Celtic Rock Music
Paddy O’Brien ~ The Sailor’s Cravat / Mixing the Punch (2011)
28 April 2012
Reviewed by Thomas Hecking
(Thanks to Connie Drost Byrne for the translation…)
Paddy O’Brien delights friends of Irish traditional music with two albums produced in quick succession. The US-based Irishman Paddy O’Brien is regarded as walking reservoir of more than 4000 instrumental pieces, and as a champion on the button accordion. On “Sailor’s Cravat” he is joined by fiddler Tom Schaefer, bouzouki player Paul Wehling, and Paddy’s wife Erin Hart, who sings three unaccompanied traditional songs. Jigs, reel, polkas and hornpipes played in traditional manner and perfect sync pearl into the listener’s ear. The connoisseur will appreciate the compilation of mostly unusual pieces, including many compositions by fiddle legends Paddy Fahey and Sean Ryan.
The solo CD “Mixing The Punch” evokes a certain ballroom flair. This is due to the sensitive piano accompaniment by Teresa Baker. Again, Paddy O’Brien brings his very own personal take to tunes from a wide variety of sources. Highlights are certainly the slow air “The Flight of the Wild Geese” and the powerfully played Reelset “Arthur Darley’s / The Glen of Aherlow.” Paddy O’Brien avoids popular trends in his playing, unlike guest boxplayer Felim Egan who plays a set of jigs.
THE SAILOR’S CRAVAT
Award-winning two-row button accordionist Paddy O’Brien, aside from being a much-admired virtuoso with a career spanning nearly four decades, is also a noted one-man repository of Irish traditional music, much of which was picked up from living masters during his travels. For the current outing, he has gathered tunes from a variety of sources, ranging from sprightly instrumental jigs, reels, polkas and hornpipes to unaccompanied sean-nos (ancient style) inflected vocal airs. He favors moderate tempos and lightly marked rhythms that allow the overly blithe melodies, most also graced by a melancholy tinge, to shine forth unimpeded. O’Brien is particularly well-partnered, with Tom Schaefer’s weightless yet unfailingly precise fiddle alternately doubling, following, or discreetly augmenting the themes in response to his lead, while Paul Wehling’s bouzouki provides them both with an ornate yet tastefully restrained launching pad. But Erin Hart’s singing is another soft revelation. Her dusky, ripely female voice nimbly negotiates dauntingly complex airs, like “The Flower of Magherally-O” and “Molly Bawn Or The Shooting of His Dear,” spinning out long-breathed ornamental phrases even as a formidable musical intelligence tells her when to leave well enough alone.
— Christina Roden
St. Paul, Minn. — How many songs do you have memorized? Ten? Fifty? More? Many professional musicians carry with them a “fake book” of commonly requested songs they are asked to perform from time to time.
Button accordion player Paddy O’Brien has been called “a walking encyclopedia of Irish music” and has over a thousand traditional Irish jigs, reels, polkas and hornpipes in his head. He doesn’t read music either.
His latest album is “The Sailor’s Cravat: Irish Traditional Music and Song”. It’s a collection of 17 melodies recorded along with Tom Schaefer on fiddle, Paul Wehling on bouzouki and O’Brien’s wife Erin Hart on vocals.
Paddy O’Brien and Erin Hart were in the Radio Heartland studios to chat about the album and the upcoming release concert.
I had the great pleasure of listening to Paddy O’Brien a few years ago as he played in Thurles with Susan McKeown, Cillian Vallely and Aidan Brennan as part of a Music Network Tour. In fact I wrote about it in Irish Music Magazine. What I maybe didn’t say then was that this man’s playing caused a silent stir on the night and his latest release ‘Mixing The Punch’ expresses the very same vibe … that of enjoying the moment of every note played through the dextrous fingers of an esteemed musician.
I did say at the time that his music ‘painted a vivid description’ and this is so relevant when listening to the air ‘The Flight of the Wild Geese’ as O’Brien wrenches the emotion out of each and every button on the accordion and also the heart of the person listening. It’s a great leap then to step into the reels ‘Arthur Darley’s’ and ‘The Glen of Aherlow’ yet Paddy makes the transition almost seamless. Teresa Baker’s piano style adds to the flavour and Felim Egan (another Offaly man) ignites with his self penned tune ‘Michael Doherty’s’.
The main focus is on the man himself though and the musician’s musician sets a spark himself on ‘The Connemara Stockings’ which he learnt from an old 78 rpm and plays in the key of C. I’m particularly drawn to the lovable hornpipe ’Poll Ha’penny’ which is rendered with precision without distracting from the magnetic flow of the tune.
