I am in Athlone at the end of August. Alan Kelly and I am sitting in the luxurious Prince of Wales Hotel, it’s a fancy place, modern with a hint of old world mahogany about it, we are smack-bang in the middle of the town and Athlone is in the middle of Ireland. So central in fact that it was once proposed as the new capitol of Ireland.
It is said the city was named after a man called Luan, who ran a pub on the river bank, that was 1100 years ago and the pub is still there. The River Shannon cuts it in two, today we are on the east bank, to the west lies Connacht and the land of the Gael.
By Irish standards this is not a small town and it is lunchtime, so what gives with the title? Alan Kelly beams over his latté, and yells me that he really does like the end of August. Not for him that line in the Moving Hearts Songs... “All I remember was dreading September and school… I love this time of the year, there’s so much to look forward to, it is like I’m shifting into another gear.” Well he might be excited, his 6th album, Small Towns and Famous Nights is ready for release on his Blackbox label, he has assembled the Alan Kelly Gang to not only record but to tour the work, and he’s just finished a summer schedule of gigs with the Scottish singer Eddi Reader.
He goes on to explain that autumn is a time when his music shifts from the big open air festivals to the more intimate venues we’d expect from the album’s title. Indeed he had been in the UK two days before playing at a huge festival, a culmination of his summer work with Eddi Reader.
Alan has toured the world as part of the Eddi Reader Band since 2005 and has played on her last four albums. His friendship with Eddi led to a beautiful collaboration on a song penned by her partner John Douglas, but more of that later. “I work with Eddi’s band mainly between April and August, with every other winter spent doing an Australian tour. Then between autumn and the following spring I work on my own projects. It’s a great way to be, there’s always something exciting to look forward to. And I have Eddi guesting with us on our Irish tour this September.”
The project for this winter is bringing the new work and the Alan Kelly Gang to the world, when we did the interview, Alan had already arranged for 29 gigs to close out 2011, a number of dates in Ireland in September, with a visit to Finland in early October and his first appearance at Cape Breton’s Celtic Colours in mid-October, with dates in the UK sorted for October and November.
He tells me this is a band and not just a backing group. “This isn’t a band that we set up to focus on Alan Kelly, it’s not me up front with backing musicians, we are a team, and I’d like to think we all get a chance to lead tunes and to shine, it’s not about egos, its about the music.”
The album contains a number of new tunes and the arrangements are carefully worked on to get the most out of the instruments and the talent of the musicians. The Alan Kelly Gang are: Tola Custy (fiddle), Steph Geremia (flute & vocals) and Tony Byrne (guitar). Alan tells me he’s been working with Tola since they met up at the Tonder festival in 2001 in one of those famous mash ups that Karsten Panduro puts together. Tony Byrne is the newest recruit having come on board last March. They all have they own careers in music: Steph made a critically acclaimed album on the Blackbox label in 2009 and Tola released an album with Guidewires in 2011. “We recorded it in Killarney at Tony O’Flaherty’s studio; what a place! We had four separate booths and each had a stunning view of the lake, it was an inspiring space to make new music together.”
I asked Alan where does he get time to write new material and he confides that it is difficult during a tour. “My typical day is an early breakfast, a long drive, set up in the venue, sound check, rush to the hotel, dinner, concert, bed, then an early breakfast. It doesn’t leave much time for writing on the road, and I like to do a lot of the driving too. Some musicians can write between sound checks and I’ve observed Boo Hewardine in Eddi’s band sitting at the side of the stage plucking away at the guitar and forming snippets of songs, it’s amazing to see how he can just get into that creative zone while all the technical stuff is going on around him.”
I quiz Alan a little more about the opening track on the album which is called Hop Along, it contains a tune he wrote during a tea break. “We needed a hop jig and we didn’t have one, they are not that common in the tradition and we couldn’t think of one that would fit into the selection we were working on. The lads said ‘you can come up with a hop jig Kelly’ and it just happened that I could. Generally though I’d write new material when I’m off the road.”
We go on, Alan is an easy conversationalist, we discover a mutual fascination for Antarctic exploration; Tom Crean, Ernest Shakleton and the voyage of the James Caird are mulled over, Have you read Emperors of the Ice? I ask him, no but after my description I think he will. Now I have to tell you during this part of the interview Alan began playing air-accordion, showing me how he figures out tunes, music is in every bit of his body and as he says himself once it’s in you, then you have to get it out.
Working on new music for a band suits the piano accordion, he has a Pietro Mario accordion and says the Canadian-Italian’s instrument is “simply stunning, it almost plays itself, it is a remarkable instrument, maybe it is because it has hand made reeds, but I find in wonderful, I know that what is inside my head will come out of the accordion. And of course it has this amazing bass side to it. So I can get all these ideas on how I’d like the tunes to work.”
When it comes to sharing those ideas with the rest of the band, they do it by sending MP3 files to each other. “It’s a two way process, we share our ideas, and I’m sure you’ll hear that on the album, everyone makes a contribution and it adds to the colour we can bring to the music.”
Another aspect of this album is the songs, three from Steph including a re-worked Tim O’Brien number they have morphed into something sounding very French, one song is from Eddi Reader. Alan tells me that songs are an essential part of an Alan Kelly Gang gig, they anchor and act as a pivot around which the complex tunes work. His father has been a professional musician all his life and he impressed on the young Kelly the importance of entertaining people when you are playing gigs, songs allow audiences to connect to the band.
“You have to make a distinction between a session and concert performing. They have their own rules, in a session the musical conversation is between the players, but when you get on stage you have to win the audience over, you cannot be self indulgent, you have to bring them with you. My Dad told me that years ago and I’ve seen folk bands from other countries playing at festivals doing just that. They have no problem with being entertaining, I sometimes think there’s a feeling in Ireland that if you go out to give an audience a good time that you are selling the music short, but if you play your best and it is fresh I can’t see a problem at all with it. I do get the impression that there are less Irish acts on world stages now than say ten years ago, the ones who are getting the bookings are the ones who have some fun with their audiences.”
One of the songs on the album is called Connemara, written by Trashcan Sinatra guitarist, John Douglas. It seems that he did a bit of family tracing and realised his maternal grandfather John Keane was from Connemara. Alan takes up the story. “So we had the Eddi Reader band in Galway and John decided to trace his roots. A chance meeting in shop got him in touch with his extended family and new friendships were kindled, it also involved an inevitable night and song in the pub.”
“Connemara was written about a time when another visitor came looking for John Keane's family home. It was back in the 1940’s when Séamus Ennis has heard that the Keanes had a lot of songs, he visited one night and John Keane was reluctant to give him a lot of words, so he just sang two songs and told Séamus to come back the next day, if he had the airs and the words learned by then he’d give the collector more. Ennis did his homework over night and the result was a collection of some 200 songs from the family store. Now sixty years on the story of that meeting is re-told in Connemara”.
Finally the coffee cups drained we wrap up the interview, he’s off to see his grandmother, she’s in her 90’s and is mad for the music, she is recovering from an eye operation and this will be a chance for him to play the new album for her. The final track is Lollie’s Waltz, a tune he has written specially for her. Music and family are important and I get the feeling that the Alan Kelly Gang are becoming family too.
Catch the Kelly Gang live if you can, from what I’ve heard of the album you’ll be in for some famous nights.
Photo Credits: (1) Alan Kelly Gang (by Con Kellher); (2) Alan Kelly (by Seán Laffey); (3) CD Cover 'Small Towns and Famous Nights' (from website).