Forty years ago, after the demise of Planxty, two of that band’s members – Andy Irvine and Paul Brady – decided to cut a duo album, with the help of Planxty’s Donal Lunny, and violinist Kevin Burke (both of whom are also here tonight). What they produced was a perfect crystallisation of all that was good in the more progressive Irish folk movement. Their magic ingredients were threefold – masterful musicianship, distinctive vocals and song selection. It’s a strange album in some ways, with so many of the songs being about or featuring soldiers and, as often as not, celebrating that profession. Yet these are not violent songs – even the wedding day massacre of ‘The Jolly Soldier‘ is more about defiant youthful love in the face of parental disapproval. And covetousness – it’s the rich bride in peril of being disowned, or even killed, who urges patricide to get her full dowry. Elsewhere, bored garrison troops trying to coerce and bully young girls are outwitted, bold soldiers marching to war capture the hearts of young women, and men dying on battlefields regret the time they will not have with their sweethearts. From the on stage discussion during the gig between Paul Brady and Andy Irvine about why this should have been – why the military theme – it seems as if there was no great plan: it just happened that way. So, maybe there was a fourth magic ingredient at work – luck.
Entering the packed out Barbican Hall it’s hard not to muse on the vagaries of the musician’s life – one day playing one of the premier concert halls in London – whilst on another night one might be gigging in a provincial folk club room, which has sold out with maybe forty people. Andy Irvine, it transpires, approaches both the same – masterful playing, wonderful and distinctive singing and an easy manner to his song introductions. Paul Brady is no less relaxed – a smile rarely from his face and clearly having a great time with longtime friends and band members.
Donal Lunny and Kevin Burke take everything in their stride and occasionally chip in similarly humourous and laconic comments. There’s a vast array of instruments on stage – guitars, mandolins, bouzouki, violins, keyboards and a bodhrán – and the four settle in to an opening half of mainly traditional styled songs and tunes, eventually mentioning that “The Album” will appear in its entirety in the second half. Traditional sounding, because many of the songs are relatively recent such as Andy Irvine’s autobiographical ‘O’Donoghues‘ which tells the tale of how he moved from an acting career to a life of music and had six great years hanging about with the cream of the Dublin folk scene.
It’s irreverent, nostalgic, and a much loved anecdote set to music “Any afternoon you might find there / Luke Kelly and his banjo and his red hair / O what times what an atmosphere / What more could a young man wish for?” And later, introducing his glowingly mournful story-song from his Balkan’s sojourn – ‘Baneasa’s Green Glade‘ – there’s a solid realisation of time passing – where once Andy Irvine had wild camped and soaked up the music there’s now an estate of tower blocks, Baneasa forest only lives on in the memory and this beautiful song which reflects a travelling musician’s ethic “we’d talk of old time / fond memories we’d trade / At dusk we’d walk home to Baneasa’s Green Glade”. It plays out with a tune that hints at a musical crossroads with gypsy and North African influences shining through.
Paul Brady had, of course, not been sitting idle, but had led the way into the older music. ‘Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender’ is introduced as a song about a wedding – although not a typical wedding as it does end with a massacre. It’s a long folk ballad dating back to the 17th century, and is doom laden with portents and signs and full of that mystical strand of misbehaviour so beloved of English folk. ‘Cocks are crowing‘ is described as a visiting song – a man waits until her parents are in bed to visit his love and try and get let in, but Brady notes “she doesn’t seem to be much into it“. Few excuses are poorer than “I would marry you, but I’m not good enough for you“. There’s some lovely sad and affecting harmonica added by Andy Irvine on this song which was learnt from the singing of Eddie Butcher who, we are informed by Andy Irvine “had a great abattoir of song“. That’s a folk club groaner of a joke that gets an appropriate response and the jocular response “I thought we weren’t using that anymore” from Brady. The first half closes out with another great English folk song telling of the untrustworthiness of men, ‘The Blacksmith‘ a man who Andy Irvine declares clearly “has a woman in every forge“. It is one of the glories of English Folk, and by dint of being so well known it needs something special to stand out – with this ensemble of musicians it’s given as fine an outing as you could hope to hear.
