Wednesday, August 23, 2006

100 Greats in 100 Days #049: Chulrua: Barefoot on the Altar

My medieval band has done some recording at a little church called St Bridget's, built by German carpenters and Irish stonemasons, in the midst of the corn fields of central Iowa. Some of our most magical recording moments happened there. On the first disc we did, Jann and I were working on the very last tune, an insanely complex unison instrumental she had written, and which was saturated with stops, starts, twisty passages, and tricky tempo changes. So of course, being the studio novices we were, we’d left that hardest one to the last. And, just like the St Francis who was the titular dedicatee of the disc, I was losing my eyesight, blinking through tears in the deserted church to see Jann’s bow. But we finally finished, and realized we were done, and ran down the center aisle to go outside and tell the others. We flung open the big old double doors, and our comrades standing in the dirt road below us, and, beyond them, a blood-red westering sun. So we slipped back and got our instruments, and began to play—and Dharmonia and Allie and David and Tim began dancing in the red and golden light of the sunset and the corn. It’s still one of my favorite memories.

It must have been that hot and dusty—and magical—when piper Tim Britton, button accordion player Paddy O Brien, and singer/guitarist Pat Egan convened at a de-sacralized church in Bensonport Iowa (the photo inside the disc reveals it to be virtually identical to St Bridget’s), to record this disc. Timmy is one of the great young American pipers (now building pipes as well), and an incredibly deep musician, playing in the stately, deliberate, “classical” style of Séamus Ennis and Liam O Flynn. Pat’s a fine singer, featured singing the heartbreaking Kilkelly on the classic live disc Music from Matt Molloy’s, and a stalwart of the legendary (or notorious) McGurk’s Irish Pub in St Louis. And Paddy O Brien of Offaly—the second great “Paddy O Brien” playing button accordion, distinguished as “Paddy-with-a-pulse” from the earlier Paddy O Brien of Co. Tipperary—is one of the greatest repositories of tunes and their lore alive in the music. An early devotee of radio and of recordings, Paddy has an astonishing data-base of a mind: he can recall tunes, variants, titles, sources, original comments, and the circumstances in which he first got his tunes. For the past 45 years he’s made it his mission to associate with the old musicians and preserve their music—which came to one initial fruition with the 1994 publication of The Paddy O’Brien Tune Collection: A Personal Treasury of Irish Jigs and Reels, a collection of 500 tunes-on-tape—to save them.

I was fortunate enough to get to know Paddy in the Catskills in 1999, just after (I later discovered) he’d had an emergency triple bypass (that was also the year I met Joe “Banjo” Burke, and James Kelly, and Billy McComiskey, and Gearoid O hAllmhurain, all of them important in my later life—in fact, Gearoid wrote one of my tenure letters). So he was pretty frail, but his dedication to the music, and his memory, were unshakeable. I asked him about the tune collection, and he said that, when he’d been recording, he’d sit at his kitchen table, and get a tune on tape, and say to himself, “that’s another one safe.”

Paddy was pretty retiring that year, teaching his classes, spending time by himself, and going to bed early. But a few of us sought him out, and one night we were playing with him, when the little session in the Blackthorn Hotel and Ranch (no, I’m not making that up) was invaded by all the other faculty: Gearoid, Mary Bergin, the late Tony Cuffe, Don Meade, and others, who said “we’ve come to find you in your lair.”

They played all night long, and the few others of us there mostly sat like mice, playing the few we knew, just glad to be present.

Listening to this record is like listening in on that private a musical conversation. Barefoot is just the three of them, Timmy strapped into the pipes and seated on the altar (and with the on/off switch for the recorder under his stocking foot), Pat and Paddy seated down below. As Timmy puts it in his wonderful, evocative notes:

Outside, bees buzzed, birds sang and fireflies danced late into the night. Inside,seated barefoot on the altar to minimize the reverberation of our foot stomping, we played the old tunes.

This record sounds warm: it sounds like a conversation between old friends, with the shades of all the musicians who came before peering over the players' shoulders and nodding in appreciation. The pipes and box are an unexpected combination, very seldom employed in trad music, but in Timmy and Paddy’s hands they turn out to be enormously expressive. From the very opener, when we hear Tim’s voice counting us in “1…2….3…4” into Tobin’s Favorite / WillyClancy’s / Paddy Taylor’s, we’re instantly taken someplace older, simpler, and quieter.

There are fantastic sets combining contrasting tune types, like the one that begins with an air version of one of the many nameless tunes, supplied by Paddy and authored by Galway’s Paddy Fahy (flute and box), into a beautiful, unusual 2-part version of The Butterfly (a tune that, because it was played dead-slow on one of the Bothy Band records, has been learned, and played badly, by about 4 generations of beginners) and segues seamlessly into the chugging mid-tempo East Galway reel The Mountain Top, and then in the last 8 bars Timmy, who has been playing while strapped into the pipes, drops out on flute, and at the downbeat of the final tune, the fantastic The Boys on the Hilltop, roars back in on the pipes. It’s a moment to make the hair stand up on the back of your neck.

There are wonderful vocal performances too, particularly on Pat’s version of the classic rebellion song The Foggy Dew, which gets at the sadness and hopelessness behind the text’s apparent assertions of revolt; wonderful tunes sourced from the old masters—Scully Casey, Micho Russell, Joe Cooley, Padraig O Keefe—and a full helping of Paddy’s own idiosyncratice settings. There are fantastic solo pieces, most notably Timmy’s titanic version of the Napoleonic air Wounded Hussar, followed by Slieve Russell and an absolutely earthshaking performance—maybe the greatest I’ve ever heard—of the “big jig” Humours of Ballyloughlin, of which my old friend Roger said “I almost drove off the road, hearing that.” There’s an equally magnificent solo set for Paddy, which begins with his version of Jefferson’s March, a tune he found in a Monticello manuscript, and then slips beautifully into the classic Sliabh Luachra slide The Star Above the Garter (surely one of the most beautiful—and sexiest—tune titles), and finally into one of the many tunes Paddy, and so many others, got from the great Johnny O’Leary.

This is one great, deep recording.

The second CD by the same trio, Down the Back Lane, might lack just a hint of the first disc’s sense of intimacy and discovery, but its maturity, sensitivity, and quiet authority are even stronger. And it also has Pat’s magnificent Lough Melvin’s Shore, which in its sweetest and sadness epitomizes his strengths as a singer. It’s matched by the intensity of Tim’s Lament for Terrence McDonagh on whistle, which segues into Paddy’s remarkable original tune March of the Jacobites, an absolutely fantastic tunes and one of my favorites in all the world.

One of my own treasured possessions is a recording that I own, of that night in the Catskills in 1999, before the others showed up, when it was just myself, and Ken Fleming, and Paddy himself, frail and tired after his recent bypass, when he went into this tune, which I’d never heard—and I got to play on it.

As Paddy would have put it, Barefoot On The Altar saved a few more.

Thanks, lads. Go raibh mile maith agat.


Mistykalia said...

Yes - both "Barefoot at the Alter" and "Down the Back Lane" are truly incredible recordings.
I'd listened to "Barefoot at the Alter" many times before I sat down and read the liner notes - and it clarified for me what was so very magical about that recording.
"Lough Melvin's Shore" is hands down, one of my top 100 favourite tracks of all time.
This is a lovely entry, Chris. Thanks.

Unknown said...

Hey Chris! Just ran across this in my bookmarks... Is this still active? Would you mind if I shared this? Ten years on... Thanks for all the kind and powerful words...