There are seventeen tracks on this album and interesting anecdotal details of the personal history O’Brien has embarked on with each tune. I called him a musician’s musician when in fact I should have said that he is everyone’s musician. With ’Mixing the Punch’ O’Brien has yet again proved himself to be the master of tradition he truly is.
The Sailor’s Cravat
Paddy O’Brien, Tom Schaefer, Paul Wehling, Erin Hart
Paddy O’Brien est internatialment reconnu comme un maître de l’accordéon diatonique mais également comme une sommité en matière de musique irelandaise. Natif du Co. Offaly mais émigré depuis bien des années a Minneapolis (États-Unis) il a longtemps arpenté son pays de long en large, y gianant auprès des anciens une foule d’airs. Is se murmure même qu’en quarante ans de carrière, il a accumulé près de quatre mille airs. Joe Delaney, John Doherty ou Paddy Fahy sont quelques-unes de ses sources d’inspiration. Membre de Chulrua ou du Doon Ceili Band, il nous revient ici avec une nouvelle formation pour nous proposer, “The Sailor’s Cravat.” Seulement cette fois, il a choisi des musiciens américains même si la chanteuse a des racines irlandaises. Tom Schaefer (fiddle) et Paul Wehling (bouzouki) l’accompagnent sur dix-sept mourceau de la meilleure veine: reels, jigs, hornpipes ou polkas son entrecoupés de trois magnifique chansons interprétées par Erin Hart. On reconnaîtra au passage The Flower of Magherally-o, emprunté au répertoire de Cathal McConnell et d’Altan. Et puis plusieurs reels de Paddy Fahy sur lesquels fiddle et diato s’accordent à la perfection. Autre morceau que l’on retrouvera sur a nouvel album d’Altan: The Wheels of the World. Et pour couronner le tout, des airs de la main de Paddy: The Gosling et Paddy O’Brien’s. Même si l’album a été enregistré aux États-Unis avec des musiciens américains, on se croirait au coeur de la verte Érin. —Phillipe Cousin
Paddy O’Brien is internationally recognized as a master of the diatonic accordion, but also as an authority on Irish music . A native of Co. Offaly but living many years in Minneapolis (USA), he surveyed his country from end to end, and dug up a host of old tunes. It is rumored that over his forty-year career, he has amassed nearly four thousand tunes. Joe Delaney, John Doherty, or Paddy Fahy are some of his sources of inspiration. A member of Chulrua and the Doon Ceili Band, he is back here with a new offering for us, “The Sailor’s Cravat.” Only this time, he chose American musicians, although the singer has Irish roots. Tom Schaefer (fiddle) and Paul Wehling (bouzouki) accompanying him on seventeen selections in the best vein of the tradition: reels, jigs, hornpipes and polkas interspersed with three beautiful songs performed by Erin Hart. We recognize her version of The Flower Magherally-o, borrowed from the repertoire of CathalMcConnell and Altan. There are also several reels by Paddy Fahy on fiddle and diatonic accordion which blend perfectly, as well as another piece found on Altan’s new album: The Wheels of the World. And to top it off, the recording features two airs from the hand of Paddy himself: The Gosling and Paddy O’Brien’s. Although this album was recorded in the United States with American musicians, it’s like the heart of the Emerald Isle. — Phillippe Cousin
PADDY O’BRIEN – Mixing The Punch
New Folk Records NFRWCM0003
Reviewed by Gordon Potter
Paddy O’Brien, originally from County Offaly, is, by any standard you care to mention, one of the outstanding players of the two-row button accordion, with a string of awards to his name. He is also a prodigious collector of tunes, with an ability to retain regional variations and styles, as well as recalling the individual techniques of players who have now left us. He is quoted as saying that he likes musicians who play the nicest tunes even more than those who have technical musicianship – surely the sort of thing that can only be said by someone whose own technical musicianship is an absolute given.
Paddy’s technical playing gives some of the cleanest, clearest playing that you could hope for, but never at the expense of the heart and soul of the tunes. Each set here involves the listener straight away, and you just know that there’s been a lot of thought put into what you’re hearing, so that everything sounds just right. There is a lightness of touch here that is extraordinary and a passion for the music that is evident.
The tune sets take us on a tour all round Ireland, with Paddy’s playing reflecting the regional styles perfectly. Mostly jigs and reels, as you might expect, with hornpipes, polkas and slow airs thrown in for good balance, this selection really is a showcase to treasure.
Teresa Baker provides piano accompaniment, and her non-obtrusive, complementary style should be a lesson to any who aspire to the genre. There’s a guest appearance from fellow-Offaly man Felim Egan as well, to add some extras to this really splendid production. Class this as “essential listening.”
by Jim Tarbox
The Irish Gazette, March 2012
Although he’s recorded a ton of music, including a pair of hefty collections totaling some 1,000 traditional tunes, this is technically only O’Brien’s second “solo” recording, hot on the heels of last year’s The Sailor’s Cravat. And it is, as you might expect, a sterling set of traditional music played by a master—pure and simple.
