Seán Laffey attends the last rehearsal before the debut Raw Bar Collective album is recorded.
Before. That’s the word I’d use to sum up this interview. Before.
Let me explain. IMM interviews usually happen after careful listening to a CD, after hours of watching our heroes perform on You tube, maybe even catching a live gig. But what if we could roll it all into a few hours and have the condensed experience?
That word, before, has other meanings in this context, but before I get into that, let’s start at a beginning. Let’s call it, the act of getting there.
Benny McCarthy and I chat now and again, on the phone, he is twenty miles south of Clonmel , I’m twenty miles north. We phone and save the diesel. Just after New Year we were discussing the second album from Caladh Nua, who are proud to be called McCarthy protégés. So when he mentioned that he had a new project on the go , I had to ask. “Another one?”
There’s Danú (watch out for them in the US around St. Patrick’s week), Rattle the Boards (a huge hit in Canada last autumn) and of course the show he developed with Des Dillon, Teach A Bloc.” But something new Benny?” “Yes” says he and we” call it the Raw Bar Collective”. No it’s not a Marxist chocolate manufacturer, but it is something that we might have heard before... but probably not for a very long time.
The Raw Bar Collective is a trio, (with wings that can be added on when the need and opportunities arise). The central threesome are fiddler Dave Sheridan , originally from Offaly now teaching in Carlow. The Ballyvourney native, flute player Conal O’Grada and Ballymacarbry box player Benny McCarthy. They’ll be joined on the Raw Bar Collective album by ex-DeDannan bodhrán player Colum Murphy and young Sean-nós singer Nell Ni Chroinin from Macroom.
Over the phone Benny invited me for a chat on the day of their live recording at John and Marie Cummins’ Mill House Bar. The date was Sunday January 2011, one to remember. (There will be histories written about the recording mark my words on it.) So come the appointed time, I filled up the Peugeot with diesel, my knapsack with the Mp3 recorder, a good camera and some spare batteries and off I drove to Millstreet. The day was thankfully sunny, fog would descend as I left the pub five hours later, but I was spared the mists on the journey down, thanks goodness, because in the fog you’d be hard pushed to know you were in Millstreet. The village is a turn in the road, a small set of petrol pumps on the right and a string of building on the left, all joined together , perhaps in a former life all having separate identities. Today it’s deeply rural, no gaudy neons proclaiming Arthur's famous brew, just a faded hand painted sign above one of several doors, which read in flaky white paint 'The Mill House'. Was it the right spot? Yes. Vehicles parked outside gave it away. Benny has a large camper van, an ideal wagon for the life of a musician and great for taking the kids off to France in the summer (his in-laws are from Brittany).
Once inside the pub, all I did was stand and stare, it is from a time before. Before pubs got sophisticated. Just two rooms, with a lot of chocolate brown paint. A large fireplace, decorated in a Jacobean style but with rustic roughness about its chunky plasterwork. (I wondered is this three hundred years old? Something to discover on my next vast.) It is a small intimate space, enough room for the Raw Bar Collective and enough chairs for 20 people. A theatre , bar and recording studio rolled into one, pints of plain and bottles of powers on one side of the bar, music on the other. Microphone cables going directly into the recording equipment set in the back room. Linked into a Mac Book running pro-tools. The plan? Hit the red button , play the tunes and record it as it is, capture the Raw Bar.
So what is this Raw Bar thing? Well, RTÉ came up with a workable definition for their TV series of the same name “The 'Raw Bar' is that elusive, pure and indefinable essence of traditional music which offers no easy definition but which is unmistakable when experienced.” The key word here is experienced, this is music that happens, it’s not overly pre-programmed, nor is it over edited in post-production. It has come to mean a pure form of traditional music where the melody predominates and the internal life of the tunes is explored and played with. It is music that does not need accompaniment; it is music that shall not have accompaniment.
Conal explains it as the way of playing the rhythm and not the beat that is important, and the rhythm comes from the melody. For the player, certainly for the soloist it opens up endless possibilities of exploration, creation, variation and distraction, you can get carried away with the tunes, it is liberating. Things are of course a wee bit more controlled for an ensemble, indeed the Raw Bar Collective admit to having at least a half dozen rehearsals before today. That before word again.
