‘Once I got in front of an audience, I could play so much better than when I was at home’: Andy Irvine on returning to the stage at 79

Kate Brayden


Between the achievements of his solo, group work and collaborations; it’s no wonder festivals like Hibernacle are itching to see Andy Irvine return to the stage.

With his impressive repertoire of Irish traditional songs and dexterous Balkan dance tunes, Andy Irvine has a well-earned reputation for curating an exciting new fusion of Irish and World Music.

Having travelled the world with bands like Sweeney’s Men, Patrick Street, the globally successful Planxty, and more recently Mozaik; the London-born musician continues to pursue new combinations and styles of music. Broadening his musical horizons over the course of his forty-year career to encompass the musical styles of countries he visits, the highly revered troubadour of Irish music has since been announced to play Claregalway’s Hibernacle festival – ‘Meet Me At The Castle’.

The 79-year-old will be performing alongside acclaimed singer-songwriter Lisa Hannigan and renowned Dublin electronic-rock act Jape. Hot Press spoke to Andy over the phone from his Wexford home about the forthcoming festival appearance, his lockdown experience and favourite memories from touring the world.

“We barely know what the outside world is looking like these days, but everything is beginning to come back into some kind of normality,” Andy laughs, always in good spirits. Himself and his wife have had a wealth of privacy over the last 18 months, spending lockdowns battling weeds in their garden and working on music – it seems he’ll never let himself stop. Preparing to hit the stage once again after more than 40 years of work as a performer seems like an easy task, but Irvine’s nerves are surprisingly potent.

“I get more and more frightened as I get older. I don’t know why that is. It’s just that I get nervous, but I’m not quite as bad as Ronnie Drew, who used to get sick before going on stage every evening!”

“The first solo gig I had was in Galway, and for a couple weeks beforehand, I’d have a shiver down my spine in fear. But as soon as we got on stage, after about the first number, it was as if I’d never been away. I was overjoyed by that, of course. I’m really looking forward to everything that’s coming up.”

Numerous creatives were forced to reckon with an uncertain future as the virus shut down venues, halted gigs for 18 months and removed nightlife and crowds from the equation.

“I had a very bad time during lockdown in terms of practicing – which I did copiously – but I began to feel like I was losing the ability to play as well as I used to be able to do,” Irvine adds, candidly.

“I’m an old man; there is going to come a time where I seriously can’t play as well as I could, but as soon as I got out in front of an audience, I was able to play so much better than I had been able to play just sitting at home. I think that was psychological. I’ve heard other people having the same problem. You feel like you can’t do it anymore until you get back and do it. Delight at being able to play as well as you had before the pandemic. But it’s not easy.”

During the various Covid-19 lockdowns in Ireland, the folk legend finally managed to compile the material together for his Woody Guthrie album and recorded the results.

“I’d been planning to do a Woody Guthrie album for four years now, care to remember. I got it together and I recorded everything, and now it awaits other people’s inputs. He’s my first and main influence,” Andy acknowledges, smiling. “I’ve kept it a bit quiet but I’m actually playing the album in the National Concert Hall in October, so that’ll be a bit scary. I’ll have to relearn all this material I’ve recorded, but I’m looking forward to it.”

Added to the ‘Meet Me At The Castle’ line-up alongside Saint Sister this week, Andy joins the likes of Tolü Makay, Wallis Bird and Nealo for the festival. Taking place September 25 and 26 at Claregalway Castle, Hibernacle is the brainchild of three experienced and diverse event organisers: Úna Molloy, Pearse Doherty and Peter Kelly. The first festival happened at the height of the pandemic in 2020, bringing together some of Ireland’s best and brightest talent in Doolin, Clare, for a restorative retreat and weekend of music. If the first edition is anything to go by, it’s not-to-be-missed.

“I played in Offaly a couple of weeks ago, and the main organiser was there from Hibernacle – which is the company that runs the gig in Birr and Claregalway – and the opportunity to play naturally presented itself from that meeting. ‘Hiberno’ is Latin for ‘winter court’. I think the name probably refers not just to Hibernia, Ireland but also to winter productions. Now I’m just showing off that I remember a bit of Latin!” Andy laughs.

