St. Patrick's Day Carroll

Irish fiddling sensation keeps it pure

St. Patrick's Day in Chicago conjures images of spirited Irish-American revelry, Green River Alert status. But when Chicago native Liz Carroll takes the stage at Spivey Hall that afternoon with her fiddle and three sidekicks, don't even bother looking for green beer. Her sober, soulful, award-winning playing transcends all that hogwash.

Carroll upset the competitive Irish traditional music world in 1975 by winning the Senior All-Ireland Championship in fiddle, an unheard-of accomplishment for an 18- year-old girl from Chicago, and she's been turning heads ever since. In 1994, she received a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship, the country's most coveted honor for a trad musician, and her most recent release, Lost in the Loop, an affectionate tribute to her native city, has raked in numerous awards, including Celtic Album of the Year from the Association for Independent Music.

Carroll grew up in Chicago in the '60s and '70s, when the city's Irish community was undergoing a cultural revival, bolstered by a steady flow of new blood from the green island itself. Born to first-generation immigrants (her parents hailed from Limerick and Offaly counties), a young Carroll was turned on to Irish music by the violin class taught by a nun at her parochial school. She was soon studying and playing alongside local legends such as fiddler John McGreevy and Mayo piper Joe Shannon. Carroll absorbed a considerable wealth of traditional tunes from these old masters, and she started composing herself at age 9. A recording of the first jig she ever wrote is included on Lost in the Loop.

Following her mid-'70s Irish Championship win, Carroll recorded a series of LPs that enjoyed a high profile in those pre-Celtic Revival days, and remain in print today. She recorded tunes by Philly-area fiddler Ed Reavy, who contributed a vast number of his own compositions to the trad repertoire. In 1988, she released a self-titled album with more than 20 original tunes, a very unusual move for a trad player at the time.

Never the world's most prolific recording artist, Carroll has instead chosen to pace herself. In the '90s, she released two albums as part of a trio called Trian, featuring two other big names in Irish music circles, guitarist Daith' Sproule and accordionist Billy McComiskey. The latter will accompany her at Spivey Hall, as will Kieran O'Hare on uilleann pipes and Jim DeWan on guitar.

Carroll's playing on Lost in the Loop is sweet, yet with a distinctive edge. And it shows a mature artist with a total command of her instrument and a great instinct for pacing, from the lightning-fast runs for which she's famous to more languorous passages. The tunes sound as old as the hills, yet many are her own. Curiously, her "Lament of the First Generation" sounds as if it's been filtered through another timeless tune, Richard Thompson's "Waltzing's for Dreamers."

Most important, Lost in the Loop's arrangements are tasteful and appropriate. In an age when too many Celtic musicians are seduced by djembe, digeridoo and dumbek, Liz Carroll sticks to the pure stuff. And it pays off.

Liz Carroll performs Sun., March 17, at the St. Patrick's Day Celebration at Spivey Hall, 5900 N. Lee St., Morrow. 3 p.m. $25. 770-961-3683. www.spiveyhall.org.??

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