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Never tire of Irvine and Doyle

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

John Doyle’s question elicited laughter from the audience in Donaghy Theatre of Manhattan’s Irish Arts Center on Sept. 11, the first of three consecutive “Masters in Collaboration” nights showcasing the two singers and multi-instrumentalists. Three decades separate them in age (Irvine was born in 1942, Doyle in 1971), yet their week-long woodshedding together at IAC produced the musical chemistry and magic everyone hoped would emerge in concert.
When Doyle asked how the band Planxty, of which Irvine is a founding member, could stay in tune with all those stringed instruments on stage, Irvine quipped, “You obviously never attended a Planxty concert.”
This lighthearted banter mingled with anecdotes and song histories during an evening when the performers clearly enjoyed each other’s company and music. In an atmosphere of mutual respect deepened by their joint IAC residency at the invitation of Mick Moloney, whom John Doyle rightly called “a cultural institution all by himself,” Irvine and Doyle stretched without strain in a concert chock-full of highlights.
In the tradition of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Cisco Houston, Pete Seeger, Ewan MacColl, and Woody Guthrie, his chief inspiration and idol, Irvine is unafraid to confront controversial topics through song. The first song he sang this night was “When the Boys Are on Parade,” written by New Zealander Marcus Turner in a bouncy meter mimicking lockstep jingoism on public display. That breezy beat, played by Irvine on harmonica and bouzouki (shaped like a guitar) and Doyle on bouzouki, carried blunt antiwar lyrics: “Merely the whim or intuition of an elected politician / Makes a melee without condition as the monster quits the cage / It’s a machine that knows no quarter, dealing death and sowing slaughter, / Raping mothers, wives and daughters in an all-consuming rage.”
Echoing that warning, Doyle later sang his own, well-crafted antiwar song, “Farewell to All That,” inspired by Robert Graves’s “Goodbye to All That,” a WWI memoir published in 1929 and revised by the author in 1957.
Ballads about the working class, whether fragilely secure or outright struggling, included Ewan MacColl’s “Champion at Keeping Them Rolling,” sung by Irvine and spotlighting lorry (truck) drivers in England during the days before superhighways, and the traditional “Poacher’s Fate,” sung by Doyle from the canon of Walter Pardon and focusing on desperation.
Irvine and Doyle alternated in singing lead on songs combining breadth with depth, such as the traditional “Kellswater,” “John Barlow,” “Apprentice Boy,” “The Rambler from Clare,” “Lancashire Lads,” “The Cocks Are Crowing,” and “Rambling Boys of Pleasure.” Those last two songs were linked, respectively, to versions sung by Eddie Butcher (1900-80) of Derry and both Joe Holmes (1906-78) and Len Graham of Antrim in acknowledgment of the great Ulster singing and song tradition.
Another traditional song, “Napoleon Bonaparte,” sung by Doyle, segued into a Turlough O’Carolan melody and a reel or two played by both musicians.
Three songs composed and sung by Irvine revealed how skillful a lyricist he is. “Viva Zapata!” contains these call-to-action lines: “When you see your friends and neighbors hang like earrings from the trees / Does it make you think they’re playing a game of bluff? / Isn’t it better to die on your feet than to live upon your knees? / Four hundred years of bondage–that’s enough.”
“Never Tire of the Road,” Irvine’s signature song, is an overt tribute to his hero Woody Guthrie and a reminder of the economic justice historically sought through unions. When Irvine sang “Don’t let them ever fool you or take you by surprise / The dirty smell of the politician and the man with the greed in his eyes,” Pete Townshend’s similarly stern warning in “Won’t Get Fooled Again” swam back to me.
Nostalgia has a way of spinning memories into a cotton-candy swirl. But Irvine wisely avoided that pitfall by mixing plenty of grit and a dollop of discomfort (the long-haired were shown the door, and “a bowl of soup and a pint of stout” were the subsistence diet) into a joyous, vivid, often hilarious song tribute to a storied Dublin pub he frequented in the early 1960s, “O’Donoghue’s.” The colorful inventory he takes of the musicians he met there reads like a who’s-who: Johnny Moynihan, the Dubliners’ Ronnie Drew, Luke Kelly, Barney McKenna, and Ciaran Bourke, Joe Ryan and John Kelly, Joe Heaney, Seamus Ennis, Sonny Brogan, and Joe Dolan. It was impossible to listen to this song without smiling and laughing, especially during the verse about a tipsy Barney McKenna who is carried to the loo, does his business, and returns to the music-making “right back on track / How the [expletive deleted] does he do it?”
The encore comprised the sea chantey “Sally Brown” and the traditional ballad “Reynard the Fox,” and joining on mandolin and vocal for those two songs was Mick Moloney, singing in a lower register to harmonize better with Irvine and Doyle. Moloney’s gift for vocal harmony harks back to his 1966-71 tenure in the Johnstons and even before. But since then it has too often been given scant attention amid his other, more celebrated musical talents. This two-song encore served as a welcome refresher.
Kudos to Andy Irvine and John Doyle, Mick Moloney, and the Irish Arts Center’s Executive Director Aidan Connolly and Education Coordinator Rachael Gilkey for collaborating to bring this superb, second-annual “Masters in Collaboration” (Tyrone’s Paul Brady and North Carolina’s Sarah Siskind formed the first) to IAC’s intimate, 99-seat Donaghy Theatre. It’s a can’t-miss series, and I can’t wait for the third installment next year.

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