Ultimate remaster of Classic 1976 album from Ireland’s National Treasures, Andy Irvine and Paul Brady.
Release Date: 4th March 2022
Label: Compass Records Group
Formats: CD, Vinyl
Let’s start with a recap, shall we?
Andy Irvine: Vocalist, songwriter and song interpreter, he plays mandolin, mandola, bouzouki, harmonica and hurdy-gurdy. One of the most influential figures ever to grace Irish music. A founding member of such iconic acts as Sweeney’s Men, Planxty, Patrick Street, Mozaik, LAPD and Usher’s Island. Participant in groundbreaking duos with the likes of Dónal Lunny, Mick Hanly, Dick Gaughan, Rens van der Zalm, Luke Plumb and, most significantly (for the purpose of this review at least…) Paul Brady.
Paul Brady: Arguably Ireland’s premier interpreter of traditional song. A guitarist of supreme talent, he also plays piano, mandolin, bouzouki and whistle. A member of Irish harmony outfit The Johnstons before joining Planxty for the last 16 months of that seminal band’s first life. After his short-lived partnership with Andy Irvine that produced this album, he went on to enjoy a stellar solo career that began with his acclaimed solo debut album Welcome Here Kind Stranger (1978) and which continues to this day. His songs have been covered by a veritable constellation of big names, including Santana, Bonnie Raitt, Dave Edmunds, Tina Turner and Bob Dylan, who, incidentally, cites Paul as a favourite songwriter.
In early 1976, with Planxty having recently collapsed, Andy and Paul, whose relationship had matured during that final 16 months of the band’s life, decided to get together to see what they could do. They played their first gig as a duo at the Merriman Tavern in Scarriff, Co. Clare in February 1976, spent some time honing their repertoire, then hit the road. The duo was invited to record an album by their ex-Planxty team-mate, Dónal Lunny who, in cahoots with American mining heiress Diane Guggenheim and a couple of pals from the Dublin music scene, had recently established maverick record label Mulligan. And so, it came to pass, that Messrs Irvine and Brady turned at Rockfield Studios near Monmouth on 24th August 1976, with a set of fully road-tested songs and tunes, to spend the next ten days recording their landmark album – a work that would become a bonafide Irish Folk classic, identified as an influence by artists as diverse as Dylan, Bono and Mary Chapin Carpenter.
In actual fact, the recording didn’t go quite as smoothly as that brief description suggests. Andy managed to get himself marooned on Shirkin Island – off the west coast of Ireland – when he should have been starting work at Rockfield, but things were soon put back on course. And, either by design or happy accident, Lunny’s Bothy Band were at Rockfield finishing their own seminal work, the Old Hag You Have Killed Me album, and so Dónal was on hand to produce and add bouzouki and bodrhán to Andy and Paul’s tunes and masterful Bothy Band fiddler Kevin Burke was co-opted to provide a wonderful violin contribution.
This excellent reissue has clearly been assembled with all the love and respect that such a classic deserves. The album has been remastered from the original analogue tapes; both the CD and vinyl versions are meticulously packaged – the CD in a tri-fold wallet and the LP in a gatefold sleeve and the icing on the cake is the 12,000-word essay by music journalist Gareth Murphy that accompanies both versions of the product. The story of how the album came to be is told in painstaking detail, starting with its genesis in that scorching summer of 1976. The disintegration of Planxty is referenced as a starting point and the magic that occurred when four musicians: Andy, Paul, Dónal and Kevin – all at the top of their game – is described vividly. There are wonderful explanations of the songs – their stories, and where they came from – and the essay concludes with a forensic review of the lasting legacy that the album left for future generations of Irish musicians.
Andy Irvine picked up the album’s opening song, Plains Of Kildare from Dublin collector Frank Harte, who, in turn, came across it from the performances of American singer Cisco Houston. It’s the familiar tale of an unlikely winner (traditionally a skewbald horse) at the races on The Curragh in Co. Kildare and, right from the outset, the musicianship is breathtaking; particularly as the song reaches its instrumental section and mandolin, bouzouki and fiddle all gallop along, and you can’t help but imagine the scene of the horses racing towards the finishing line.
