The Living Tradition

Archive: 2005 – The Legend of Sweeney’s Men Anthology Reviews

 Castle Music CMDDD932; 2 CDs; 139 minutes; 2004

Was Sweeney’s Men a groundbreaking group, as some claim, or, in hindsight, just a band whose curiosity value lies in its introduction of the bouzouki to Irish music? Well, this double album collection offers plenty of opportunity to explore the possibilities.

There were actually several versions of Sweeney’s Men. The first consisted of Joe Dolan, a guitarist from Galway (and not the MoR balladeer), together with Andy Irvine (mandolin, harmonica and guitar) and Johnny Moynihan on bouzouki and tin whistle with all three members singing. This original line-up recorded a single, Old Maid in the Garret/The Derby Ram which reached number six in the Irish charts in 1966, though signally failed to make any headway when released in the UK. Dolan left shortly afterwards and Paul Brady took his place for a couple of shows, though declined to leave The Johnstons to join Sweeney’s Men on a full-time basis. Instead, Irvine and Moynihan recruited Terry Woods, a 12-string guitar, banjo and (occasional) concertina player.

This new version of the band recorded a second single for the Pye label in 1967 – Waxie’s Dargle/Old Woman in Cotton ­– as well as their eponymous album for Transatlantic in the following year. At which point, Andy departed for an indefinite busking tour of Eastern Europe. In turn, he was replaced by guitarist Henry McCullough until the new arrival received an offer to join Joe Cocker’s Grease Band (and, in doing so, apparently became the only Irishman to play the Woodstock festival).

 Moynihan and Woods soldiered on for a while with the singer Al O’Donnell, but ultimately opted to continue as a duo. Thus it was in that form that they recorded The Tracks of Sweeney in 1969. By then both men were living in England and were invited, alongside a newly-returned Andy Irvine, by Fairport Convention’s bass player, Ashley Hutchings, to join a new electric folk band. They did rehearse, but Johnny and Andy decided not to participate, leaving Terry and his partner Gay to join the new Steeleye Span and that was the end of Sweeney’s Men. Gay and Terry Woods later went on to work as a duo and with their own The Woods Band before Terry was recruited to The Pogues and Gay rejoined Steeleye Span. Andy, of course, was in every line-up of Planxty, had a spell with De Dannan, worked as a duo with Paul Brady, spent many years in Patrick Street, recorded with Davy Spillane and nowadays is part of Mozaik. Johnny Moynihan replaced Dónal Lunny in Planxty and also joined De Dannan for a brief time before going on to form The Fleadh Cowboys in the 1980s. He’s still working, though most often as a soloist. Irvine, Moynihan and Woods did reform as Sweeney’s Men for a couple of Irish festivals in 1982.

So, that’s a snapshot of their history. What about the music? Well, it all seems curiously dated almost forty years later in ways that, for instance, the first albums by Planxty and The Bothy Band simply do not. In part the reason lies in the fact that Sweeney’s Men was very much a vocal group. Andy Irvine’s young voice had a definite rural burr. On the debut album Terry Woods opted for a distinct mid-Atlantic style, though, by the time of The Tracks of Sweeney, he was singing more like a member of a psychedelic band. Johnny Moynihan’s distinctive nasal tone has remained more of a constant.

The second reason relates to the choice of material. The first album mixed traditional ballads such as Willy O’ Winsbury and Reynard the Fox with more recently composed material, such as Dominic Behan’s Dicey Riley and Pecker Dunne’s Sullivan’s John with the frankly hackneyed Tom Dooley and a few instrumental tracks. The Tracks of Sweeney is dominated very much by Woods (who composed four of the eleven tracks and co-wrote another). These include the frankly bizarre Brain Jam (which would not have sounded out-of-place on an early Pink Floyd album), while another track, Pretty Polly, continued his fascination with American roots music. Moynihan’s leads include the very wistful Standing on the Shore and A Mistake No Doubt (which might have come straight from an Incredible String Band album).

Finally, there’s the matter of the arrangements. Sweeney’s Men evolved from the fringes of the ballad group movement and it shows in the tune settings where the lack of a dominant lead instrument waters down the overall effect. Even the acclaimed bouzouki is not that prominent in the mix and virtually non-existent by the time of the second album where the shortcomings of operating as a duo are exhibited on the somewhat insipid instrumental, The Pipe on the Hob. Indeed, the arrangement of the closing song Hall of Mirrors is excruciating.

