Paddy O’Brien, Tune-Catcher

by Tom Clancy
reprinted from The Old Blog Node

The Sailor’s Cravat
Paddy O’Brien – Button Accordion
Tom Schaefer – Fiddle
Paul Wehling – Bouzouki
Erin Hart – Vocals
New Folk Records / Clo Iar-Chonnacht, WCM0001

Paddy O’Brien is one of the great keepers of the flame in Irish traditional music. Despite –or paradoxically because of – living outside Ireland for many years, he has retained a profound attachment to the music and cultivated a deep and fertile furrow around St Paul, Minnesota, with his playing, mentoring and teaching. He is held in high regard by his fellow-musicians and is one of the great Irish tune collectors with many rare and unusual tunes lodged in his head.

This album has been knocking around in O’Brien’s world for a while. He gave me a copy when I interviewed him some years ago and it has never been out of my listening rotation. Some of his insightful quotes from that interview are included in this piece. When I visited O’Brien and his partner Erin Hart, I found that we shared a love of baseball: he roots for the Twins and I’m a long-time supporter of the Oakland A’s. (Baseball, a team sport that revolves around a series of one-on-one contests, provides some of the best cultural insights into the United States. And, like traditional music, it does not easily yield its secrets.)

O’Brien’s story is all the more remarkable because he did not grow up in one of the Irish music hotbeds. A native of County Offaly, he had to travel far and wide in search of the music, spending time with older players and absorbing the companionable oral traditions.

I myself clicked into the music the first time I heard it when I was nine years old. I couldn’t let go of it–still can’t.

His early influences included, among others, Joe Delaney and Dan Cleary in Offaly, Donegal fiddler John Doherty, Paddy Fahy and Eddie Kelly from Galway, Frank McCollum of Antrim, Seán Ryan from Tipperary, and Johnny Henry from Mayo. One thing he learned well from listening to and playing with the older masters was how to prune notes so the tune could blossom and bloom.

I have for years been doing things with the tunes, never really accepting them the way they were just because I never heard them played any other way. I try various things as I develop individual tunes, especially tunes I know a long time. There’s always something new to discover.

I had that experience with The Sailor’s Cravat where I seemed to hear some new combination, harmony or turn every time. Music enters our consciousness in a complex way (at least five parts of the brain are involved, according to current theories). And, with O’Brien’s music the heart and the brain are instantly engaged.

Paddy Fahy’s subtly complex melodies feature strongly on this collection along with a sprinkling of Sean Ryan tunes and O’Brien’s own compositions. He opens with a fine tune pairing, The Singing Kettle /Sean Ryan’s, a ramped-up reprise from the Chulrua album of the same name. He follows with two Sligo jigs, Michael Coleman’s / The Rose of Lough Gill, and you hear the first of many compelling “turns” from one tune to the other. The title track comes next, The Sailor’s Cravat / The Maple Leaf, a couple of rousing reels and another smooth switch.

A couple of tracks offer robust hornpipes, The Groves and Murdoch Henderson / The Low Level. O’Brien clearly has the measure of these memorable melodies supplying just the right amount of momentum. On another track, Kitty, who took a clinking in a previous tune title, takes a solid, rambunctious ramble before two of Paddy Fahy’s twisty tunes take over. There’s a fierce blast from the Sliabh Luachra side with three rattling polkas, The Peeler’s/Joe Bane’s/Dick Tobin’s, each more intricate than the one before.

Two more perfectly paired reels are McCollum’s / The Gosling while The Cat in the Corner / Paddy O’Brien’s are another crafty combo. He closes the album with The Silver Spire / Sean Ryan’s, a lively pair of reels with sweetly-executed turn.

It’s the choice of tunes, and how they are matched together, really, that determines the pace and speed at which they should be played. This in turn allows the notes to breathe, or make their musical statement. If tunes are played too fast, it can choke the phrasing, if you’re not careful. It’s all about interpretation, which is so important in getting the feel and emotion out of Irish traditional music.

There are three big songs on the album with Erin Hart demonstrating a fine set of pipes on The Flower of Magherally-o, The Generous Lover and Molly Bawn. And the accompaniment from Tom Schaefer on fiddle and Paul Wehling on bouzouki are both sensitive and compact.

Paddy O’Brien plays with exquisite specificity. His tunes turn in unison, reciprocating and accommodating like long-term partners. He reminds me of those experienced, cagey baseball catchers calling the pitches, subtly signaling his colleagues, and controlling the dynamics from behind the box. And, he’s just as quotable but a tad less enigmatic than the most famous of all catchers, Yogi Berra.