Saturday, August 19, 2006

100 Greats in 100 Days #047: Planxty The Black Album and Live 2004 DVD

These recordings make growing old seem bearable.

I first heard Planxty around 1979, well after I’d heard the Bothy Band, and I’ll confess that, like so many things, it took me multiple encounters and re-encounters to “get” them: I'm slow on the uptake. I lived in Boston as a teen—and missed its incredible Irish-American music scene. I lived in New York in the East Village—and largely missed its Irish music scene (but, I gotta give myself credit: I did get both the punk rockers of CBGB’s and the proto-turntablists in Spanish Harlem and the South Bronx). I lived in Chicago and missed its Irish music scene—but I did discover electric blues and the Maxwell Street Market—and I did get to know Blind Arvella Gray. I lived in West Texas the first time—and missed western swing—but I did learn to play the electric blues. I heard the Bothies first, and the sheer rock ‘n’ roll power of their approach (three rhythm section players hammering out the “rawk” grooves under the three melody players) was way more immediately appreciable.

But Planxty was deep—deeper, in many ways. Like the Bothies, Planxty was a rapprochement between hard-core trad musicians and denizens of the ballad/college/folk revival, but, curiously enough, even though the Planxty ratio was 1-to-3 trad-to-folkie, unlike the Bothies' 3-to-3, Planxty's approach was rooted far more deeply in the tradition. Piper Liam O Flynn, heir-apparent to both Seamus Ennis and Willie Clancy, was matched with the folkies Christy Moore, Andy Irvine, and Donal Lunny—but the instrumental core of the sound was Liam’s pipes and, as Christy said, they felt they couldn’t go far wrong with Liam involved. Or, as their first manager said, “they were three hippies and a civil servant” (Liam was working in the post office).

But that’s to simplify: all three of those others were at the tops of their respective games, even if it would be only years later that we would understand just how brilliant they were. Christy was a fantastic front-man (and, at the band’s inception during recordings for his solo LP in 1972, the best-known of the four); Donal had been a rock ‘n’ roller but would evolve a series of astonishing imaginative approaches to the newly-introduced bouzouki, and Andy…ah Andy…

Andy Irvine is one of the deepest, most imaginative, most original, and most politically-committed musicians of the folk revival. He was a deeply-expressive singer, with impeccable taste and chops in finding songs (and, it would become apparent, a magnificent songwriter himself), and possessed an astonishing contrapuntal mind. I remember living in a basement apartment on Commonwealth Ave in Boston with my old brothers-in-arms Larry Young and Kevin Skorupa, and hearing Kevin (see future “100 Greats” post on Robin Williamson), playing the first bouzouki I'd ever seen (he had one of the first Sobell prototypes, way before anybody else), working away at the fantastically-involved, fantastically-effective contrapuntal accompaniment for The Blacksmith.

I didn’t really get at the time just how much was going on in this music, but at Kevin's urging I did pick up the “Black” album (the eponymous first album, which replicated some of the arrangements from Christy’s earlier solo disc). As I said, it didn’t really hit me with the obvious immediacy of the Bothies, but it was remarkably resilient and mature music, with a potent stateliness very different from the Bothies’ histrionics. As my old buddy Roger Landes, a piper himself, points out, that was partly because Liam was quietly insistent about playing the tunes at a “piper’s” pace—a gentleman piper’s, at that. They alternated between tunes and songs, with the bouzouki, mandolin, and guitar weaving an amazing polyphonic tapestry around Liam, who played on Seamus Ennis’s own set.

There’s a sense of democracy about this foursome: they were all so strong in their own individual ways that none deferred to the others. They all brought power and subtlety to the table. It’s incredibly mature music for a group of guys in their 20s. Of course, the maturity comes from the lineage: these guys were not reinventing the wheel—they were drawing from at least 200 years of musicians learning and refining and passing on the best of the tradition’s insights.

Christy’s was the dominant vocal presence, with the fiercely red-blooded Jacobite ballad Follow Me Up to Carlow and the outspoken Republicanism of Only Our Rivers (in their later band Moving Hearts, Christy and Donal would explore this even further, marrying a potent political message with what might be the most virtuosic trad-rock-fusion I’ve ever heard—see upcoming “100 Greats” post). Andy again was a subtler, more complex, and more sophisticated presence, with a vocal repertoire that combined all of his strengths: his own sweet, sweet songwriting with West Coast of Clare; the hilarious traditional tale The Jolly Beggar (but for his greatest in this vein, see The Rambling Siuler from After the Break); the beauty of Sweet Thames Flow Softly, by Andy’s spiritual forebear Ewan MacColl; the ferocious anti-recruiting song Arthur McBride, and his titanic The Blacksmith, a tour-de-force which often closed their shows and which is damned near as impressive as a solo piece as in the band version—but the band version has the fantastic added attraction of Andy’s instrumental Blacksmithereens, which alludes to his long-standing interest in Balkan music (for more on that, and possibly even more firepower, see Andy’s supergroup Mozaik, a band of stone virtuosos that includes the mighty Nicola Parov).

