Having a Gael Ol’ Time : Irish Folkie Andy Irvine, Who’ll Be in O.C., Likes His Life as It Is
April 19, 1991|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER
Andy Irvine had an invitation to join the British folk-rock boom of the early 1970s, but his own musical inclinations left him otherwise engaged.
Instead, Irvine, who plays a solo concert Monday at Shade Tree Stringed Instruments in Laguna Niguel, has been content to spend the last 20-odd years exploring new possibilities within the Irish folk tradition.
Speaking from Dublin over the phone recently, Irvine recalled how the promise of rock stardom–or at least something resembling it–presented itself in the late ’60s. He had been playing in a traditional Irish group called Sweeney’s Men when Ashley Hutchings, a founding member of Fairport Convention, proposed merging with Irvine’s group to form a new, rock-oriented folk band.
“We looked at the possibilities of it and decided against it, and (the notion of playing rock music) never came up again,” Irvine said. “I always had difficulties with a drummer. A rock drummer lays down a very specific beat, and it’s hard to get away from.”
Dubbed Steeleye Span, the rock band that Irvine turned down became one of the leading exponents of British folk-rock during a decade-long recording career. Terry Woods, a member of Sweeney’s Men who did take up Hutchings’ offer, is still rocking these days with the Pogues.
But Irvine, 49, doesn’t regret the road not taken. In 1972, a few years after he had turned down Steeleye Span, Irvine became a founding member of Planxty. Along with the Chieftains, Planxty was a leading force in bringing new vitality and recognition to hoary Irish styles.
“I’ve always done what I wanted to do,” said Irvine, who now fronts an Irish band called Patrick Street when he isn’t performing solo. “I’m not aware of having missed opportunities of any sort. It’s a wonderful life if you can do what you want to do and get paid for it.”
It was the music of Woody Guthrie, rather than any Irish source, that persuaded Irvine to embark on the life of a folk musician. When he first encountered Guthrie’s recordings, Irvine was a teen-ager in London, where he grew up the son of Irish immigrants.
“I spent my youth sitting on my bed practicing Woody Guthrie’s guitar style and singing in an Oklahoma accent,” Irvine said. He said he was so deeply affected that he began sending letters to the dying Guthrie, who was unable to respond on his own. But Irvine said the people who attended Guthrie would write back and that he even acquired a shirt from the folk music great.
“(Guthrie) didn’t want it, because it didn’t have enough pockets for his cigarettes. It was my pride and joy, until I had it stolen,” Irvine said.
In England, Irvine had been a child actor, taking dramatic roles in films and television shows. But by his late teens, he had settled in Dublin, set aside acting, and immersed himself in a growing traditional folk scene.
“I decided the people I met in the folk world were a lot more honest” than those in the television business, Irvine said.
Sweeney’s Men, launched in 1966, was Irvine’s first band to gain notice. From band mate Johnny Moynihan he picked up the bouzouki, an eight-stringed mandolin-like instrument from Greece, and added it to the Irish repertoire. Irvine, who also specializes in mandolin, furthered his interest in Balkan and Eastern European music by spending more than a year in Bulgaria during the late 1960s.
Planxty came together in the early ’70s when Christy Moore, a transplanted Irishman who had made a name for himself on the folk circuit in England, decided to return to his native country to record. Moore recruited Irvine, string ace Donal Lunny and piper Liam O’Flynn to back him on his album, “Prosperous.” The group remained together as Planxty, recording three early-’70s albums on which Moore and Irvine shared lead vocals. The band broke up, then reformed again during the late ’70s and early ’80s, with Irvine the constant link to its origins in a series of shifting lineups.
Planxty took its name from an obscure Gaelic term that the legendary 17th-Century Irish harpist and composer, O’Carolan, had used in his dedications to patrons.
“He would put ‘Planxty’ before the name (of the patron), whatever the word meant. It must have been some kind of greeting to those people,” Irvine said.
Equally adept at aching balladry, strange tales of death and betrayal, or sprightly instrumental jigs, Planxty made an impact in Ireland, Britain and Europe, but didn’t get to tour the United States.
“Very sadly, there was no market at the time” in America for a band playing traditional Irish songs, Irvine said. “The market probably opened up just as (the original Planxty) began to fold.”
Nowadays, Moore has a major U.S. label deal with Atlantic Records. On his last album, Irvine’s old band mate had some all-star help from a pair of Irish (or Irish-blooded) rock luminaries: Sinead O’Connor and Elvis Costello. Irvine, meanwhile, records for Green Linnet, a small, Connecticut-based specialty label devoted to Celtic music.
“I don’t think (Moore) has any feeling of competition toward me, and I certainly don’t toward him,” Irvine said. “We’re on very good terms. Christy rang me about two months ago, to say somebody had sent him a tape of the very first Planxty gig, and he sat through it with tears running down his face. He had to call somebody, so he called me.”
Since his days with Planxty, one of Irvine’s hallmarks has been his ballad singing on tales revolving around the vast Irish migrations of the 19th Century. It’s fertile emotional ground, where the songs are infused with the bitterness of economic hardship, the sadness of partings between lovers or parents and children, and the resentment of being subject to British overlords.
“It was such a crippling experience that the people wrote wonderful songs about it,” Irvine said. “Even though (immigrant songs) told more or less the same story, they were individually great songs. I didn’t sing those songs because I thought they were current; I sang them because they were good, emotional songs. Of course, they did become current in the ’80s,” when a shrinking Irish economy led to a new wave of emigration.
At the same time, Irvine has found parallel songs, set in America or Mexico, that address some of the same issues of poverty, dispossession and rebellion that shaped Irish history. An upcoming solo album–the second of his career–features a song called “Viva, Zapata,” he said, while Patrick Street’s repertoire includes a song about labor strife in Massachusetts factories before the World War I.
Irvine said he prefers to tackle political issues by looking backward, to historical sources, rather than writing topical songs about contemporary events.
“I still don’t seem to be able to write what they call a ‘P for Protest’ song,” he said. “Standing up and being in the vanguard of a cause perhaps isn’t something I have the courage for,” he added in a wry tone that indicated the problem is less a lack of gumption than an aversion to the soapbox.
Along with his continuing work in the Irish-folk tradition, Irvine has finished an album of electrified Bulgarian and Macedonian folk music with a group called East Wind that he hopes will turn into a continuing project.
Otherwise, he said, “I’m fairly happy going the way I am. I’ve no real heavy ambitions. I don’t want to become a super-star. There’s a track on my (upcoming) album, and the producer said, ‘This kind of has hit-single possibilities,’ and I laughed. I don’t think I was ever capable of that, and I certainly am not now.”
Andy Irvine performs Monday at 8 p.m. at Shade Tree Stringed Instruments, 28062 Forbes Road, Laguna Niguel. Tickets: $14 (seating is limited). Information: (714) 364-5270.