Seán Laffey sips his Lucozade as Charlie Piggot and Gerry Harrington tell him about their latest Cló Iar Connachta album, The New Road.
Charlie Piggot and Gerry Harrington are well-travelled veterans of traditional music. Charlie's work with DeDanann, and The Lonely Stranded Band has brought both his banjo and box talents to a world-wide audience. Gerry too is no stranger to the recording studio with two highly acclaimed albums, Scéal Eile and The Smoky Chimney. Scéal Eile was recorded with accordion player Eoghan O'Sullivan and Noel Shine alos appeared on this album. The Smoky Chimney was Eoghan and Gerry's second album and they were joined on the recording by Paul DeGrae on guitar.
Charlie and Gerry's new CIC release will delight fans of pure traditional music; there are no songs, no synthesisers, no double takes, and no backing tracks. This is destined to be one of those "musicians albums". Not just for the excellent quality of playing but for the number of "new " tunes, many of which are local variants on old favourites, and at least a couple of old ones that have never been recorded on a commercial release.
Gerry and Charlie where on a bit of a tour around Ireland, nothing too strenuous and very much low key. Gerry is based in the beautiful town of Lismore (famous for it's Castle which is still inhabited by Lord Devonshire), Charlie lives in Kinvara Co. Galway, so the best place to meet them was during one of their less arduous gigs. Luckily they were due to play at an informal session in the Waterford Gaeltacht. That's about an hour's drive away from me, and as I'd spent every weekend of the winter of '98 recording with Liam Clancy in his studio on the Rinn peninsula- the journey would be on a road I knew well.
I caught up with the lads between a radio interview by Anne Mulqueen for Waterford's WLR and their guest session in Mooney's snug. Points to note here, Anne Mulqueen is a highly respected traditional singer in her own right, and Mooney's Bar is a must visit if you are ever in Ireland's South East, you could spend a happy hour just reading the walls. (They are lined with Irish-festival posters from all over Europe and beyond).
The snug is as cosy as it's name would suggest, enough space for maybe 20 people all kept nicely warm by a small peat fire, there's a little bar to the end of the room where Anne Mooney doles out pints of porter and her own sharp wisdom to the assembled company. (Her son Donnacha of the group Danú joins me for a bottle of Bulmers).
Over a few glasses of Lucozade and a large rock shandy the lads began by telling me about the tunes on the New Road. "The tune, The Old Man's Blackthorn Stick, it's very old, but I don't know of any recording of it. In fact I've never heard it played anywhere at all." Charlie informed me. Where did you come across the tune? "It was way back in those early DeDanann days" he continued, taking his time, pausing between sentences as he began to roll an extremely thin cigarette, "I was on a train from Galway to Dublin with Dolores Keane. We'd just finished a gig with DeDanann and were heading home. Dolores lilted the tune to me, actually she lilted more than one, by the end of the journey I had four new tunes. The other three were the Peacock's Feather numbers one and two (Frankie Gavin recorded those on his Shanachie solo album) and James McMahon's jig."
And you never heard it played since on any instrument? "No, never. Maybe it's because the tune might have come from the North of Ireland. The Keane household in Caherlistrane always kept a special welcome for northern singers and musicians, folks like Len Graham and Paddy Tunny for instance. So maybe that's where it came from."
An dthat is how these two musicians have gathered their repertoire, directly from other players, in sessions, on trains, in the most unlikely of situations, but nearly always from musical meetings and comradeship. Gerry Harrington admits that he's a poor sight-reader, he doesn't search through manuscripts for tunes, and he'd rather collect them from the living tradition. Charlie too says he gets many new tunes from sessions in East Clare and South Galway; from occasional meetings with musicians who are passing through and who leave only a reel or jig behind them as a musical memory of their time in each other's company.
Although there is probably a distance of half a generation in their ages, they both had similar experiences early on in their music education. Charlie describes how he began to build his early repertoire. "In those days, that would be the late 1960's, I didn't have a tape recorder, so I had to memorise any tune I wanted to learn. If I heard a tune that took my fancy in a session, I had to hum it repeatedly for a week until the next night and then check it against the lad who had it originally." Gerry comes in at this point, he talks faster, is more animated, there's a strong south Kerry accent too that crisps up the conversation. "Although I started learning tunes a few years later than Charlie, it was very much the same process, and I'd hear a tune in a session and be off whistling it for weeks. I'd whistle it on the bike as I cycled to school, it would be in my head as I worked around the farm."
