trump—drums, cymbals, percussion

Guest artists:

Johnny Cunningham—fiddle
Jerry O'Sullivan—uillean pipes
Shawn Pelton—Cymbals
Eoin Woods—guitar, background vocals
Tom Zajac—Hurdy Gurdy, bagpipe, sackbut
Jimi Zhivago—Hammond organ, mellotron, bass pedals, electric 12-string guitar

Produced by:

Jimi Zhivago

Comments:

I absolutely love this album. :) Brilliant, amazing, extraordinary...well, you get the idea. Susan's great, the band is great, the songs are great. The celtic flavor adds a lot to this rock/folk effort. I can't get it out of my cd player! Email Sheila-na-Gig Music and get yourself a copy! Her show absolutely blew me away, but the cd (which I bought that same day) didn't impress me nearly as much the first couple of times I listened to it. Luckily it quickly grew on me, and now it will easily be among the best discs I've bought this year. (mcurry@io.com)

The musical discovery of the year. Amazing voice, engaging music, haunting lyrics. Seek and buy. The album is every bit as brilliant as I thought it would be. I would highly recommend this to anyone with even a passing interest in Rainbirds and Katell Keineg. McKeown's voice sometimes sounds frighteningly like Katharina Franck (of Rainbirds, and the songs have a sensibility similar to Katell Keineg's. Susan McKeown's version of "Mna na hEireann" blows Kate Bush's out of the water. Not only does she speak Gaelic, thus making the words flow more easily, but the arrangement has a great groove, and fits with her own song really well. (I still think Kate's version is lovely, don't get me wrong...). The disc is just one amazing track after another. Definitely one of the best of the year. (meth@smoe.org)

This one was a sleeper for me. I bought it on the basis of hearing a bit on their web site, then didn't think I liked the whole thing—but one song stuck in my head and so I kept playing it and suddenly began to hear how interesting this disc is. On the surface it doesn't seem to be that differentiated from other current singer-songwriters, but with more listens I discovered all kinds of passages that offered reasons to keep playing the disc over and over. Susan McKeown pulls traditional elements into contemporary songs and the songs sound both old and new all at once.
   There is such wonderful stuff on this album, including an incredible setting of one of my favourite medieval lyrics: "Westrone Wynde":

Westron wynde where wilt thou blow
the small rain down can rain
Christ if my love were in my arms
and I in my bed again.
The song then goes into another song, "Westlin Winds". Gorgeous.
     The album definitely snuck up on me. If you're not certain you like it, I suggest you put it on in the background a few times and suddenly you'll find yourself needing to hear it. That's how it worked for me. I started having to play "Storm in a Teacup" and "Westron Wynde" on repeat and eventually the rest of the album got a chance to grow on me because I'd forget to jump between the two songs, and now I really like the whole album. I guess what put me off at first were the original songs on the album because I thought I wanted more traditional music from this band. But these are subtly crafted songs that takes a little listening to hear properly (at least for me). What I thought was standard contemporary folk isn't at all—there are all kinds of traditional echoes and contemporary echoes and edgy echoes, and damn I like this disc. I'm glad I listened again. (Neile)

I agree with Neile. I wasn't all that bowled over with it either when I first got it and wondered what the fuss was about. But after a few listens a couple of the tracks really grabbed me—in my case "Albatross" and "Love and Superstition". But it does definitely grow on you. I would love to see her live sometime. (jjhanson@att.net)

Guess I'll throw my support in for Susan McKeown's Bones CD. A friend and fellow ecto-lurker loaned me the disc for a few days and I pretty much liked it straight away. Dunno if it's been mentioned before, but I sure do hear a similarity between Susan's voice and Katell Keineg. (kcd@cray.com)

Count me in among the people who think Bones is a wonderful album. I must admit, though, that I had to listen to it a few times before it really started sinking in, and could start to grow. (Alvin.Brattli@phys.uit.no)

Bones is an interesting and intriguing mix of sensitive and thoughtful songs, and I've heard many people say, if you like that, wait till you see her in concert. I'm looking forward to it. (jsutton@rahul.net)

Bones is one of current favorites, maybe my absolute current favorite. I ordered it about a month ago on the advice of folks here (thanks y'all), and on the first listen it didn't impress me. On the second listen it impressed me, and on the third it blew me away. I can't EXPLAIN that exactly, but it might account for the reception Susan got from an audience who hadn't heard her before. I lent Bones to a friend who mostly shares my musical taste but she likes Mary Chapin Carpenter and Nanci Griffith more than I do, and likes KaTe Bush much less than I do (does that work as an index?) and she said Susan McKeown was "too weird" for her. I must remember to ask her how many times she played it—she didn't have it long (I needed it back in a big way). (Kelley.Hays-Gilpin@nau.edu)

