Saturday, July 15, 2006

100 Greats in 100 Days # 025: Andy Irvine and Paul Brady: Andy Irvine and Paul Brady

Oh, my goodness. Where to begin with this record? What factors align when a record like this results?

The players, for sure: Andy Irvine, Paul Brady, Donal Lunny, and Kevin Burke have all four been extraordinarily influential across the 40 years of the trad-music revival, and all four have been commanding instrumentalists.

The timing, for sure: all four were at the absolute peak of their individual arcs of innovation and creativity in the summer of 1976. Irvine had played on Christy Moore’s Prosperous LP, which had given birth to Planxty with Donal. Brady had played with the Johnstons (along with another mandolinistic triple-threat, Mick Moloney), Donal and Kevin were in the thick of the Bothy Band’s innovations. Irvine had left Planxty just after Brady joined, and there was a lot of trading ideas and repertoire.

The repertoire, for sure: Andy especially has always had an extraordinary nose for great traditional songs (and for the writing of new songs in traditional forms). Plains of Kildare, Lough Erne Shore, Bonny Woodhall, Arthur McBride, Mary and the Soldier, Streets of Derry are all crucial songs in the singing tradition.

But it’s mostly, I think, the synthesis of all these factors—timing, personnel, repertoire, and aptitude—that makes the disc the masterpiece it is. Each of these musicians is extraordinarily imaginative in his own way, each of them an absolutely riveting arranger and solo performer, but them together and they become even greater than the sum of their parts. Combine Andy’s extraordinarily contrapuntal mandolin/voice parts with Paul’s flatpicked guitar and the resulting sound is bigger than that of just two players. Pour Andy’s Balkan polymeters into Donal’s astonishing mental computer and you get the tour-de-force shifting time signatures, percussive rhythms, and fantastic storytelling of the show-stopping Plains of Kildare (it took me twenty years of listening, transcribing, and problem-solving just to understand what was happening formally and rhythmically in this song--and I still can't play it perfectly). Combine Andy’s sense of a song and Paul’s lovely singing and you get the rolling Mary and the Soldier. Kevin never played better than he played on this record, particularly on the Jolly Soldier/Blarney Pilgrim set and on the closing Martinmas Time/The Little Stack of Wheat. Paul especially has some fantastic moments: the beautiful tour-de-force guitar/voice solo of Arthur McBride (a song Andy had covered also) and on the flatpicked reels set of Fred Finn’s/Sailing into Walpole’s Marsh.

They all went in different directions after this record as well: Andy to a (mostly) solo career, Paul almost entirely to a career as a pop-rocker, Donal to a series of experiments (most notably the fantastic-but-doomed trad/fusion supergroup Moving Hearts), and Kevin to a new home in Portland and a fantastic duo with guitarist Micheal O Domhnaill.

But this record is a shared high point for all of them. It might be the finest synthesis of repertoire, skills, technique, and timing that any of these four men were ever involved in. An essential cornerstone.

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