When it came down to deciding on my ten favourite albums there were some that picked themselves and some that came down to decision making that was fine-tuned (literally and figuratively). In all I picked nine albums but wanted to leave one spare for what my favourite album is of the moment (so this list may change if I do it again – and I’m already half regretting plumping for This is The Sea ahead of Fisherman’s Blues in the Waterboys choice).
I grew up amid Irish music but Horslips aside – it mostly passed me by. And even then I liked Horslips (and the later Moving Hearts) for their modern slant on traditional airs. Also doing innovative things in the early 1970s was a band called Planxty. But at the time I probably dismissed it as “diddley-eidley” music without understanding the brilliance that went into it.
It was only in recent years I’ve come to back to their music through the extraordinary body of work of Christy Moore, a dominating presence in Irish music for almost 50 years, and a founder of both Planxty and Moving Hearts. I can’t find the Youtube link now but there is live footage of Moore introducing the members of Planxty, saying three of them (Moore, bouzouki player Donal Lunny and the world’s best uilleann pipe player Liam O’Flynn, who sadly died this year) came from the same Irish county – Kildare. The fourth member Andy Irvine, joked Moore, was from “god knows where”.
Irvine was London-born to Irish and Scottish parents, and a classically trained musician who switched to folk after discovering Woody Guthrie. He moved to Dublin in the 1960s but an abiding influence was a trip to the Balkans in 1968 where he was enchanted by Bulgarian music. Irvine invented the Irish bouzouki tuning his instrument one octave lower than the open-tuned mandolin. He introduced Lunny to bouzouki while he played mandolin in Planxty.
The band was hugely successful in its early days but the success and the associated touring took its toll on members with Lunny and Moore dropping out. Lunny still continued to work with the band and Moore was replaced on vocals by the brilliant young Northern Irish talent Paul Brady. Brady and Irvine struck up an instant liking and enjoyed each other’s work.
It didn’t take long for the idea an album as a duo. The album simply called Andy Irvine/Paul Brady was released at the end of 1976 after Planxty finally broke up – though with Donal Lunny also involved it seemed like another Planxty album in exile. Irish master fiddler Kevin Burke played violin.
The album opens with Irvine’s arrangement of the traditional English ballad Plains of Kildare (somewhat ironic as the only non-Kildare man in the original Planxty) about the 18th century horse Skewball and its race presumably at The Curragh (though not mentioned). Irvine’s jig in 3 4 time elegantly transitions to an instrumental middle eight in Bulgarian rachenitsa rhythm of 7 8 time to suggest the gallop of racing horses, before slowing down for the final verse.
Irvine’s musical invention shows again on the second song, the Ulster love song Lough Erne Shore sung by Brady. Irvine played hurdy-gurdy making it seem the instrument’s drones were capable of playing chords. “I recorded three different drones on the hurdy-gurdy,” Irvine said. “We cross faded them on the mix to fit the chords. It’s very subtle and you may not hear it but I thought it gave it a great feeling.” The effect is almost Oriental and it remains my favourite song on the album.
According to the sleeve notes Fred Finn’s Reel/Sailing into Walpole’s Marsh” are reels learnt from a northern Irish trio Deirdre Shannon (fiddle), Brian Bailey (flute) and Trevor Stewart (uilleann pipes). Bonny Woodhall is Irvine’s interpretation of Scottish folk song Bonny Woodha, the poignant story of a miner who must leave his true love, Annie, to fight in the king’s war.
The anti-war theme steps up in the next song Arthur McBride and the Sergeant, an Irish anti-recruiting song from 1840 which Irvine had earlier recorded with Planxty. Brady makes it his own with this stirring rendition. The Jolly Soldier continues the martial theme, Brady singing of the love-lorn soldier, a variation of an old English ballad Earl Brand but without its grim death tally. “Don’t despise a soldier just because he poor / He’s as happy on the battlefield as at the barrack door.”
Autumn Gold is Irvine’s song about his experiences in Eastern Europe. The sadness of departure and the changing seasons are reflected in the lyrics. “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.”
The Troubles in Brady’s native Northern Ireland were likely in his mind as he sang the love song Mary and the Soldier. “For when you’re in a foreign land / Believe me you’ll rue it surely / Perhaps in battle I might fall / From a shot from an angry cannonball.” That gloomy sense pervades The Streets of Derry, a traditional air sung by Irvine, recorded three years after the terrible events of Bloody Sunday. “As he was a-marching through the streets of Derry / I’m sure he marched up right manfully / Being much more like a commanding officer / Than a man to die upon a gallows tree.” Martinmas Time is more of the same – trenchant commentary disguised by an ancient ballad. “It fell out upon one Martinmas time / When snow lay on the border / There came a troop of soldiers here / To take up their winter quarters.”
The effect of the album is inescapably political. Great traditional music played by dazzling musicians at the peak of their powers but with a message bang up to date. It still resonates with great power four decades later. No wonder they have often re-played the entire album in concert. Musicianship with a message at its finest and deserving a spot in my Top 10.
The full list
10: Andy Irvine / Paul Brady (1976)