Bruce Sylvester, Goldmine, March 22, 2002 McKeown's poised delivery has comforting warmth, but the CD can be hilariously irreverent too. Liner notes have extra laughs. Scottish flddle wizzard Johnny Cunningham (1957 - 2003), Grammy-winning Irish singer Susan McKeown and Irish guitarist Aidan Brennan present a collection of songs and poems traditionally connected to the wintry season and the winter solstice. 'A Winter Talisman' grew out of the idea that Johnny Cunningham and Susan McKeown 'thought we'd like to do a winter program that's different from the normal holiday fare' says Cunningham. So they went to work devising such a program, selecting pieces from their own childhood winter memories, and researching the music of what the Celts really got up to in winter. The results are sometimes exquisite, sometimes downright hilarious. Winter in Ireland and Scotland was and is a time of celebration and great merriment, which is reflected in stories of the supernatural, and songs of courtship and drinking. The album features driving rhythmical songs, stirring tunes, and wistful melodies of the non-secular sort, from the Mummer's song of the Old Maid's pigs who get their tails cut off to the gorgeous 'Auld Lang Syne'. In between are rousing tunes, beautiful songs and the hilarious poetry of Johnny Cunningham. The two are joined by guitarist Aidan Brennan (Loreena McKennitt, Kevin Burke) whose 'inventive guitar' (New York Times) and earthy tenor adds to the sweet musical delivery and brings an exquisite third part vocal harmony to many of the songs. Beautifully recorded with the sweet sounds of vocals, fiddle and guitar, the album evokes the feel of a winter's night around the fire with some good friends, some fine songs and stories, some great laughs and a peaceful journey home. 'As the glorious colours of autumn fade into the stark beauty of a silvery winter, friends and family gather together around the fire. Songs and stories are exchanged and shared tears and laughter become a powerful talisman against the cold darkness ahead. We are never truly without hope and comfort when poetry and music light the way towards our new beginnings.'  ' A Winter Talisman' - A Snowman is built to protect family and farmhouse. He is given eyes of coal to watch over the cattle and guard the glen during the darkest nights of the old year. In the crook of his snowy arm he holds a 'warded broom' to sweep away evil. A small boy imagines this yearly ritual in an evocative poem written by Johnny.  'A Winter Charm of Lasting Life' - We all liked the melody of this waulking song from Sam Henry's 'Songs of the People'. Susan wrote some new lyrics and added in some old blessings from the Carmina Gadelica, a collection of old Scots charms and runes. The rhythmical pounding is from our hands on a table, enacting the sound made by waulking the cloth, an old Scottish occupation which is no longer practiced.  'Langóilí (Langolee)' - A Waterford song which relates the tale of a violent internal eruption at a winter's wake. Langolee is mentioned in some old songs as an herbal medicine, which will cure all sorts of matronly afflictions such as colic, wind, nervous disorders and declensions. From 'Binneas Thar Meon' with a translation by Dathaí Ó hÓgdín.  Maí Bhán Ní Chuilleannáin (Fair Molly Hollywood) - This is one of our favourite songs. From the singing of the late and very great Eithne Ní Ullacháin, who performed, composed and arranged in the group Lá Lúgh with her partner Gerry O'Connor. Translation by Eithne Ní Ullacháin.  Wexford Mummer's Song - On St. Stephen's Day in Ireland and Scotland not so very long ago, men and boys would annually take part in a very ancient custom which marked the death of winter and the promise of new life with Spring. Dressed as 'mummers' in costumes and wicker masks meant to conceal their identity, they would kill a wren and carry it around from house to house on a stick. In exchange for donations they would give a performance. In some areas the ritual was very elaborate, having at it's core a play in which a man died and was brought back to life by the character of a Doctor. But the 'script' always included a local flavour and songs which may or may not have had anything to do with the action. Here is one such song from the singing of Mary O'Hara  An Urbane Scotsman in Alaska - The Scots are renowned for their resilience and sometimes foolhardy bravery in the face of adversity. Johnny wondered what would happen if a vacationing Scot would wander away from his Alaskan cruise guide and come face to face with a huge hairy denizen of the wild?  The Unfortunate Snow Incident - A wee wintry four-part jig written by Johnny, in commemoration of the time a friend tried, after too much holiday cheer, to 'write' a yellow Snow Angel in the cold drifts outside a local pub. Frostbite can be an ugly thing.  The Bonny Blue-Eyed Lassie - There are both Scots and Irish versions of this song, so we've taken lyrics from both.  Preab San Ól (In Praise of Drink) - We enjoy this song which reminds us how important it is to relax and have a good time. The verses are from a longer drinking song by the west Mayo poet Riocard Bairéad (1739 - 1819)  A Christmas Childhood - A poem by Monaghan poet Patrick Kavnagh  My Singing Bird - This is a beautiful traditional air from the southern Irish province of Munster, with words by Edith Wheeler. Learned from a recording of the wonderful McPeake brothers of Belfast.  A Mhísg A Chuir An Nollaig Oirnn (The Drunkenness that Christmas Brought Us) / Drunk Since Ever I Saw Your Face - Johnny's friend, Scots vocalist Christine Primrose, kindly sent us the lyrics to this song which she performs herself. The second piece is an old bagpipe tune.  As Warm as Winter Snow - Johnny write this simple melody after reminiscing with Aidan about the winter music sessions they used to play together at the East Avenue Tavern in Portland, Oregon. Round about ten to two in the morning, when all the players with 'normal' occupations had long since left the pub, the lights were dimmed and a more melancholy air would fall over the remaining company. At that late hour beautiful tunes and songs were played and sung in the warm light of comradeship whilst watching snow fall quietly outside the Tavern windows.  Auld Lang Syne (by Robbie Burns) - The every-thrifty Susan and Johnny bring you two versions of this beautiful universal song of reflections and renewal for the price o' one. The week before New Year's Eve or Hogmanay, as the Scots call it, is spent sprucing up the house and trying to get financial and family affairs in order. Most importantly, friendships are reinforced and faltering relationships mended. This is done in the belief that everything will remain in good order and people will have good luck for the coming year. Every January first, no matter how large or small the gathering, hands are clasped and voices are raised in hope for the future and remembrance of the past. As the midnight bells ring out the auld year and ring in the new, the words of Auld Lang Syne by the Scottish bard Robert Burns, resound in harmony around the world. Johnny, Susan & Aidan, Winter 2001.