After I read so much about Susan I had to get myself a copy of this cd. It did take quite a few listens though, at first I didn't like most of the songs. Then I found one song popping up in my head ('Love and superstition'), and then another, and now I love most of the songs. Not all of them yet, but who knows, after hearing them some more—or maybe seeing her live? (Marion)

Very VERY charming. (rkonrad@ibm.net)

This is gorgeous!!! I can't believe I haven't been listening to this sooner. I'm blown away. I LOVE LOVE LOVE this album. I listen to it a lot. I recommend it to all my friends. (JoAnn Whetsell)

Great CD. I've been playing it almost endlessly and not only is it enjoyable nearly every time, but nobody in my family has complained about hearing the same CD over and over again. (billonline@adlerbooks.com)


Prophecy

Release info:

2002—Sheila-na-Gig Music—SNG 704

Availability:

By mail or online at susanmckeown.com

Ecto priority:

Highly recommended

Group members:

Susan McKeown—vocals, background vocals, acoustic guitar

Guest artists:

Jon Spurney—background vocals, acoustic, electric and e-bow guitars, 6- and 12-string electric guitars, tin whistle, piano, Hammond B3, optigan, mellotron, Elka organ, Wurlitzer, celeste, sleigh bells, programming
Gerry Leonard—electric guitars, spooky loops
Jeff Allen—bass, electric bass
Allison Miller—drums
Russ Johnson—trumpets
Michelle Kinney—cello
Johnny Cunningham—fiddle
Catherine Bent—cello
Joe Trump—drums
Lindsey Horner—acoustic bass
Natalie Merchant—vocals on "River" and "Because I could not stop for Death"

Produced by:

Susan McKeown and Jon Spurney

Comments:

This is the album I've been waiting for Susan to release since Bones. I didn't realize it quite at first, but after the second or third listen, I realized I'm thoroughly in love with this album, and I keep playing it more and finding more I love about it. And you know it's a good sign when all the songs on an album get stuck in your head, not just one or two. Natalie Merchant has wonderful vocals on 2 tracks. All together, it's a great mix of songs; some like "Ballinaboula" are natural follow-ups to songs on Bones. On the whole, it has a very live feel to me. The album booklet is also quite nice, and I appreciate the background on the writing of some of the songs. (JoAnn Whetsell)

Fate has brought me a copy of Susan McKeown's new CD, Prophecy. It's going to be really hard to top it for CD of the year.
      Yes, folks, it's *that* good. Instant desert island disc, just add water. It's always strange to be able to sing along to every word of almost every song on a brand-new disc on the very first listen—but Susan has been performing these songs live with The Chanting House for so long (almost 7 years, in a couple of cases), they're already part of my musical being. It's taken *way* too long for them to get recorded.
      Fortunately, the arrangements are different enough from the live versions that there is still plenty new to discover. The title track is the only completely new composition, something that came straight out of the studio. It is very reminiscent of the song "Bones", and something that refuses to leave my brain.
      This is a CD that is impossible to listen to only once. As we were listening to it the other day, woj wondered if it's possible to have too many tour-de-force songs on one album—this one certainly pushes the envelope ("The River"! "Wheels Of The World"! "Ballinaboula"! "South"!), but that's by no means a bad thing. I don't envy the DJs at the radio stations that eventually get this, for having to try to pick what to play. I've long felt that "The River" is the song that should vault Susan to international stardom, but "South" is starting to give it a run for its money.
     This is an indispensable disc, both for people who are already fans of Susan's work and those who love lush, gorgeous, kickass music led by one of the best voices out there today. I hope she finds a label to distribute it that can adequately get the word out—this album deserves to make Susan McKeown a household name. (meth@smoe.org)

This is a really great album and if you've been wanting to have a recording of recent Chanting House material, you're going to love this. To my ear, the opening guitar riff to "South" sounds like it could have come out of a Happy Rhodes song, and the album version of "Prophecy" also has a very Rhodes-like sound. I'm also glad to have a recording of "River", which is a really great song. Unless a lot of people come out with some really killer albums I am already willing to say Prophecy will be on my best-of-2002 list. (stevev@hexadecimal.uoregon.edu)


Further info:

There's an email discussion group for Susan McKeown. To subscribe send an email to majordomo@smoe.org with a body of "subscribe curiouser" OR "subscribe curiouser-digest".

Email Susan McKeown at chanting@earthlink.net.


Thanks to Meredith Tarr and JoAnn Whetsell for work on this entry.

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DISCLAIMER: Comments and reviews in the Ectophiles' Guide are excerpted from the ecto mailing list or volunteered by members of the list. They are the opinions of music enthusiasts, not professional music critics.

Entry last updated 2014-04-27 19:57:54.
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