“Apparently there are 102 strings on stage,” quips Paul Brady as he tunes one of the impressive array of instruments ranged behind him and Andy Irvine. Dónal Lunny has a couple of string instruments to go along with his bodhrán and keyboard. Kevin Burke seems comparatively modest with his violin’s four strings.
The more unusual instruments, like the bouzouki and the hurdy-gurdy, and the guitars in various tunings, are a testament to the restless curiosity that culminated in the 1976 album ‘Andy Irvine and Paul Brady’. Tuning between songs allows time for stories to flow, and Irvine and Brady give background to the original compositions (“from the mad brains we had back in the 70s”), and to those songs sourced from others such as Eddie Butcher, Andy Mitchell, Shirley Collins, Paddy Tunney, and Sam Henry.
The wounded soldier’s love song, Bonny Woodhall, from Sam Henry’s collection, has a beautiful accompaniment that swirls around Irvine’s clear vocal. The instrumentation builds throughout, drawing the listener into the story as it unfolds. Most of the instruments are picked up by microphones so there is a wonderful immediacy as every pluck and bow is amplified.
The two Sligo tunes that follow, Fred Finn’s Reel and Sailing Into Walpole’s Marsh, are lead by Brady and the reflective mood of the previous song is chased away by the banter between the four musicians (“drain that marsh!”). Lunny picks up the bodhrán for these, lending a very satisfying, full bass sound to the melody instruments.
Brady tells of receiving a letter while “languishing in the US in the early 70s”, from Liam O’Flynn asking him to join Planxty. The only song he had was a version of Arthur McBride and the Sergeant. Irvine recalls the first time Brady sang it for them in Donegal, and we are treated to a genuinely moving performance of this treasured favourite. The crowd burst into prolonged applause after the final “…for it being on Christmas morning”, and as the assembly settle back into their seats, Lunny confirms with a smile that “…they let him into Planxty!”
Irvine’s plaintive Autumn Gold follows, preceded by his amusing recollection of singing it in a barn to the girl he wrote it for “…just the two of us there…she never said a f**king word!”
After these two moving songs comes The Jolly Soldier, sung by Brady. His voice is in fine form, rich and strong. Andy Irvine’s excellent harmonica playing leads the charge in the jig that follows out of the song, The Blarney Pilgrim. Brady can’t resist lilting along.
It’s forty years since the album’s release. The performers and the audience are older, this music now a precious thread woven into all their lives. There is deep joy and exhilaration shared in Vicar Street tonight as it is spun out again through the hands of these four master musicians.