Joining forces with Portland (Ore.) pianist Teresa Baker and fellow Offalyman and squeezebox player Felim Egan, Saint Paul’s master of the two-row button accordion here presents thoughtful and engaging tunes that perfectly set the mood. It’s “easy listening” in its most complimentary sense.
The composer of 50 original tunes, O’Brien has compiled some 4,000 tunes over his 50-plus-year career. Conventional wisdom has it that he “carries” 3,000 of them in his head at any given time—I don’t know that I’ve listened to that many songs in my lifetime! Of the 17 tracks on this set, mostly jigs and reels, it’s the slow air “The Flight of the Wild Geese” that made me sit up. It’s the stand-out tune among them all, and will make even the most skeptical listener of the button accordion nearly swoon.
For his many years of championing of traditional Irish music, O’Brien was named this year’s recipient of the prestigious TG4 (Irish language television) Gradam Ceoil honor for composition. He will join five other winners at Limerick’s University Concert Hall March 24. And to cap it all off, he reportedly is working on an autobiography. There will be no shortage of background music for that read.
Irish Music Magazine – August 2011
PADDY O’BRIEN & FRIENDS – The Sailor’s Cravat
New Folk Records
WCM0001, 17 tracks, 49 minutes
Not to be confused with his composer namesake from Tipperary, Paddy O’Brien from Offaly is a button-box player with a long and varied musical career. After playing with Dublin’s famous Castle Céilí Band, he fell in with John Kelly Jr. and Daithí Sproule for a while, recording a couple of albums with them before settling in America. As the box-player with Chulrua, Paddy has toured widely in the USA and beyond. On this album he’s joined by Mid West musicians Tom Schaefer on fiddle, Paul Wehling on the ever-popular bouzouki, and Erin Hart who sings 3 songs here. This release is available through CIC in Ireland, and New Folk Records. The website www.paddyobrien.net has plenty of samples.
Squeezing seventeen tracks under fifty minutes, Paddy mostly pairs up the tunes. He’s chosen a number of Paddy Fahy’s and Sean Ryan’s compositions, better-known as fiddle tunes but given a great workout on the button box. The pair of Fahy reels is a fine example, box and fiddle working as one. Unusual tunes abound here: the title reel, closely related to The Humours of Ballyconnell, as well as The Maple Leaf, The Rose of Lough Gill, The Goat in the Garden, and three pugnacious polkas Paddy picked up in America. Along with a few familiar favourites, Paddy adds two of his own compositions: a quirky little jig, and a Fahy-style reel called The Gosling.
Erin Hart is an American with Irish roots, and happens to be married to Paddy. She sings three unaccompanied ballads with a strong voice and stateside accent. The Flower of Magherally and Molly Bawn are well-known, The Generous Lover less so, and all three come from the canon of 19th-century Irish minstrelsy.
Despite occasional florid language, these are dark songs in tone and content: forbidden love, death, betrayal, all the fun of the ballad tradition – and of Erin’s crime novels, for that matter.
— Alex Monaghan
Paddy O’Brien Talks About The Sailor’s Cravat
by Helene Dunbar
Reprinted from the August 2011 edition of Irish Music Magazine
While many people are predicting the demise of the CD, County Offaly native and Minneapolis resident button accordionist Paddy O’Brien hasn’t given up on them yet. “I’m very much in favor of them as a way to present the music,” he says. “They keep me on my toes.”
O’Brien isn’t just talking the talk. His new CD, The Sailor’s Cravat (New Folk Records in the US, and Cló Iar-Chonnacht in Ireland), has just been released and he has a host of others in the works, none of which he’s afraid of releasing into an uncertain industry. “People know that my recordings will have particular settings of tunes or new tunes. It won’t be any run-of-the-mill stuff that’s been recorded before. But I don’t do it to impress people or to satisfy anybody other than myself. To me, it’s a project that makes me research some of the tunes, that makes me think about pairing tunes together, that makes me more of a disciplinarian.”
You might think that it would be difficult for an artist who, it has been said, had 4,000 tunes committed to memory, to choose tracks for an album but O’Brien isn’t fazed by the task. While he jokes that he chose the ones he “wanted most to get off my chest,” he admits, “I take them from individual solo artists who are, in my estimation anyway, part of the Irish traditional music underground. People who are not high profile, people that play at home, people that compose music.”
