A belt of something beautiful: New Road at Whelan’s

Pic by Celine Maurer: Rick Epping, Andy Morrow, Christy Moore, Leonard Barry, Conor Byrne, Seamie O’Dowd.

What I mean by the call is the ability of a … music … to open a window in your heart … [to] allow you … to draw in the essence of the music that person is playing so that it can change the chemistry of your mind… so that it can lift you away from all the torment of the normal day’s life.

I doubt Tony MacMahon would have had a place like Whelan’s in mind when he described this ideal. And I would usually think of groups like The Gloaming or solo performance when I think about those words, but to my surprise they came to me last night after New Road’s first outing (as New Road) in Whelan’s.

I’m not the number one fan of venues with bars at the back that keep serving through performances and where some people end up talking as much or more than listening. To make matters worse for this gig, I ended up standing beside a group of twenty-somethings in high spirits and in the mood for socialising, and at first their chatting, mobile phone use and dodgy collective efforts to get into the mood of the music (stomping, clapping along, yelping and even dancing) made me consider moving. But there weren’t many alternative places to stand (good news for the musicians), and anyhow the music that both Christy Moore (in support) and New Road produced shot out from the stage with such conviction that it cut right through the crowd (distr)actions and hit me like a belt of something beautiful.

There’s nothing innovative about New Road, as such. This is straight-up trad music ensemble playing, mixed with a few lovely songs from Rick (one based on Oscar Ford Jnr’s version of ‘Down in the Old Home Town’ that Rick learned from Kenny Hall, and a folk-ified version of the Stones’ ‘No Expectactions’) and Seamie (Thom Moore’s ‘Turn the Corner’, to the air of ‘Seán Ó Duibhir an Ghleanna’, and Dick Gaughan’s song of Burns’ ‘Westlin Winds’). But it’s not anything like listening to a Comhaltas Grúpa Cheoil, for instance, a top-notch one, even. There isn’t any “arrangement”, as such, bar some instruments coming in later, or on the second tune of a set sort of thing. No, it’s straight-up sets of tunes all the way, with the odd solo or leading instrument in some sets, a gradual unleashing of a tune’s power (‘Planxty Davis’), and a slow air from Leonard (dedicated to the memory of Finbarr Dwyer, Seán Potts and to the health of Paddy Cronin).

So what lifts this above the ordinary? I think, two things … amounting to a third. First, tune preparation. There wasn’t one set that was dull in any way; the tunes and sets selected were shapely (!) and the playing was tight and varied with fabulous ornamentation on display from each musician. (Listening for those moments when, say, the flute lifted off into a variation on a phrase or part of a tune was part of the thrill: the trad equivalent of the jazz solo, in a sense, and indeed there were times when I felt like clapping particular moments of playing – not only when Rick played the Jew’s harp alongside a tune driven by Leonard). Second, communication: there was a power in the playing that comes from a deliberate desire to celebrate the tunes, a deep love in the musicians for the music that makes them want to communicate with listeners, cracking the music open like a water melon for others to enjoy. The energy levels on display in those very physical efforts were magnificent, hardly a slack moment, and held together very consciously and diligently by Leonard in the centre. Third, closely connected to that will to let the music speak: they all maintained a heightened sense of enjoying themselves that poured off the stage both in the playing, the communication among themselves and in the banter with the audience between tunes.

They’ll be playing again at The Doolin Folk Festival in June, and hopefully lots more.

May you rise with the New Road.

(It almost goes without saying that Christy Moore was brilliant, but he seemed extra specially at peace last night, playing a beautifully relaxed and calming short set that definitely delivered for the audience and for the headline act. It was really nice to see from the angle I was at his bowed head in the wings of the stage listening intently to New Road’s music and then joining them on bodhrán for the last few sets.)

~

BACKGROUND:

The success of Leonard Barry’s 2013 album, New Road (five stars in the Sunday Business Post, most recently) – on which all of these celebrated musicians feature to such great effect – has led to an unexpected outcome: a brand new band, named after the album.

Musically melding so well in the studio and on the album launch tour, the obvious next step for these musicians was to continue on the road. With plenty of common ground already underfoot (Dervish, The Unwanted, Luka Bloom, Christy Moore), barriers there are none, and a whole new musical journey was easily embarked on. As Rick Epping puts it: “With the faint strains of music yet to be discovered, this new road is one I’m delighted to be travelling.”

Conor Byrne, known to many as a promoter, television presenter and festival curator, is of course the same flute master Conor Byrne who, since his first solo album in 1998 has been in constant demand as a collaborator (Maire Breatnach, Meabh O’Hare, Luka Bloom) and highly praised for the excellence of his compositions.

Leonard Barry, from Kerry, is among our finest uilleann pipers. He has played and taught in the USA, Europe, Asia, and Australia, and collaborated with the likes of Luka Bloom and John Spillane.

Andy Morrow is from a Co Leitrim family steeped in traditional music – his brother Tom plays fiddle with Dervish. Andy’s 2005 album with Tony O’Connell and Arty McGlynn was quickly acclaimed by many as a classic in the tradition (an “absolute snorter of a debut album” – Geoff Wallis).

Multi-instrumentalist Seamie O’Dowd is one of the most sought-after musicians in Ireland today. Equally proficient on guitar, fiddle or singing, Seamie was a member of Dervish for a few years and plays with Martin O’Connor and Cathal Hayden. He has played with Christy Moore, Liam O’Flynn and a host of others.

Rick Epping is a legend of reed music on both sides of the Atlantic. Bred in folk scene of California, in Ireland Rick was a founder member of Pumpkinhead, recorded a CD with Frankie Gavin and Tim Edey, and played with Arcady. He also plays with Seamie in the The Unwanted.

New Road’s music will include the tunes and sounds of Sliabh Luachra music found on Leonard’s album, but will now also take in songs and tunes from Sligo and America, as well original compositions from the pen of Byrne.

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