Irish Music 1995-2015. Seán Laffey takes a personal view of twenty years of Irish Music Magazine.
In our September 2004 issue we ran a front cover montage of front line acts; Altan, Dervish, Danú, Sharon Shannon, Solas and Sean Keane. We called it a Decade of Tradition. In it I wrote a piece on the first 100 issues of the magazine. I promised to look back, look forward and pass a sideways glance at all that had gone before. Precedent set then.
In October 2011 we marked the 200th edition with Christy Moore on the cover, highlighting his album Folk Tale. My editorial that month ran along these lines; 'A journey of a couple of hundred issues is not taken alone, nor is it done lightly, there are many people to thank for keeping the flame of IMM lit. All the team deserve a huge thank you. Where would we be without our readers and our advertisers? Both supply the financial glue that makes the publication possible month after month, we get not one penny of subsidy or subvention, every cent is hard earned. We thank them all for their support since issue 1.'
This issue is number 243 in an unbroken sequence (we did however, shift from a volume system to a simple number catalogue to keep our databases manageable). Standing on the shoulders of the 243rd issue what does it look like glancing back? It's a fair weight of paper and a lot of words. Do the maths. We are knocking on the door of 3000 album reviews, around 500 live reviews and 2000 interviews and features.
Live music is where the cutting edge is. We have attended a concert or festival at least twice a month for twenty years. From the Willie Clancy Summer School to the Frankie Kennedy Winter School, to the William Kennedy Piping Festival to the Killarney Gathering, The World Fleadhs and the All Ireland Fleadhs, trips to Clare for the Shannonside Winter Festival, The Fleadh Nua and the Ennis Trad Fest. Strokestown and Baltimore, Rostrevor and Cork City, the Belfast Folk Festival at Queens and Dingle. Thirty two counties and beyond.
Beyond to Boston College's Irish Studies Center, Boston Icons Festival, Milwaukee Irish Fest, North Texas Irish Fest and rambles north into Canada for the Goderich Festival and Cape Breton's Celtic Colours. Continental capers at: Celtica in Italy's Aosta valley, Zaragossa's Strictly Mundial (the first time I saw a Cajon). I also spent a week in the back of a minibus in Germany with Flook and Dezi Donnelly. Then there was a foggy winter weekend at Mulligan's in Amsterdam, where I got to play on what might be the smallest stage in Europe. I've seen the cream of teh Celtic world at Glasgow's Celtic Connections and drank wine with the celebs at the BBC Folk Awards. I even followed the Ceilidh trail of jingling tankards at Wimborne's Folk Festival. No matter where I or the team have visited, we have always been met with kindness and enthusiasm.
One thing I have found refreshing recently has been the re-emergence of folk song, now that it is being re-discovered by a younger generation. I loved what 'The Lynched' did last year and I am unapologetically gushing about Nora Rendell's Spinning Yarns, she has rekindled Irish songs that migrated to Canada in the 19th century.
And that younger generation has many more opportunities today to learn about traditional music, with Degree programmes in Universities and Institutes of Technology, it's even on the Leaving Cert Music curriculum.
Of course there have been changes at IMM in twenty years. Our issues are now also compiled digitally, we are instantly connected to the world-wide-web, we set up Skype and Hangout interviews a minute after a phone call is made. We interview musicians in their kitchen's, see their books on the shelves, get a feel for the places that provide their inspiration. Bringing you pictures is part of the vital service of providing context to our stories. Today we rely on digital photography, it was not always the case. I recall from the film days, a Chieftains and Corrs single launch in Dublin Castle, a very controlled affair it was too. We were swept up in the rock and roll PR machine, canapéd and corralled by music industry PA's, it should have been smoothness with a capital S, but the photo op didn't run to plan, the lighting was too dim.
There have been festivals and concerts where Trad has bumped along with the Rock aesthetic. We have feared the mantra 'three songs and photographers are out.' It originated in the 1970's with Glam Rock bands in New York; their make-up would begin to run after three sonsg under stage lighting and the photographers weren't going to be allowed to shoot Gene Simmons with his face on the floor. To translate that to Kieran Hanrahan and Paddy Glackin, well it's nonsense isn't it?
