A much delayed gig for Andy Irvine at the Junction 2, with an audience turn-out doubtless still affected by the ongoing pandemic if only with the attendant difficulties of a rearranged date. The increased intimacy that this should have created was somewhat negated at first by the stage layout, with Andy Irvine and his many […]Live Review: Andy Irvine, Junction 2, Cambridge, October 5th 2022
Mozaik, “The Long and the Short of It” • This space sang the praises of Andy Irvine last month, with the recent release of his “Old Dog Long Road” retrospective. Well, here we go again, although in this endeavor he’s got plenty of company: old Planxty chum Donal Lunny, American old-timey musician Bruce Molsky, Dutch multi-instrumentalist Res van der Zalm, and Bulgarian Nikola Pirova. As Mozaik, these five have for almost two decades now been finding common ground between the Irish, Appalachian, and Balkan music traditions. And on this, the group’s third release (recorded in 2015 but only issued several months ago), they add yet another element: Greek folk music, in the person of guest vocalist Chrysoula Kechagioglou who, while only appearing on a quarter of the album’s 12 tracks, is an absolutely enchanting presence.
The sheer variety of instruments these guys play make up a small orchestra: bouzoukis, mandolins, harmonica, guitars, fiddles, five-string banjo, whistles, uilleann pipes, bodhran, and from the Balkans, the violin-like gadulka, kaval (a wind instrument) and the gaida (bagpipes). Irvine leads on four of the songs, Molsky two, adding Dublin and American voices to the mix. Not to be overlooked is another guest singer, Ágnes Herczku of Hungary, who vocalizes a Moldavian tune that leads into a dance melody (“Gyimes”). The overall effect is exotic to say the least: vintage Irish folk revival fretted-string accompaniment, old-timey/Appalachian drive, Eastern European rhythms and intervals – sometimes intertwining, other times set off against one another, but always holding together the vision of commonalities in cultures and music traditions.
In addition to fine renditions of traditional American songs “My Little Carpenter” and “Old Virginia,” Molsky holds forth on a pair of fiddle tunes, “The Black Hills Waltz” and “The Red Steer,” the latter at times resembling that great Irish reel “The Foxhunter’s.” Irvine offers up a rather graphic whaling song from England, “The Coast of Peru,” the start of which features a Parov-van der Zalm duet on whistles that has a South American tint to it.
Irvine’s excellent songwriting is spotlighted here, too, with one of his trademark historical biographies, this time of the enigmatic, tragic Harry Houdini – who, as Irvine relates, for all his incredible feats most desired to escape from “the chains of eternity.” There’s also another in his series of memoirs from his youthful travels in Eastern Europe, “As Good As It Gets.” The song was on the album he recorded in 2017 as part of Usher’s Island (with Lunny, John Doyle, Michael McGoldrick and Paddy Glackin), but this was its earlier incarnation. It is particularly appropriate to the Mozaik repertoire, since this period of Irvine’s life was so integral to his involvement with Balkan/Eastern European music. And above all, it’s just a brilliant song – fun, playful, self-deprecating, a joyful reminiscence of being a young Irishman in the midst of overwhelming sensual wonders.
But the real gem is “Rainbow ’Mid the Willows,” Irvine’s take on an Ozark ballad sung by the legendary Arkansas singer Almeda Riddle – he wrote a couple of new verses and adapted a melody by UK musician Chris Algar. It’s a powerful tale of forbidden romance, lyrics full of intense, vivid emotions, yet Irvine and the band treat the song with a gentle poignancy.
Which sets the stage for the next track, Kechagioglou’s outstanding performance of “The Song of the Nightingale,” a traditional song from Thrace (translated, for the most part, into English) that presents as a parable on wealth and poverty. The delicacy and sensitivity of the arrangement complements Kechagioglou’s warm, engaging vocals. She’s also featured on “Like a Soft Breeze,” a setting of a poem by Napoleon Lapathiotis, duets with Molsky on “My Little Carpenter” and – in an indication of the band’s respect for her – does an a cappella solo to close out the album: “Neratzoula,” a song passed along to Kechagioglou by her grandmother who as a young woman, Kechagioglou writes in the liner notes, “was rough, ran faster than anybody else, and had the voice of an angel.”
