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Andy Irvine - 'Supergrouper'

Picture: 
Andy Irvine with Mosaic at the William Kennedy Piping Festival 2009

As the seminal Irish traditional band Planxty prepared for their first UK concerts in more than twenty years, Julian Gurr caught up with founder member Andy Irvine, for whom one “supergroup” just doesn’t seem to be enough!

Since Planxty’s last demise in the early nineteen-eighties, fans of traditional Irish music had drooled over any suggestion that this hugely influential band might one day return. Then suddenly, the dream came true! “I think it would have happened anyway,” says founder member Andy Irvine about Planxty’s reformation towards the end of 2003. “We’d been talking about it for years, but we just needed the right spark to get us going.” The right spark came in the shape of League O’Toole’s No Disco! television documentary on the band, aired by Ireland’s RTE in March 2003.

“The very positive reaction from young viewers of the No Disco! programme made us realise that the time was probably right to introduce Planxty to a new generation,” says Andy, “as well as to play for our existing fans again. It also opened our eyes to the huge esteem that we’re held in by younger musicians.” Inspired by No Disco!, the original line-up of Andy (vocals, mandolin, bouzouki), Donal Lunny (bouzouki, guitar), Christy Moore (vocals, guitar, bodhrán) and Liam O’Flynn (uilleann pipes, tin whistle) got together for a private session. Finding that the old chemistry was still there, they agreed to prepare material for a more structured series of rehearsals in The Royal Spa Hotel, Lisdoonvarna. It was here, on October 11th 2003, that the original Planxty played their first public gig for twenty-one years!

“That was very exciting,” remembers Andy. “There hadn’t been any posters up or anything. People just found out about it by word of mouth. There was a real buzz!” The Lisdoonvarna experience led to a series of fourteen official concerts in Ennis and Dublin in January and February 2004, and the subsequent release of a CD and DVD, both entitled, “Planxty Live 2004”. Despite the inevitable nostalgia in the DVD documentary, Andy insists that there was much more to the reunion gigs than that. “There were an awful lot of young people at the gigs who hadn’t heard Planxty before, and although we were mainly playing our old material, there was a freshness to it that was quite extraordinary and which didn’t drain away. You’d think that in the course of twelve gigs, even after a twenty-one year break, you’d get fed up of doing the same old stuff again, but there was none of that. I think it must have been because of the camaraderie of the musicians and the vibrancy of the audiences. The reception we got every night was just incredible. We could have formed a government!”

In his DVD interview, Donal Lunny says that although the reformation of Planxty “takes people back”, it would be nice to “bring them forward” as well. Andy agrees.
“It would be nice to progress in some way. We did do some new material in the Ennis and Dublin gigs, but not very much. We’d often sit around playing in the dressing room before the gigs and there was some great stuff coming together there. If we do carry this thing on then I think a new live or studio album should be high on our list of priorities. As it happens, in this current phase, Planxty only exists until the last of our three gigs at The Barbican in London on January 31st, 2005. After that, nobody knows what’s going to happen.” Whatever does happen, Andy has at least two other “supergroups” to be getting on with, not to mention his solo career. The addition of London-born fiddle player John Carty to Patrick Street’s already formidable line-up of Andy, Kevin Burke (fiddle), Jackie Daly (accordion) and Ged Foley (guitar) makes them even more of a force to be reckoned with these days.

“We had to cancel Patrick Street’s tour of America in October, largely for financial reasons, but we’re thinking of doing a short tour in Ireland in April 2005, and already have something planned for the UK in September 2005. I’m not sure what’s happening as far as recording’s concerned as our label, Green Linnet, is in such a legal mess.” For me, Andy’s most exciting project at the moment is Mozaik, “the ultimate global stringband”, “a band to die for”. Featuring Donal Lunny, Nikola Parov (Balkan multi-instumentalist), Rens van der Zalm (Dutch fiddle, mandolin and guitar player) and Bruce Molsky (North American fiddle and five-string banjo player), this virtuoso ensemble perform a unique blend of Irish, Balkan and American Old Timey music that has already had audiences in Australia and Ireland screaming for more.

“I had the idea of forming a band to tour Australia with me in March 2002,” explains Andy. “I thought it would be great to combine Balkan and Old Timey music in the band as, in addition to Irish music, these styles have long been among my favourites. I’ve known Nikola and Rens for years. They toured America with me in 1996 in the East Wind Trio, another Balkan-influenced project, and appear together on the title track of my last solo album, ‘Way Out Yonder’. Nikola also did a long stint in the Riverdance band. I first heard Bruce sing and play at a party in his house when he lived in Atlanta, Georgia, and thought it was the closest thing I had ever heard to the early recordings of Old Timey music which had so enthralled me in my teens. When Donal agreed to join the band, I knew we were on to a winner. He’s not only a great musician in his own right, but also the perfect man to have in a band because he ‘hears’ the whole. As an arranger, he slots each musician into place and creates a band out of the various talents that make it up. He is the ‘glue’ that helps hold everything together.”

Having had only six days to rehearse before their first gig on the 2002 Australian tour, it’s remarkable how accomplished the band sound on the album, “Live from the Powerhouse”, recorded in Brisbane at the end of that tour, and due for release by Hummingbird Records in the UK in early 2005. “It was incredibly exciting getting this band together,” remembers Andy. “The six days before the first gig have merged in my memory. We practised night and day. I’d wondered for years what would happen if you put a bunch of traditional musicians from Ireland, the Balkans and North America in a room together with a few days’ supply of food and water and then locked the door. I imagined it would function a bit like a sort of musical cocktail shaker, and that six day period with Mozaik was the nearest I’ve got to putting this theory into practice. The tour that followed was a pretty striking success. From Melbourne to Sydney to Brisbane and down to the National Folk Festival in Canberra, the audience didn’t bat a hair as we moved from Milltown Malbay, Co. Clare into Stara Zagora, Co. Bulgaria and mosied along to Galax, Co. Virginia and back. In Canberra, particularly, the applause and reaction we got was just like that for Planxty in 1972. There was the same sort of excitement in the air!”

The Mozaik magic continued on a short tour of Ireland last July. “We were waiting for the gear to be set up before the sound check at one of our Irish gigs,” remembers Andy, “and Nikola started teaching Donal a kind of Romanian accompaniment rhythm on the gadulka (Balkan fiddle). Suddenly, Bruce cried out, ‘Hey! That’s Reuben’s Train!’ - so we immediately had a go at doing the two pieces together. North Carolina meets Târgu Mures! It just shows you what amazing potential this band has!”

Despite the obvious difficulty of getting such an international group of musicians together for long in one place, plans for a studio album and more touring - including the UK next summer - are gradually beginning to take shape. “Everybody in the band is really heavily into it,” says Andy, “even though we all have other commitments as well. We’re really excited about the music we’re making together and the camaraderie between us is great. In fact, I’ve rarely seen a happier band.”

To keep up with all the latest news on Andy Irvine, Planxty, Patrick Street and Mozaik, visit Andy Irvine's website
Browse the Listening Post for Andy Irvine CDs
Browse the Listening Post for Planxty CDs
Browse the Listening Post for Patrick Street CDs
Browse the Listening Post for Mozaic CDs

Julian Gurr