Welcome to our series featuring some of the best traditional Irish musicians alive today. We call them living legends!
This post focuses on Noel Hill, the virtuoso Irish concertina player from west county Clare, where the Irish concertina tradition is so strong that the instrument was once referred to as “the Clareman’s Trumpet”
Noel Hill is somewhat of a legend in his own time. He has been described by Stephen Rea as “the Jimi Hendrix of the concertina” and as “Ireland’s greatest concertina player” by piper, Séamus Ennis.
So much is known about him and yet the man himself remains somewhat of an enigma. He lives now in the rural and somewhat isolated Connemara Gaeltacht by way of West County Clare and Sutton, Dublin.
His influence on traditional Irish concertina playing today cannot be overstated and as Irish Times journalist, Brian O’Connell puts it so eloquently:
‘He is to Irish traditional music what WB Yeats was to a generation of Irish poets, a one-in-a-generation player who casts a long shadow’.
Noel Hill on the Pure Drop hosted by Iarla Ó Lionáird (music starts at 01:53)
Noel Hill’s playing style is forceful yet sensitive. Hill is heavily influenced by the uilleann piping style of Willie Clancy, whom he encountered frequently as a child. Noel Hill’s playing is seen by many as the birth of the modern style of concertina playing.
Hill describes his awe struck reaction to Clancy’s playing:
‘He would come down on the regulators* like a clap of thunder and invariably sound in tune. No other instrument I could imagine could create that amount of volume and power. Clancy seemed to be unpredictable on the outside of it. All careless fantastic melody. And all of a sudden he would come down like a clap of thunder on the regulators when you least expected it and that fascinated me.’
A uniquely musically gifted child, Noel started playing his brother’s concertina at the age of nine. His early musical experience was influenced by masters such as Willie Clancy and his uncle, concertina player, Paddy Hill. Hill’s evolution as the concertina player we see today was almost inevitable.
It was 1988 before Noel Hill released his first solo album, The Irish Concertina, which promptly won Folk Album of the Year.
Probably his most celebrated album however is the duet album, Noel Hill & Tony Linnane, released in 1979 and featuring traditional Irish music giants such as Matt Molly, Alec Finn and Mícheál Ó Domhnaill.
It was this album that firmly planted once and for all the concertina as a major instrument in the Irish musical tradition.
Noel Hill with Tony Linnane, Alec Finn & Finbar Dwyers 1997
Hill’s personal life has flowed less easily. In 2008 he suffered a violent attack that very nearly claimed his life. It certainly put the brakes on his musical career.
Little by little, with the help of his children, he found his way back to the music however. Today he is thankfully fully back to doing what he loves.
His playing style, no doubt freshly informed by such a catastrophic event, is as forceful and spirited as ever and has retained a complexity and nuance that is unique to him.
His most recent album, The Irish Concertina 3: Live in New York was released in 2017. This gem showcases his live performance with playing that continues to astound and inspire.
‘Noel rises fully to his audience’s expectations and gives them all that energy he is famous for, and more in terms of variety of tunes, variety of moods, subtlety of interpretation and drive of playing.’ – Journal of Music
‘Through his dedication, talent, and artistry, Noel produces one of the most powerful and beautiful expressions of our culture I know.’ – Tony MacMahon
‘It really is hard to believe this is a live recording, such is the virtuosity and musicianship of his playing.’ – Rawbar Magazine
Hill continues to teach, mentor and perform. He holds sell-out concertina workshops both in Ireland and abroad.
For more information visit the following:
* notes on the uilleann pipes usually played with the heel of the hand
[Image: Noel Hill with Micho Russell courtesy of NoelHill.com]