Paul learned the intimate love song, Lough Erne Shore from Donegal singer Paddy Tunney. Paul delivers a shy-sounding vocal and the drone of Andy’s hurdy-gurdy adds Celtic imagery that you can almost touch. Paul and Andy both show exactly what they’re capable of on – respectively – guitar and bouzouki on the lively, rousing Fred Finn’s Reel/ Sailing into Walpole’s Marsh before things get altogether more serious for Bobby Woodhall, the sad, and ultimately, gruesome story of a man who hopes to throw poverty and seclusion behind him by joining the army. As is common in songs of this nature, the hero’s dreams are shattered when, instead of finding prosperity and marrying his true love, he is maimed for life. Andy’s mandolin is underpinned by Paul’s mellow guitar lines and a lovely whistle solo adds poignancy as the song reaches its sad conclusion.
Perhaps the best-known song on the album is Paul’s take on the excellent Arthur McBride And The Sergeant – covered, as it was, by Dylan on his 1992 Good As I Been To You album. Although a short version of the song appeared on Planxty’s eponymous 1973 album, the version here was adapted by Paul from the work of Carrie Grover, a collector from Maine. Paul plays more of that stunning acoustic guitar and delivers a top-notch vocal as he tells the song’s intriguing story of a couple of local lads who outwit an army recruiting party. Arthur McBride and The Sergeant is, by some distance, the album’s longest track, but the minutes fly by as the listener is drawn in by this heartwarming tale.
The familiar story of the daughter of a wealthy family failing to secure parental consent for a marriage to a ‘beloved further down the class ladder provides the narrative for the lively The Jolly Sailor/ The Blarney Pilgrim. Happily, on this occasion, the parents’ plan to get their sons to dispose of the unwanted husband is thwarted and the couple is left to live happily ever after. Paul delivers yet another excellent vocal and Andy’s bouzouki, Kevin’s fiddle and Paul’s guitar all take a slot in the spotlight as The Blarney Pilgrim section of the number jigs its way towards a lively climax.
Now considered to be one of the most memorable and most important contemporary Irish songs, Andy’s Autumn Gold slipped by almost without notice when the album was originally released. He wrote it back in 1969 when he was living in Ljubljana and it’s a plea to a young lady who had caught his attention. A ponderous, thoughtful song with a desolate, highly personal lyric, it’s performed to a backing dominated by Andy’s bouzouki, and is, as befits its origins, laced with Balkan imagery. Mary And The Soldier, yet another military yarn, is a song that Paul originally introduced to the Planxty repertoire. This time, it’s a take on the story in which the female of a relationship cuts her hair to pass herself off as a man, so she can join her lover’s regiment and travel with him. In this version, her lover discovers her plan and is so overwhelmed by her devotion, that he marries her immediately. Paul takes the vocal duties whilst his guitar blends intricately with Andy’s mandolin and harmonica.
The subject of wealthy daughter/ lower class suitor pops up again in The Streets of Derry, a song that Andy learned from the one and only Shirley Collins. Andy’s tearfully restrained vocal captures perfectly the anguish, passion and, finally, the relief of the embattled couple as the lowly young man is captured, condemned to hang, but then reprieved by the repentant parents.
Anne Briggs’s Martinmas Time, coupled with the engaging tune The Little Stack of Wheat, brings this magnificent album to a rousing close. Martinmas Time tells the hilarious story of a farmer’s daughter who stimies the less-than-honourable intentions of a troop of soldiers, whilst all four members of this small ensemble go full throttle with their various instruments. A fitting conclusion to an album that I genuinely didn’t want to end and which I know I will be seeing heavy rotation during the weeks to come.
And if you’re delighted that this classic album has made its long-overdue reappearance, I expect that you’ll be even more excited by the news that the duo will be back together in the autumn of 2022 to celebrate in the best possible way – with a string of live performances. The tour, originally scheduled for January and February of this year, will include shows in Cork, Perth, Belfast, Castlebar, and Dublin. Keep an eye on Andy’s website for details.
Listen to Plains Of Kildare – the album’s rousing opening track – here:
Andy Irvine Online: Website