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Davy Spillane brings pipes to pop


Let's be honest: The uilleann pipes hardly seem a rock star kind of instrument. Known mainly as an Irish traditional instrument, the uilleann (pronounced "illen") pipes are a small, lap-sized bagpipe.

It's a remarkably expressive instrument, with a tart, vocal tone capable of expressing almost any emotion, from giddy joy to the deepest melancholy. But because its sound is old-fashioned and intimate, it barely seems appropriate for a packed theater, much less a screaming stadium crowd.

But Davy Spillane has piped in front of both. In the early '80s, the Dublin-born piper joined Irish folk legends Christy Moore and Donal Lunny in a rock band called Moving Hearts, which was a huge hit in Ireland.

"Moving Hearts were like Little Feat in Ireland," says Spillane. "We had big trucks, and it was extremely rock and roll. I mean, I had all of that - the ego issues, and being a bit of a star, and whatever else."

A decade after Moving Hearts finally packed it in, Spillane found himself in the middle of another big hit. His feisty, propulsive piping was the foot-moving heart of the original "Riverdance," a production he played with for four years.

Although he enjoyed his time in "Riverdance," Spillane wanted to get back to making his own music. "With 'Riverdance' taking me away from the momentum of my album career, which was usually one every year and a half or something, I had four years with no album," he says.

Moreover, Spillane - who plays both uilleann pipes and tin whistle - wanted to do something different.

Working as a sideman, he says, made it tempting to think like a "player" and focus only on how well he could play his instruments. "I was a gunslinger-y piper, trying to play as best as I could inside arrangements I might not have been very responsible for," he says. And while Spillane had no problem filling the role of the instrumental hotshot, he longed for something a bit deeper in his music.

"As I get older, I suppose, my desire is to be more comprehensive on my albums, as opposed to being 'the player,' " he says. "So I tend to head for a general evocation, across the arrangements and everything."

For Spillane's latest, "The Sea of Dreams," that meant focusing on the slower, more melodic side of Irish music.

"In my slow music, especially the slow music that I've composed myself, I don't try to play it in a strident, St. Patrick's Day mode," he says. "You'll find with Irish traditional musicians from Ireland, especially West Coast musicians in Ireland, their melodic music tends to be a lot subtler than the strident renditions of more city-based traditional music."

Some of the tunes on "The Sea of Dreams," like the haunting tin whistle solo "The May Morning Dew," have an austere, breathtaking beauty; others, like the version of "Danny Boy" with Sinead O'Connor, take a more orchestrated approach. But in each of the selections, Spillane's musical vision shines through.

"I wanted to bring the more vulnerable, sensitive [Irish] music to new audiences," he says of the album. "I'm quite proud of it."

Davy Spillane

When: Today, 7 p.m.

Where: Borders, Towson, 415 York Road

Tickets: Free

Call: 410-321-4265

Sundial: To hear excerpts from Davy Spillane's new release, "The Sea of Dreams," call Sundial at 410-783-1800 and enter the code 6114. For other local Sundial numbers, see the directory on Page 2B.

Pub Date: 12/17/98

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