However, that is not to say that there is no merit in these recordings, but, clearly, The Tracks of Sweeney was a failed experiment. Unsurprisingly, it took some months to record and the increasingly fractious relationship between Moynihan and Woods was never likely to produce a coherent album. As Colin Harper recounts in this anthology’s liner notes, Gay Woods characterised them as “two eccentrics who happened to be, unfortunately, eccentric in different ways”. In contrast, the eponymous album definitely does have its moments, but most of these are linked to the presence of Andy Irvine (especially Willy O’ Winsbury) and the fact that the band distinctly gelled as a trio.

Both albums have been reissued on several occasions. The last time was in 1996 when Castle Communications managed to squeeze both onto one CD and include Old Woman in Cotton as well. Castle had acquired the rights to Transatlantic’s back catalogue and was subsequently taken over by the Sanctuary Records Group. Its Castle Music label has been busily reissuing other Transatlantic releases, such as three of The Dubliners’ albums, each of which included rare material.

Similar rarities have been included on The Legend of Sweeney’s Men although whether there’s any value in hearing old singles by The Capitol Showband on which Sweeney’s Men provided some of the backing is highly debatable (especially as these include the Country and Western song The Streets of Baltimore and an awful version of the Tom Paxton song Bottle of Wine). There are five such tracks on the first CD which, however, does open with all four songs from the two early Sweeney’s Men singles.

The package’s compiler has even more problems with the second disc since The Tracks of Sweeney was a relatively short LP, lasting a mere thirty-three minutes. So CD two opens with Autumn Gold which hails from the album Andy Irvine recorded with Paul Brady and released in 1976. The reason for its presence here is that it was written during Andy’s Balkan travels and was also aired during the abortive Hutchings rehearsals. Then follows the tracks of The Tracks ensued by seven additional recordings. Two of these (versions of Willy O’ Winsbury and Sullivan’s John) come from albums recorded by Johnny Moynihan’s erstwhile partner, the Notts-born folk singer, Anne Briggs (who, coincidentally, was raised just around the corner from the home of this reviewer’s aunt and uncle). Two more derive from the Woods’ sojourn with Steeleye Span though here the credibility’s elastic begins to stretch towards breaking point. The first of these, The Dark-Eyed Sailor, is included because Terry Woods learnt it from Al O’Donnell (who spent such a short time as a member of Sweeney’s Men) and the second, Lowlands of Holland, because the tune came from Andy Irvine. Then follows a Woods Band rendition of Dreams for Me (which has already appeared as the second track on this disc) while the second CD ends with two tracks from Andy Irvine’s 1996 solo album Rain on the Roof. The first, Baneasa’s Green Glade recalls Andy’s Balkan trip while the other, My Heart’s Tonight in Ireland, name checks Sweeney. Whoops, but the elastic’s just snapped!

Might other material have been included? Well, Colin Harper reminds us that there are ‘no surviving radio or live recordings of Sweeney’s Men’, though strangely his notes refer to ‘an atmospheric amateur recording of a gloriously shambolic warm-up show in a pub in Crusheen, County Clare’ prior to one of the band’s 1982 reunion gig and also a ‘somewhat shambolic’ (Colin obviously likes the word) live RTÉ radio session by the McCullough/Moynihan/Woods line-up in 1986. Does either exist? If so, that material would have been far more interesting. If not, is Colin relying on someone else’s memory of their ‘shambolic’ nature? Instead he points the interested listener towards impossibly rare albums by Dr Strangely Strange on which there’s a Sweeney’s homage and both Moynihan and Irvine appear and an even rarer single by the band Skid Row on which Johnny “apparently” plays tin whistle!

His liner notes, however, do make for an enthralling and generally informative read and offer a taster for his forthcoming book Irish Folk, Trad and Blues, to be published in October, 2004. Nevertheless, they clearly rely heavily upon an interview with Andy Irvine and, to a lesser extent, one with Henry McCullough. The influence of either Terry Woods or Johnny Moynihan on Harper’s material is difficult to detect. Of course, Johnny is notoriously difficult to track down and I cannot recall ever seeing a published interview with Terry Woods, but their absence from Colin’s material is very obvious. A further problem is that there are errors in the text which, hopefully, will be not be duplicated in the forthcoming book. For instance, Sweeney’s Men could not possibly have taken their name from a book by Flann O’Brien since the book in which the character of Sweeny [sic] appears is actually called At Swim-Two-Birds. There was no UK record label called ‘Rockborough’ (it was Rockburgh) and Fairport Convention certainly did not record an album called ‘Leige and Leif’. Still, the archive photos more than compensate for those errors and, ultimately, this is a better-presented package than the one previously issued by Castle Communications.

Geoff Wallis
29th July, 2004

Click here for more information about Sanctuary Records.