I have witnessed some astounding performances over the past twenty years. The Chieftains in L'Orient and the 2005 Planxty re-union tour (I caught them in Limerick) and then there was Paul Brady in Dunlewey and Jimmy Crowley in the Spailpín Fánach. Some wonderful nights at the Temple Bar Trad Festival. Watching Joe and Antoinette McKenna perform in a Butler Castle in Cahir on an early Music Network Tour. Being surrounded by the hush at a Niamh Parsons gig, watching our own Dan Milner perform at South Street Museum in New York. Enthralled by Mick Moloney's tour de force at Glasgow's Royal Concert Hall. Elevated to dizzy heights by Lunasa's mark 1 in the back room of Matt Molloy's. Attending an Eileen Ivers concert when the lady with the blue fiddle was on fire, being mesmerised by the effortlessness of Liz Carroll in Derry, yes Derry at the All Ireland Fleadh. History!
Then there are the gigs our freelancers have attended. I've often been more than a bit jealous when I read their copy, although on the up side it extends my bucket list for another year. For many years Mac Spy, the lad from Belfast with the battered banjo case, scoured these islands for out of the way sessions to tempt us to travel in search of the tunes.
We have made a great many friends over the years and lost a few too. I was extremely lucky to have worked with three of the best singers in Irish folk; Liam Clancy, Ronnie Drew and Frank Harte. We interviewed all three, we worked with Ronnie at the Irish Music Magazine Awards which we rn at the National Concert Hall. Frank was generous both with his time and his songs, he didn't have a stage persona, he was the genuine article.
I wondered about Liam Clancy, could he be so ebullient backstage? I made the trip to his architect designed home in Ring, I was almost star struck. I'm of that very extended generation who grew up on the music of the Clancy brothers. I found him great company. Witty and thoughtful by turns, immersed in folk song, not only from his own family but from collecting trips he made in the 1950's with Diane Hamilton. One trip would led to him meeting Tommy Makem in a kitchen in Keady. Later I got to know him as a recording artist when I worked with Liam on two maritime albums for the 1996 Dublin Tall Ship festival. I have never seen anyone so at ease with a microphone, so at home with a studio.
But my big Clancy moment was his show of defiance at the Milwaukee Irish Fest the year after the Twin Towers of 9/11. Standing undaunted in his blue denim and trademark cap, his arm held triumphantly aloft. In front of him thousands in the audience welling up with pride to be Irish American. An image from the gig became a front cover of IMM. It is those kind moments that need reporting in IMM. It is why IMM still has a place in a world be-dogged by instant short-lived communication.
So what of the future? In our 100th issue I said that MP3s would be the format of the future. I suppose I almost got it right, thankfully CD's are still being made at the highest quality settings, even if we are listening to our music on smart-phones these days.
The tradition will turn and twist wherever it wants to, it won't be cajoled. When Ronnie Drew passed on, the national press marked this as the end of Folk song. I didn't agree and with programmes like OAIM, Meitheal, The Inishowen Song Project and the Song Collectors Collective in the UK there's no doubt the tradition will continue to flourish. Technology may provide different modes of purchase and storage for our music, but in the end, no matter what we plug into, we listen with our ears and hearts.
Integrity has been at the heart of some excellent traditional music over the past twenty years. It only needs three ingredients: material, players and an audience and today all three are in pretty good roder. Twenty years on and it looks just as impressive starring forward as it does glancing over my shoulder.
Enough of the nostalgia, there's music being made ...
First published @ Irish Music Magazine 2015 (www.irishmusicmagazine.com).
Photo Credits: (1),(7) Irish Music Magazine, (2) Christy Moore, (3) The Chieftains, (4) Planxty, (5) Liam Clancy, (6) Eileen Ivers (by Irish Music Magazine).