Gerry grew up in Kenmare which was a great town for visiting musicians in the late 70s and early 80's; "Mrs Crowley's bar was a famous meeting place; you could swap tunes with some of the country's finest players there, such as Joe Burke, Jackie Daly, Seamus Creagh, Dennis McMahon and Connie O'Connell and many more which would take too long to mention here. As for learning stuff off tape or records, I think at that stage I only had two or three albums, they would have been, Kevin Burke's If the Cap Fits and the Jackie Daly and Seamus Creagh LP." This kind of aural learning is your only man when it comes to developing an authentic traditional voice. The great Kerry fiddle players, Denis Murphy, Padraig OKeefe, Connie O'Connell and Denis McMahon would have influenced Gerry.
Gerry started on the box, then went to mandolin, which he got from Joe Thoma, his Art teacher at the time, but eventually settled on fiddle. Charlie's route to the box was equally serpentine, "I began playing the banjo when I was sixteen, it was my main instrument for years." Fans of those early DeDanann albums will be familiar with Charlie's banjo accomplishments. Now however, it's the button box that is his great love, he plays the C#/D system. And does he listen to box players for inspiration? "Not in the way that I would consciously seek out a box player, or collect hundreds of accordion CDs. I'm more attracted to the tunes rather than the instruments on which they are played." In the main it's those modal jigs which set Charlie's pulse racing.
Their new album is kind of DeDannan without the adrenaline, similar instrumentation too, Johnny "Ringo" Mac Donagh is there adding his inimitable bodhran, they have Sean O'Loinsigh on bouzouki (fans of the Seamus Creagh and Aidan Coffey album from Ossian will be familiar with Sean's work). Eugene Kelly adds some sophisticated and sensitive piano backing, he obviously understands the music and makes a great contribution to the overall sound (which is more than can be said of the pianists who backed the great players in the 1920s and 30,s). Eugene also engineered the record.
Had they been tempted to pump up the pace a bit and play the jigs and reels at break neck speed? Charlie answers that one. "No, I've never really considered doing that at all. I like to play the tunes so you can hear the melody in a way that brings out their structures. Even with DeDanann we never consciously went out to make the music fast or hurried, although, yes it did move along at a bit of a rip. I'd attribute that to the mix of musicians and how well they worked together." The New Road has a lovely relaxed quality about it, how did they achieve this? "We recorded the album in about two days in Eoin O'Toole's Liffey Arts Centre in Naas." says Charlie. "It's a converted seven-story mill; (Steve Cooney has a music studio on the top floor). There are two theatres in the building and we had played a very enjoyable gig in the smaller one, we were so impressed by its acoustic quality; that when we were ready to record we brought the microphones into the theatre and did it live." Gerry adds " It's far more honest to do it that way, we could have used a multi-track studio but for all the mending we would have done to the tracks we'd have lost the spontaneity and freshness in other parts of the tunes. Invariably we got the tracks recorded in two takes."
The album is called The New Road, so it would be churlish to end an interview without finding out something about the tune of the same name. Charlie fleshed the story out. "I picked that tune up from Tim Lyons years ago on a DeDanann tour. Tim was the singer with the band for about a year at one stage but he also plays the box. One night he began playing the New Road and I was immediately taken by it, it was one of those tunes you just have to learn. It seems that the tune originated in East Galway with Raymond Roland and was recorded by him in the early 70's with his band Le Chéile in London. Tim had it from an LP and I got it from him."
And so the conversation ran, stories of tunes, their provenance and structure, but I could feel the lads were eager to get on with the session. A guitarist arrived, then a flute player, a mandolinist with an amplifier (he couldn't find a power point) and finally a young girl carrying her grandmother's fiddle. Lucozades and the taped interview over, It was back to stronger beverages, a few brief nods and off they went straight into Old Man Dillon.
Pure straight-ahead traditional music. It's the only road to travel.
ALBUM DETAILS: "New Road", CICD 142, 16 Tracks 53 Minutes.
Main Instruments: Charlie Piggot - Fiddle, Gerry Harrington - Button Box
WEB ADDRESS: Clo Iar Chonnacta Teo.
Photo Credit: All by Sean Laffey
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