Sweeney’s Men – The Legend Of Sweeney’s Men (Castle, 2005)

A long-plotted project this one – a 2CD set featuring everything released by the hugely influential Irish folk/embryonic folk-rock group, namely two albums, four non-album single tracks and various covert appearances on showband singles spanning 1966 – 69. It also follows various threads from the group during the early ’70s – Johnny Moynihan recording ‘Willy O’Winsbury’ with Anne Briggs for example, and Gay & Terry Woods shortly after the group’s demise recording Sweeney-related material with Steeleye Span and The Woods Band. Also featured is the classic 1976 recording of Andy Irvine’s mesmerising 1968 song (written shortly after leaving the group to bum around the Balkans) ‘Autumn Gold’ and his 1990s musical memoir of the Sweeney’s era ‘My Heart Tonight’s In Ireland’. just about the only period oddity we couldn’t find to licence in was Skid Row’s ludicrously rare 1969 single ‘New Places, Old Faces’, featuring Johnny Moynihan on tin whistle. But, as the Skid Row set above demonstrates, it didn’t escape the net for long…


SWEENEY’S MEN ‘The Legend Of (2CD)’ Castle Music CMDDD932

There seems to be a lot of re-releases about at the moment, with Castle/Sanctuary being at the forefront with some excellent-if sometimes obscure-examples. This one is a re-release of a re-release, expanded to a double from a two on one CD from a few years ago.

Sweeney’s Men, named after a book title, seem to be a bit like Fairport in the members they have included but it is Andy Irvine, Terry Woods, Johnny Moynihan and Henry McCullough who will be the most familiar to readers.

The first CD is most notable for “Willy O’Winsbury” for which Andy accidentally put the wrong tune to the set of words; incidentally the tune was borrowed by Fairport in 1969. Disc 2 has more input from Terry Woods resulting in a different, more contemporary feel to it.

Both CDs include extra material, interesting no doubt to Sweeney completists, but not really adding anything to the original albums, especially the inclusion of two by Steeleye Span!

A mention of the sleeve notes.Written by Colin Harper they provide an excellent history of Sweeney’s Men and of what the members have done since then. However, who is this Liam Offline who was a member of the original Planxty mentioned in the notes? Another example of the computer spell checker? Surely names should be checked for errors like this.

So the crucial question – is “The Legend of Sweeney’s Men” worth buying? If you haven’t got the original two on one, and want to hear what was innovative in the late 60s, then yes definitely. Otherwise have a look at some of the other material available on the Castle /Sanctuary Label.

Dave Beeby


Archive: Album Reviews – Andy Irvine – Way Out Yonder (2000)

ANDY IRVINE “Way Out Yonder” Own Label AK2

A new Andy Irvine release always sets off a tingle with me, because I know, just know that I’m going to find something in it to enjoy, whether a new song, radical, sad or otherwise here, or maybe a Balkan-influenced tune there. Maybe there’ll even be a guest musician or two that I’ll appreciate.

Well, Andy, you’ve not let me down this time, as this one’s got the lot. The title track is as jaunty a tune as I’ve heard for a while, one of these ones that keep popping back into your head for no reason other than enjoyment, with swirling harmonica and intricate string work.

And as for the songs – well, my money would be on the opening number “Gladiators”, a history lesson about the I.W.W. in Australia at the time of the First World War, to be one which is picked up by club singers, but maybe others’ tastes would prefer the new version of “The Girl I Left Behind” or the totally whimsical and imaginative “They’ll Never Believe It’s True” (they won’t!)

“Moreton Bay” is the only traditional song in this collection, here getting a suitably poignant arrangement, and Andy breathes new life into “The Highwayman” – yes, the Alfred Noyes poem everybody got at school, here sung to a Loreena McKennitt tune.

As for the musicians, let’s just say there’s ten of them and three backing vocalists, any of whom would pull the crowds out. Get the CD to find out more – I guarantee that you won’t be disappointed.

Gordon Potter
This album was reviewed in Issue 41 of The Living Tradition magazine.



Archive: Album Review – Planxty – After The Break (1979 & 1992)


Planxty After The Break

The gravest danger in the resurrection of Planxty was always that, in attempting to recreate the extraordinary verve and majesty of their original incarnation, they neglected natural current instincts and succeeded only in becoming a parody of their former selves. That they managed with ease to avoid this considerable pitfall alone makes this a great record.

Naturally there’s no conceivable way that “After The Break” can manage the same impact as their bold debut LP, purely because “Planxty” came first and hit upon a blend that evidently inspired all those involved. If “The Well Below The Valley” and “Cold Blow The Rainy Night” fell short of it (albeit narrowly) then it was because that sharpness and charged sense of restrained dynamics had to a small degree dissipated. On several tracks here notably “The Rambling Suiler”, “The Pursuit Of Farmer Michael Hayes”, and two sets of reels, it’s fully recaptured.