Good as the first half had been there’s a keen anticipation for the playing of “The Album” in full in the second half. The album may all be there – but the order has been changed and the set starts with the album’s closer, Andy Irvine’s spiritedly sung ‘Martimas Time‘, with Paul joining in the singing of the a cappela introduction before adding whistle. It’s a classic song, the farmer’s daughter unwillingly made to promise to visit a troop of soldiers in camp turning the tables on them by dressing as a soldier boy and being turned away “and she took the garters from her knees the ribbons from her hair-o / she’s tied them around the quarter-gates as a token she’s been there-o“.
‘Fred Finn’s reel‘ got it’s name, Kevin Burke shares, because it’s a reel written by a man called Finn. It’s a cracking dance tune, played with great pace, and paired with ‘Sailing into Walpole’s Marsh‘ makes for a great hand-clapper and a toe-tapper of a tune set, enlivened by Donal Lunny’s bodhrán. Coming mid-set Paul Brady’s finger picked ‘Arthur McBride‘ was never likely to be less than a gig high-point, with Brady’s powerful vocal and precise and complex finger-picked guitar. And the song itself – one of the jewels of the folk music firmament. A song which, when Dylan sings it he sings the Paul Brady version. As Donal Lunny interjects as the applause final dies away “well, that’s a show stopper“.
And there’s very much a feeling of how will they follow that? Well, with the one oddity of the ‘Andy Irvine / Paul Brady’ album, the contemporary ‘Autumn Gold‘, another song from Andy Irvine’s Balkan journey. It’s a song that Andy Irvine confesses he wrote in part to impress a girl he was madly in love with, and that he finally managed to share his feelings for her by singing it to her alone. It didn’t work, but it did produce this wonder of a song, complex in sound, heart achingly sad at the bitterness of farewell “time to leave my friends behind / I leave this town with you on my mind / the dead leaves are burning / the year is decaying / winter returning no use in delaying“. It replaces the ecstatic joy from ‘Arthur McBride‘ with a silent solemnity which is, in its turn, met with huge appreciation. Another show stopper.
It’s a little ironic that ‘Streets of Derry‘ came from the singing of Shirley Collins – it’s a bittersweet recounting of a girl’s attempt to save the life of her true love who is condemned to be hung. What makes it such a fascinating song is the change of perspective in the penultimate verse to the eyes of the man waiting to be hung “What keeps my love, she’s so long a-coming? / Oh, what detains her so long from me? / Or does the think it’s a shame or scandal / To see me die on the gallows tee?” with the last verse rapidly moving from a third person view back to the young woman’s perspective “He looked around and he saw her coming / As she rode swifter than the wynd / I’l let them see that they dare not hang you / And I’ll crown my love with a bunch of green“. And what makes this version so poignant is that there’s no clear indication that the hanging is prevented – it’s this ambiguity as well as the elegantly mournful tone of the tune that make this such a fine song.
Closing out the gig saw several standing ovations – richly deserved – for a group of musicians that had demonstrated beyond any doubting why this forty year old album they’d collectively shaped had been, and continues to be, so revered. It remains a benchmark for quality in folk, and this performance had done nothing but enhance that status.
Heather on the moor
Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender
Baneasa’s Green Glade
Cocks are crowing
Wearing the britches
Martimas Time / The little stack of wheat
Lough Erne Shore
Fred Finn’s Reel / Sailing into Walpole’s Marsh
The Jolly Soldier / Blarney Pilgrim
Streets of Derry
Mary and the soldier
Plains of Kildare
The Braes Of Moneymore
Paddy’s Green Shamrock Shore
And….an earlier performance that only really changed in hair styles…