“They’re all more or less fresh faces to play with. I believe I’m going to be playing with Lisa Hannigan and with Jape. I’ve done that kind of thing before; with festivals in Canada, often you’re playing on a small stage with two other acts and you’re encouraged to play along with them without any rehearsal at all. I remember Donal and I were playing in Edmonton at one of these Canadian festivals, and there was a band there from the West Indies or somewhere like that. They played lovely music. No sooner had we started counting in ‘My Heart’s Tonight in Ireland’ when they all played with us. They had no clue as to where the tune or the chord sequence was going, it was really funny. We pay a little bit more attention to detail when we rehearse in the next couple of weeks,” the trad veteran admits.

“It’s a little bit early to say what changes will come about in terms of Irish music. The one thing that does seem to have happened post-lockdown is the audiences are very keen to go to live concerts again, which is definitely encouraging. The fact that some of the gigs are restricted in numbers meant that all of the shows have sold out. That’s a really good sign, but we’ll see whether that urge for music is permanent.”

“I’ve booked Vicar Street in June to celebrate my 80th birthday, because 10 years ago I played two gigs there for my 70th birthday with a couple of bands,” Irvine adds. “Sweeney’s Man, Mosaik, and LAPD with Paddy Glackin and Liam O’Flynn. That gig was a great success. We put it together on a CD and on a DVD, and I don’t see why I shouldn’t do it again for my 80th. Then I’d be looking forward to my 90th!”

How vital is Irish music for the current socio-economic landscape, in Andy’s view?

“Hugely important. It’s also very hard to understand how you can fill Croke Park for a match and you have to be so much more careful at a musical event. That doesn’t make any sense to me whatsoever. But no, I think it’s a kind of reawakening. People are suddenly keen to take up their lives as they were before, to some extent.”

“I had a strange experience recently. Last weekend I went to London, to visit my daughter – who lives in London – and my grandchildren, who I hadn’t seen for 19 months. Within about five minutes of going into the house, it was as if the last two years had completely disappeared. It was like being Rip Van Winkle, waking up after 20 years of being asleep. Time seemed to have been contracted so that within five minutes, it was as if we hadn’t been apart. It’s extraordinary.”

Given his wealth of experience when it comes to both Irish and world music, it comes as no surprise that Irvine is often asked for advice by up-and-coming performers.

“I have a friendly feeling for young musicians because I know how hard it is, how much harder it is now to make your own music profession than it was when I was a young man. I’ve got sympathy for them, and I like to help them as much as I can. I think it’s more difficult to stand out as a folk or trad musician these days. So many artists have now gone before these younger people that perform in a new way, which is still kind of acceptable traditionally.”

“I don’t actually play with anybody except Donal Lunny and Paul Brady – when it’s not cancelled once again – but I have a special fan called Macdara Ó Faoláin from Rinn in Co. Waterford,” Andy grins. “He’s been a follower of mine ever since he was a small boy, and he’s now probably 18 or 19. He makes bouzoukis and he plays the instrument as well. I saw him on television a couple weeks ago, and I was really impressed. He’s a lovely young man. And there’s of course the Ye Vagabonds who I like a lot. There’s serious originality in their music. They’re making good strides in the profession.”

Having carved out a name for himself as a traveller, the beloved musician is showing no signs of slowing down as he approaches his 80th birthday. Are there any countries that remain on his bucket list?

“All of them. I mean, the whole trouble with being a traveller is that you always want to get back to places you’ve been before, but you want to go to new places as well. It’s quite hard sometimes to do both. I’m still not planning any big trips yet, but I think that’ll have to wait until probably next spring and beyond. But I do look forward to getting back and the world again.”

“The first country that comes to mind in terms of how brilliant the reception was would be Italy,” Irvine notes, after a pause. “I’ve played there for over 40 years, and English is not a language that a lot of them speak – as it would be in Germany, for instance. I remember all those years ago playing in Italy with Arty McGlynn and Nollaig Casey, and in the middle of a song, they would shout ‘hooray!’ and ‘bravo!” It didn’t come at a moment where we just played fantastic solos, it came in the middle of a continuous piece of music. That’s called high spirits.”

Presumably, given his breadth of time in the industry and passion for new projects, Andy has been questioned before about the limits of his musical motivation.

“One of these days I’m not going to be able to keep performing. I do wonder what will be the first sign, you know?” he says, pensively.

“Will it be fingers not being able to get up and down the fingerboard, or will it be voice deteriorating? I can’t say. I mean, when you get to 90, you really wouldn’t expect to be as good as you were when you were 79. We’ll see…all these factors are quite natural. If one day I can’t really do this anymore or I’m not good enough, I’ll just quietly retire and do other things.”

Photo credit: Béla Kasa.

source: www.hotpress.com


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