Andy had been working out the possibilities for mandolin-family instruments in this music prior to Planxty with Sweeney’s Men, alongside Johnny Moynihan, Irish trad music’s own Zelig. But the bouzouki/mandolin interplay that he worked out with Donal was some of the most sophisticated usage that would ever happen in this music—and probably the most thoughtful, responsive playing Donal ever did. For the first record of trad music I ever played on, an EP that Dharmonia and I recorded with our band Reynardine around 1980 (and which was therefore too late for the late-‘60s folk-rock boom, and too early for the mid-‘80s Stateside “Celtic” revival), the only part of my own I still like is a mandolin part I put on a Larry song—and for that part I was wearing Andy’s dirty drawers.

Planxty marks more than one watershed in my life. Kevin put the Black album in my hands, and showed me the possibilities of the bouzouki, while we were living in that cold-water basement flat. Andy informed how I came to think about both accompaniment and the role of radicalism in song. Liam introduced me to the power of the pipes, and, eventually and indirectly, to Seamus Ennis—who became a big part of my scholarly life. And Larry and Kevin, together, played a tune from the disc as Dharmonia and I walked up the aisle: Tabhair Dom Do Lamh (“Give Me Your Hand”). That was just before they laid this song on us, which Bob Franke had written for the occasion.

Planxty also taught me—and us—just how screwed you could get in the music business. They made six albums, six of the greatest recordings of folk music ever made; they blew through several changes of personnel (Johnny Moynihan took over from Donal, and Paul Brady spent time in the band as well) and they all eventually wound up in debt; no wonder they broke up. I don’t know who died, but finally in 2004 the original four members got together to do a few gigs. The DVD is what resulted.

Keith Richard once said that he was trying to find a way to grow old in his music--rock 'n' roll--the way that Muddy Waters had in his. No matter what you think of Keith, I’d argue he’s succeeded (even up to and including falling out of palm trees and being parodied by Johnny Depp). Planxty showed us how to grow old—which, of course, they’d learned from the old Masters—Willie, Seamus, John Reilly (as Christy said “an old man got up to sing, and I think our lives were changed from that moment”).

Traditional music is about more than just tunes and songs and it teaches more than how to play and sing. Traditional music, in fact, can teach you how to live. As Bob Dylan said, everything you need to know to live your life is in traditional music, if you’re able to listen: ethics, morality, history, community, pedagogy, economics—you can gain insights into all these, if you approach the music with heart, commitment and humility. As Joe Cooley said, "It's music that brings people to their senses, I think."

It's also music that can teach you about growing old, and passing it on...and maybe even about dying. When the opening menu on the DVD (featuring back-lit instruments on a bare stage: a beautiful, very subtle visual quote of the “Black” album’s cover 30 years before) is past, the lights come up, and these four old men hit Good Ship Kangeroo (from the greatest Planxty album of all, 1979’s After the Break). The power of the music is breathtaking, and it’s effortless. They’re not even working hard—they even make mistakes—but the music is like a tidal wave and it's unstoppable. It makes other, younger (and truly great) bands seem like what they are: great musicians, but 30 years younger. There’s a confidence that comes from these men, because, even with all the lawsuits, the comings and goings, the debt, and so on—all the history—the way they play nobody else ever did,or ever will, and that at least (or at most) can never be taken from them.

The first time Dharmonia and I watched this DVD, it was one more Planxty watershed: we were with a group of our students, none of whom had been born the first time I heard the "Black" album. By the end of the main program, when they roared went into The Blacksmith, the students’ mouths were hanging open—they were enthralled, and oblivious to us. I looked at Dharmo, and the same thought was in both our heads:

Looking at Andy, Donal, Christy, and Liam, growing old in the music doesn’t seem so bad.

It seems like a privilege.


Banjosnake said...

Beautiful, BEAUTIFUL friggin post man... I'll never forget picking up "Well Below The Valley" in a used record store in Florence, Alabama of all places and thinking, "Hey, what are all these weird-ass lookin' instruments these guys are a-strummin'? And the cover was cool too... I've never been the same since... and I can hardly watch the DVD without bursting into tears at odd intervals... glad you feel the same, my friend.

Roger Landes said...

Fantastic essay. You've got to the heart of something that a lot of us have felt for a long time but not been able to put into words.

And you're right, growing old in the music *is* a privilege.