It is early, there’s still light and the sun hasn’t taken the sky road tp Limerick yet. The lads go through their sets for the night, tweaking the tunes. Perhaps says fluter Conal O’Grada to Box Player Benny McCarthy, “we need a slightly longer A note on the box so we can kick the tune in? “ We are talking shavings that are microseconds thin here, such is the acuity of their ears. They try the tune again the A is indeed a hare’s whisker longer and smiles light up the gloomy snug. More sets are played, little adjustments made, slowing a section, adding a drone on the fiddle for a couple of bars to let the accordion and flute have a few notes of interplay.
Colum plays his bodhrán, it’s deceptively simple, he lets the tune breath first before he joins in and when he does, he follows the tune, it's an old style, he doesn’t as far as can see use backhand pressure, he plays horizontally across the skin from back to front, there’s no top end tipping and at the back of the drum is a round door handle, it keeps his fingers off the surface and it lets the drum ring out true. It’s a Brendan White drum, not the famous fellow from Holland but his nephew who is making bodhráns in Youghal, the skin is creamy yellow and Colum tells me “as thick as an old shoe”.
Rehearsal done, we go through to the backroom, where Benny is making final adjustments to the recording gear. Time for a chat about their music, a wealth of biographical details flood out and in another article at another time it will be appropriate to explore that but for now I ask them about the raw bar, what it is that has drawn them into this setting. Conal answers first, he smiles and uses his hands to emphasise and explain the points he is making “We met about 18 months ago at a session in Donacadh Gough's pub, 'The Local' in Dungarvan. It was a packed session, but the three of us knew that we were on the same wavelength. We knew just by looking at each other as we were playing there was potential for something else here”
Dave Sheridan tells me they are comfortable in each other’s company that they are old enough to have lost that fierce competiveness that is the hallmark of young player. “ I can think back to my late teens and early twenties, when having learned enough technique to be able to absorb tunes really fast , we'd be mad for sessions, learning a much as we could , moving onto the next set of tunes Things are different now, I suppose you could say we are more settled in the music. We know who we are as musicians and that gives us a freedom to explore the music for the music’s sake.”
Conal tells me that he tries to play the music “vertically” he caps his hands as in prayer and pushes down his finger tips down to the floor as he continues. “To dig deep down into the tune, to understand it, to know where it comes from. I wouldn’t be too interested in seeing what we can fit into it from other musics, we won’t be adding jazz or samba backing to any of our tunes” he laughs as his large hands sweep outward, his friendly palms exploding upwards.
I observe thinking ‘Raw Bar’ approach puts the onus on tune selection, that melodies played 'Raw Bar’ have to be able to live on their own, there’s no safety net of a bouzouki or guitar player to fill in gaps or groove over the cracks. “Yes” says Conal, “and we’ve noticed that, when we selected the tunes, we realised some worked with flute and box, some with flute and fiddle, some didn’t work with all three instruments, those tunes didn’t make it to the final list. But, it’s not a compromise, it truly is a collective, what you will hear on the final CD is music that works in this setting.”
That’s the essence of the recording they were making that night, it has echoes of what has gone before, when one-take recordings were all that was possible, when the experience of the live music was shared by players and audience alike. Before technology and studio sophistication took the fun and spontaneity out of the music. By the time you read this the album will have been manufactured at Trend Studios in Dublin, the web site www. rawbarcollective.com will be up and running, and a video shot at the live recording will be on You Tube. They will be a launch of the album in Ballybvourney on February 25th with launches in Waterford and Carlow to follow.
But before all that there was the music and the music was the raw bar.
Seán's article was originally featured in the Irish Music Magazine. Benny McCarthy is touring Europe with Pure Irish Drops in the fall 2011.
Photo Credits: (1) Raw Bar Collective (by Seán Laffey); (2) Conal O Grada, (3) Dave Sheridan, (4) Benny McCarthy (from website).