CD Reviews: Start of a Dream

Start of a Dream:

Irish Examiner December 12th 2007 Gerry Quinn

Singer Don Stiffe is a native of the Headford area in Co.Galway. With a distinctive lived-in and composed voice, his Start of a Dream release is a tremendous showcase for a relatively unknown but imposing singer. A mixed bag of material extending from two Richard Thompson compositions, book-ending the 11 tracks, and a pair of traditional songs to four self-penned pieces all coalesce to generate a body of work that should turn Stiffe into an overnight sensation. His is a voice of rare expression and distinctive timbre that deserves to be heard far and wide. Stiffe takes relatively disparate genres and blends them into one unique declaration. His take on Nat King Cole’s Mona Lisa with Frankie Gavin’s sublime fiddle playing, could have been mishandled by a singer of lesser ability and composure – but in Stiffe’s hands, the jazz standard sparkles like an exciting original. 

The old chestnut, Sean McCarthy’s Shanagolden, gets a merited new lease of life, sounding as if it was written specifically for Stiffe. With a host of luminaries in a supporting role, including the aforementioned Gavin, Sharon Shannon, Arty McGlynn, Rick Epping, Cathal Hayden, and Carl Hession, this album’s strength lies in its ability to highlight a strong unadulterated voice sailing effortlessly over undeniable melodies. Stiffe’s vocals evoke echoes of Burl Ives at times but it’s the clarity and conviction that singles him out as an exceptional talent. Although some of the tracks suffer from an over-the-top “kitchen sink and all” approach to arrangements, Start of a Dream is a must for anybody remotely interested in top notch singing. 

Start of a Dream: 

Irish American News (IAN) Ohio: May 2007 by John O’Brien Jnr. 

I got this premier CD by balladeer and songwriter Don Stiffe from Ossian Use maestros Mary Lou and Charlie – what a pleasant surprise in the mailbag! The accompaniment on the CD should have been the first warning that this was something special, and Stiffe must be well respected, for the forward is by Frankie Gavin, who also plays on the recording, and is joined by such wonderful and talented musicians as Arty McGlynn, Carl Hession, Michael Vignoles, Cathal Hayden and Sharon Shannon, to only name a few – powerful. 

Featuring warm vocals that take on a different personality with each song; reminders of Michael Bible to Garth Brooks to even a taste of Johnny Mathis, meld with the Irish ballads with ease and polish. Don’s own compositions, four of them on this CD, sparkle with emotion and “having been there”. The difference between Stiffe and lesser singer/songwriters is that Stiffe has the distinct ability to write and sing engaging songs about life, loss and hope, while effortlessly transporting listeners right into the story with him. We experience what they experience. We feel the emotion. It can’t be taught, but Stiffe has it in abundance. We often mourn the disappearing  of the great ballad singers, but the tradition is in good hands, evidenced by Stiffe’s well written and beautifully sung songs on Start of a Dream. 

Stiffe’s covers of songs like Mona Lisa, Dimming of The Day, and Waltzing’s for Dreamers are well done. But he outdid himself with his recording of Shanagolden, gorgeously sung, Stiffe takes the role of the widowed woman, recalling the love and life of her rebel husband, who died fighting the stranger, in Shanagolden. I hit “play again” at least half a dozen times, before going on to the third track. Start of a Dream is a wonderful CD, and Stiffe’s songwriting, singing and guitar will bring him great, and much deserved success. I think we will be hearing a lot more from Don Stiffe. 

Start of a Dream:

Irish Music magazine, May 8, 2007. Sean Laffey. 

Don Stiffe comes from the Headford area of Co.Galway and has been singing for most of his life, having toured much of Ireland, the US and Europe with his songs. No matter where he goes he is always at home with his voice and his material, which has a strong Irish character running through it. 

Let me state right now, he has a superb voice somewhere between the edginess of Sean Tyrell and the deep clarity of Sean Keane, and that doesn’t do Don real justice, because his voice is uniquely his own. Joined by Frankie Gavin, Cathal Hayden, Arty McGlynn, Sharon Shannon, Brian Duke, Carl Hession amongst others, the musical quality of the album is in the premier league, style, taste pace and final execution are faultless and his choice of songs is inspired. He has a fondness for the songs of Richard Thompson and bookends the album with Waltzing’s for Dreamers and Dimming of the Day. Stiffe’s songwriting gets a showcase too with four tracks which more or less deal with the emigrants plight in foreign lands, and he does so with wit and surety in his word pictures. His “Missing Galway” deserves to be a classic modern folk song. He turns his hand to Craigie Hill and makes it his own. (aficionados will no doubt compare it to Dick Gaughan’s version.) Don also tackles Nat King Cole’s Mona Lisa, yes that old crooners smoothest of smooth little numbers, and you know what? Don makes it work, which is testament to his vocal talent and the empathy he has built with the band. Don Stiffe is a class act, and this is a class album, unquestionably recommended.