However one might laud Kechagioglou, Irvine and Molsky on “The Long and the Short of It,” the artistry of Lunny, Parov and van der Zalm should not be overlooked. Like its namesake art form, Mozaik can be admired for both its carefully arranged and assembled individual pieces and the greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts picture it produces. [andyirvine.com/disc/Mozaik-disc-new.html]
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”
MOZAIK: THE LONG AND THE SHORT OF IT
Where It All Began
At this time of resurgence of interest and activity in folk music, with many young singers and bands carving out new identities within the genre, how fitting it is to hear a new collection from one of the true originators and provocateurs of the 1960s folk revival, the evergreen singer Andy Irvine. This double CD set comprises mainly solo live and demo recordings, spanning more than fifty years of music making. Some of the demos are home recordings made in preparation for more complex studio versions with other musicians; these are something akin to the artist’s sketchbook, and in a sense are more unmediated, intimate representations of Irvine’s art. The album and recording still arguably endures as the essential artistic statement of musicians in most genres, and any access to these embryonic stages in the creative process is welcome. The live tracks chart Irvine’s career as a performer, and include songs from the folk clubs of the 1970s, more recent material from the Lobby Bar in Cork, and recordings from his many tours abroad.
There is a certain homage here to one of Irvine’s oft-cited germinal influences, the American folk singer Woody Guthrie, in the imagery of the road; the sense of devotion to music and to the life of the folk singer; a cover photo that foregrounds Irvine as a live performer, and the prominence of the harmonica within that image. And indeed spread across the album are a set of songs that mine this heritage (songs of labour being a core part of this repertoire) and hark back to Irvine’s early experiences as a guitarist in skiffle, blues and American folk. These include the earliest recording here, ‘Truckin’ Little Baby’ (1961), a ragtime blues song learnt from Blind Boy Fuller, and Irvine’s youthful singing and guitar picking works hard at emulating the original. This was around the inception of the blues revival in Britain, but Irvine never swayed from the path broken by Guthrie, as attested to by the cover of Guthrie’s harmonica piece ‘Lost Train Blues’ (1971), and his song ‘Seamen Three’ (1981), with its characteristically political lines: ‘Shipped out to beat the fascists, Across the land and sea.’ Indeed Irvine has long championed the cause of the worker and others involved in struggles against the establishment, as also evidenced in the opening song, Si Kahn’s ‘Goodbye Monday Blues’, which documents the hardships endured by cotton mill workers in North Carolina.
But Irvine’s work has also been more than about just ‘singing the news’, and a second group of songs show off his skill in reinterpreting folksongs. A number of these have been imaginatively recreated from printed sources: the ill-fated ‘Lady Leroy’ comes from a 1910 folk music journal, and the ‘Kilgrain Hare’ and others come from the pages of the Sam Henry Collection. Others were learnt from some of the main sources for the singers of the folk revival period: ‘Sweet Lisbweenmore’ was sung by Cork singer Elizabeth Cronin; ‘Edward Connors’ is an emigration song from the repertoire of Eddie Butcher from Derry; and Leitrim singer Thomas Moran was the source for the unusual ‘Captain Thunderbolt’. Irvine also includes a number of his own compositions here, of which the most intriguing is the early ‘Dublin Lady’, written to a poem by American poet Patrick Carroll.
One of the great benefits of this set is that it mostly focuses on Irvine as a solo performer, allowing us to hear in close detail just how impressive a musician he is, both as an instrumentalist and as an interpreter of traditional songs. Listen to how Irvine’s mandolin weaves magical lines around the melody of ‘Captain Colston’, sometimes echoing the voice, sometimes punctuating the melody with horo-esque cross-rhythms, and always colouring and shaping the harmonies in unexpected ways. On the more sonorous ‘Green Grows the Laurel’, Irvine’s vocals take on a darker patina, allowing the bass bouzouki to enrich and intensify the duskier sound. Those enamoured of Irvine’s work with other musicians, and in particular the interlacing bouzouki and mandolin lines pioneered by him and Dónal Lunny, will revel in his acerbic composition ‘King Bore and the Sandman’.
Given the long period this retrospective covers, the sound quality understandably varies throughout, but this never distracts from the quality of the songs collected here. And while the historian in me was longing for a chronological ordering, the approach of mixing up the tracks does provide more contrast when listening through the two CDs. It’s a worthy document of Irvine’s prowess as a live performer, and invaluable for the light it throws on his less familiar material, and on the development of his sound and music across a long career. Perhaps best of all, it is encouragingly labelled as ‘Volume 1’, whetting the appetite for another journey down the long road.
Andy Irvine: Old Dog Long Road, Volume 1: 1961-2012 is available from www.andyirvine.com. Irvine will play the Purty Kitchen in Dún Laoghaire on 6 December and the Flowerfield Arts Centre in Portstewart on 7 Dec. In January and February he tours New Zealand, and next March he will perform a number of dates with Paul Brady in Ireland. For full details, visit www.andyirvine.com/gigs.
Published on 28 November 2019
Adrian Scahill is a lecturer in traditional music at Maynooth University.