As such, this album relies heavily on the compositions of fiddlers Paddy Fahy from East Donegal and Sean Ryan from County Tipperary. “Of course Sean died back in the 80’s but that’s the way with traditional Irish music, I think if people are dead and gone, it gives more credibility to the reputation of the music, in a kind of a funny way,” O’Brien laughs.
Having toured with Ryan and his accordion-playing wife, Kathleen, in the 1960’s, O’Brien says that he had access to some of Ryan’s tunes that have never been heard publicly or recorded before. “Some of this music, I would have it for maybe twenty or thirty years and, during that time, I wouldn’t be playing them all the time but I would keep in touch with them. This album is a result of that.”
In addition to O’Brien, album features Tom Schaefer on fiddle, Paul Wehling on bouzouki and O’Brien’s wife, crime fiction writer Erin Hart, on three sean–nós tracks. Hart and O’Brien met when he invited her up on stage to sing, but, O’Brien laments, “There’s not a lot of opportunity for sean–nós singing because we’re living in a very unforgiving, commercial world. Anything that’s real and honest is being pushed aside in favor of pretentious entertainment. If you get up and sing a song that has a lot of personal input into it, a lot of feeling and expression, it’s hard to do that nowadays with all of this commercial glamour.”
Also on the docket is a solo CD to be called Mixing the Punch as well as new CDs coming from O’Brien’s group Chulrua, and The Doon Ceili Band.
Two other projects have also played heavily on O’Brien’s schedule. The first is a companion to his mid-90’s release, the “Paddy O’Brien Tune Collection,” adding another five hundred tunes to the initial book. “What’s different about this one is that there’s more of a variety of tunes,” O’Brien explains. “So people that are learning new tunes will have a better variety and people who are learning to play an instrument will have a choice because some of the polkas aren’t too hard to play and are a very good choice to introduce one’s self to a musical instrument. Plus it has a book along with the thirteen disks listing of all the titles and the stories and information about the background of the tunes.”
While O’Brien would love to be able to devote more time to tune-collecting he says the economy is playing a part in his decisions. “It’s the same story with everybody these days. We’re just trying to make out as best we can.” At the same time, he’s heartened the music thrives even in a weak economy. “Irish traditional music has always been a social style of music. It has always offered people a chance to come together, and sit around and have a drink and a chat, and do a bit of dancing. And I hear that in Ireland, with the economy the way it is, it’s bringing people together in a more hospitable way, in a more caring way, in a way that is more like how it used to be. A nice kind of understanding of everybody’s plight. The sad thing is that people in Ireland don’t know about all the music going on in the States. This is why I call it the traditional music underground.”
For example, he points to the house concerts and sessions that thrive through the US. “There’s still a lot of very decent followers of the music. People who love to listen and people who go to house concerts. It’s a pleasure to play for them. It’s a very intimate kind of setting to be playing at. It suits the type of music and singing even better than getting up on a huge stage where you feel separated from the audience and the only way you can connect with them is to throw a whole heap of bullshit into the microphone.”
As for sessions, he says that finding the right pub is the trick. “Sessions are more successful in smaller pubs. The smaller the pub and the darker the pub, the darker the corners, the more cobwebs that there were, the more music you have. Musicians are very funny that way. They like to feel safe, and secure, and comfortable, and accepted, and when all these ingredients are put together, you’ll have an energy that is very hard to repeat.”
One last project that O’Brien has invested himself in is a memoir, “The Road from Castlebarnagh” which details his early life in Offaly through his move to Dublin in 1968. “We were living in a thatched house,” he explains, “my father, and mother, and four sisters. We had no electricity or water. It was a very scanty existence. But there was a great social life in the countryside. I had a wealth of stuff to write about. It’s a cultural insight into what life was like in County Offaly in those days of 1954-65. It’s a memory, a human statement of how it was, a human presentation from the mind’s eye of a child, and then a teenager, and then, as I got into my early 20’s, my adult self.”
Of his introduction to music, O’Brien tells a tale that is indicative of its time. “When the radio was put in the house in 1956, I began learning bits of tunes,” he recounts. “A peddler and his donkey arrived with a sack of mouse traps, black polish, hair pins, and other items. He unloaded a lot of stuff onto the floor and there were a couple of mouth organs in the mix. I was about eight and I started screaming to my mother to get me one and she did – for about a shilling. And that was my first instrument.”
As luck would have it, the donkey decided it didn’t want to leave. The peddler tried beating it, which upset O’Brien’s mother who was going to try to lure it to move with a bowl full of turnips. Instead, according to O’Brien, “When I started playing, the donkey’s ears reared up and he made a run for the road. It was my first public performance and a huge flop.”
Once would guess that he hasn’t had a similar experience since.
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.