Yet the track that defiantly declares that they are looking ahead and not behind is “Smeceno Horo”, a frantic Bulgarian dance tune that’s proved so popular on gigs it even merits a “FEATURING SMECENO HORO” sticker on the sleeve. A joker in the pack, it’s a complete departure from everything they’ve done before, even allowing for some of Andy Irvine’s flirtations with Eastern European music in the past. Undeniably invigorating and infectious, it’s nevertheless my least favourite track on the record, jarring in relation to the rest of the album, but I admire their resolve in tackling it. It comes over much more powerfully live.

The only other real quibbles are that Christy Moore (on “The Good Ship Kangaroo” and Andy Irvine (on “You Rambling Boys Of Pleasure”) seem to take the understated vocal style perhaps a shade too far, or maybe the vocals are a fraction too low in the mix. But these really are details – the arrangements around both tracks are superb, the instrumental break tagged on to the end of “The Good Ship Kangaroo”, the opening track, stirring memories of “Raggle Taggle Gypsy” and “Tabhair Dum Do Lamh”, “The Rambling Suiler”, a Scots moral tale of a colonel who dresses up as a beggar and pulls a farmer’s daughter, and “The Pursuit Of Farmer Michael Hayes”, a geographical guide to Ireland through the eyes of a fleeing murderer, are both vintage Planxty.

Matt Molloy and Liam O’Flynn are at the helm of the instrumental tracks (two sets of reels and one of double-jigs) and two things emerge. One is that Liam O’Flynn has become an even more accomplished piper than he was before, and that Matt Molloy’s brief contribution on flute was greater than it actually appeared on stage. His blend with O’Flynn is mesmerising here.

This is of course, an essential album.

Colin Irwin for Melody Maker 15/12/1979

 Planxty - After the break - LP - 2 CONTRA

Planxty – After The Break(Tara CD3001) – CD Reissue

“Originally released in 1979, the re-release on CD is given as 1992, but it dropped onto my doormat a few short weeks ago. There’s a bit of a mystery here, but I’m not complaining. This was, is and always be one of the classic, defining albums of the folk revival. In those far-off days my experience of Irish Music seemed to be defined by the sweateriness of the Clancy Brothers, the tweediness of the Chieftains and the beardiness of the Dubliners. Great music, great songs, but a bit formulaic and stereotyped. Then along came Planxty and the formulas and stereotypes were blown out of the water. They were just so undeniably groovy, I suppose….
‘After The break’ celebrates the five-piece, with Matt Molloy’s wonderful flute complementing the breathtaking skills of Christy Moore, Donal Lunny, Andy Irvine and Liam O’Flynn. The album consists of five tune sets and five songs, all arranged with impeccable taste and played with unerring flair. It’s an impossible job to pick a standout track – as each new piece begins it supplants the previous one as the all-time favourite. Andy and Christy sing out of their skins, Matt and Liam play their socks off and Donal keeps the whole shebang in safe, sure hands.
Nowadays, with Celtic music as an all-conquering globe-spanner, it’s difficult to imagine the impact that Planxty had in their day. Listen to ‘After The Break’ and all becomes clear. Groovy or what?”

Alan Rose - The Living Tradition

Planxty – After The Break (Tara Records CD3001)– CD Reissue

“It might only be a re-issue but what a re-issue. Planxty captured at the very peak of their magnificence with the towering first track ‘The Good Ship Kangaroo’ just for starters. The bouzouki and mandolin interplay from Donal Lunny and Andy Irvine setting the scene for Christy Moore’s sublime vocals topped by Matt Molloy’s flute and Liam O’Flynn’s uilleann pipes – what more could any true devotee of Celtic music require? You couldn’t in my humble opinion for here was a band that paved the way for many imitators but were never (and I do mean never) bettered. The choice of material and the pace set was so spot on that next to their first (‘Black’) album I’d rank this as probably my favourite Planxty recording of all time. With the introduction of Matt’s breathy tones they appeared to shine as an art-house band so finely polished that it made grown men want to weep. I remember at the time I was playing alongside John Bowe at the White Hart in Fulham and everyone in the audience were requesting if we knew tracks from the record so it just goes to show how influential it was. ‘You Rambling Boys Of Pleasure’, ‘The Rambling Siuler’ and ‘The Pursuit Of Farmer Michael Hayes’ are all there plus (if memory serves me right) there is the inclusion of ‘The Bonny Light Horseman’ that never appeared on the original album but featured on a compilation called the High Kings Of Tara. Whatever, the recording is an undisputed classic and should be in every self-respecting folk musicians collection.”

Pete Fyfe - Living Tradition