If you haven’t already been thoroughly impressed, mesmerized or just plain gob-smacked by Irvine’s body of work over the years, then this double-CD set will do the trick; heck, you’ll appreciate it even if you’ve memorized everything in the Irvine catalogue from “As I Roved Out” to “Way Out Yonder.”
“Old Dog” comprises rare, mostly heretofore unreleased recordings – made in studios, concert halls, pubs, and even at home – dating from 1961, when he was still a promising young actor (with TV and film appearances alongside the likes of Peter Sellers and Laurence Harvey), to 2012, by which time he had established his considerable legacy not only as a gifted singer but as an innovative musician capable of integrating seemingly disparate musical genres (Irish, Balkan, American/old-timey), an astute collector and skillful arranger of traditional ballads, and an eloquent songwriter who draws on historical figures, social issues and his own life experiences.
“Old Dog, Long Road” is not a greatest hits-type compilation: There’s no “Never Tire of the Road,” “My Heart’s Tonight in Ireland,” “The Blacksmith” or “Indiana.” But you get solo versions of “Viva Zapata,” “Sweet Lisbweemore,” “Bonny Light Horseman” and “Kilgrain Hare,” certainly no less deserving of attention, as well as “King Bore and the Sandman” (taken from the “Rainy Sundays/Windy Dreams” album), which demonstrates Irvine’s well-crafted sense of humor. In addition to solo tracks, there are others that offer tantalizing glimpses of, or antecedents to, his renowned partnerships, such as with Johnny Moynihan (Sweeney’s Men), Donal Lunny (Planxty, Mozaik), Rens van der Zalm (Mozaik) and Gerry O’Beirne, Kevin Burke and Jackie Daly (Patrick Street).
One thing this album underscores is just how strongly Irvine was influenced by American folk music in his younger days – in particular Woody Guthrie, whose “upside-down” harmonica style (a welcome presence on much of “Old Dog”) Irvine learned – and how it has remained a part of his musical identity even as he explored other vistas: from the brush-style Carter Family guitar stroke, as heard on 1971 recordings of him playing Guthrie’s “Lost Train Blues” and “Dublin Lady” (which Irvine co-authored with American poet Patrick Carroll), to his renditions of “The Titanic” (recorded 2012) and Guthrie’s poignant, autobiographical “Seamen Three” (1981). A must-listen is his take on “Truckin’ Little Baby,” a Blind Boy Fuller song he taped at home in 1961 – complete with bluesy guitar accompaniment and affected American accent.
“Old Dog” is not arranged chronologically, and that’s one of its many virtues. Sure, on the one hand it would be interesting to witness Irvine’s musical development over time – how did he progress from straight-backed American-style guitar to melodic, intricate bouzouki, or from old-timey songs in 2/4 to Bulgarian tunes in 7/16 – all the while equally at home in traditional Irish instrumental music? But the non-linear sequence of tracks drives home the point that all these incarnations of Irvine, instead of being temporary destinations along the way, remain present in the man, even if some are more readily seen than others.
Besides, it makes for some fascinating and revealing juxtapositions. For instance, on the second disc there is a live track of Irvine and Zalm (on fiddle) playing “Chetvorno Horo,” displaying Irvine’s prowess on bouzouki; this is followed by an astounding home recording from 1968 of Irvine singing an American traditional song, “Reuben’s Train,” with modal, old-timey mandolin; and then a cut from “Rainy Sundays/Windy Dreams,” as Irvine (on mandolin, harmonica and hurdy-gurdy – the latter sadly gone now from his instrumentation) sings the splendid “Longford Weaver,” joined by Lunny, Frankie Gavin on fiddle and Rick Epping on jew’s harp, and segueing into a wonderful turn on the reel “Christmas Eve.”
Dedicated Irvine fans, of course, no doubt have their own wish-list of rarities they’d like to hear, and some may wonder about the absence of one prominent Irvine collaborator here: Paul Brady. It bears pointing out that “Old Dog” is in fact sub-titled “Volume 1,” and in the liner notes Irvine writes, “If this album is well received, there will be a clatter more!” Hard to imagine Volume 2 being able to meet the standard set by 1, but many of us would love to find out for ourselves. [andyirvine.com]
Andy Irvine, “Old Dog, Long Road Vol. 1”