By Earle Hitchner
A bolt-from-the-blue phone call set into motion the upcoming reunion tour by Touchstone, a band comprising Trfona Nf Dhomhnaill on lead vocal, clavinet, and synthesizer, Zan McLeod on bouzouki, mandocello, and guitars, Mark Roberts on flute, tin whistle, five-string banjo, and bodhr_n, and Claudine Langille on vocals, mandolin, and four-string banjo. Formed in 1979 in North Carolina, they combined Irish traditional, original, and American old-timey and roots music in intriguing ways.
“The timing was just right for a reunion,” said founding member Zan McLeod in Manhattan, where he was getting ready to perform with Paul Winter and other musicians at the sixth annual Summer Solstice concerts at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. “The people who organize the Festival for the Eno in Durham, North Carolina, called Rod Ferrell, Claudine’s boyfriend, who is from Chapel Hill originally but now lives in Vermont. Rod was the sound man for Touchstone, and they asked him if it was possible for the band to play at the 20th anniversary of the festival, since we were among the first to perform there, along with the Red Clay Ramblers, Doc Watson, and some homegrown North Carolina musicians.”
Named for a river and park just outside Durham, the Festival for the Eno was one of the first concerts Touchstone ever did. “We were barely even a group back then,” McLeod said, laughing, “but we went down really well.”
In 1982, Touchstone released their debut album, “The New Land” (Green Linnet), which caused a stir for its inventive use of instrumentation associated with both Irish and American traditions in music. It was exciting, for example, to hear Roberts play five-string banjo clawhammer style — a two-finger approach, popular in Appalachia, that rarely uses brush strokes — on Touchstone’s signature song, “Jack Haggerty,” learned from singer-composer Mick Hanly. The album, to the surprise of no one, won best recording of the year honors in the Celtic/British Isles category at the 1982 NAIRD awards ceremony.
Two years later, Touchstone issued its second and, sadly, final album together, “Jealousy” (Green Linnet), which featured fiddler Skip Parente as the fifth group member. “The band officially broke up around 1986,” said McLeod, “but we’ve performed once since then, just a couple of gigs strung together in Chapel Hill back in 1990. So it’s been almost 10 years since we’ve played.”
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None of the original four members has been idle in that period. Eventually moving from North Carolina to Portland but living in Dublin for the last three years, Nf Dhomhnaill helped to form Relativity, a quartet with brother Mfche_l and Silly Wizard’s Cunningham brothers (Phil and Johnny). She then joined Nightnoise, founded earlier by her brother Mfche_l. A resident of Providence, R.I., Roberts is now playing regularly with the Red Clay Ramblers, an American string band specializing mainly in Appalachian folk tunes, and he also performs with the Celtic band Newgrange and occasionally with the contradance group Wild Asparagus.
Mt. Holly, Vt., resident Langille has performed over a decade with Gypsy Reel, a New England acoustic band with five albums to their credit, and is also involved in three businesses: a printing equipment company that is her family’s, a recording studio, and a restaurant catering heavily to skiers. Living in Potomac, Md., McLeod recorded a solo album, “Highland Soul” (Joy of Music), and also did “The Ring Sessions” (F’-Tain) with Irish fiddler James Kelly. McLeod also co-produced an upcoming solo album by New York button accordionist Patty Furlong, recorded an upcoming dance album in Washington, D.C., with button accordionist Billy McComiskey and fiddler Brendan Mulvihill, and appears on Kansas City singer Connie Dover’s next album.
The six concerts that these four original members of Touchstone will be doing were specifically pegged to the July 5 Festival for the Eno. “They footed the airfare and other things in order to get Trfona over here,” explained McLeod, “so we built this mini-tour around that. We know it’s not an ideal time to tour, around the Fourth of July, but it was too tempting to pass up. It just kind of fell together, and we’re looking at it as a fun thing to do. We’ll be doing a lot of music from the two albums and work in a few individual pieces as well.”
The possibility of a brand-new album is also being mulled over by the four musicians. “We might try to record a few things in Claudine’s studio,” McLeod admitted. Future Touchstone tours have not been ruled out either, especially if the upcoming one goes well. “After the Eno festival we’ll be playing in Charlotte at a movie theater that was converted for concerts, then head to the Birchmere in Alexandria, Va., and wind up in Delaware on July 8, which also happens to be Trfona’s birthday. I imagine we’ll do something to celebrate that night, since she’s flying back to Ireland the next day.”
Nf Dhomhnaill, in fact, is finishing up a recording with her sister Maighread that D=nal Lunny is producing for them in Dublin. “She really loves it back in Ireland,” McLeod said of his Touchstone colleague. Trfona’s brother Mfche_l also left Portland to return to Ireland a couple of years back and is now performing with fiddler Paddy Glackin. Those two are finishing up their own recording, which will be primarily if not wholly instrumental.
Whetting McLeod’s appetite a bit to play in Touchstone again was a three-month stay last year in Washington, D.C., by the Red Clay Ramblers, with whom Mark Roberts performs. The band provided the live music for the comedy “Fool Moon,” starring Bill Irwin and Cirque de Soleil’s David Shiner. In a pub near the theater where “Fool Moon” was playing, a seisi_n took place every Tuesday night, and McLeod and Roberts once more performed alongside each other.
Another performance opportunity that further energized McLeod took place recently at Chief O’Neill’s, part of a lavish new hotel complex in Smithfield, Dublin, that sports a club called Ceol and a museum devoted to Irish music. At the grand opening there, McLeod played beside Liz Carroll, Jerry O’Sullivan, John Williams, and Mick Moloney, who also invites McLeod on tours by the Green Fields of America ensemble.
Whatever happens on the short July tour, it’s a fair bet that much more than sweet musical nostalgia will be served up by Touchstone, a talented quartet whose heady, sometimes quirky fusion of sounds was among the real listening pleasures of the Irish-American scene some two decades ago. Welcome back.