The Celtic Heartbeat of Arcady

by Lahri Bond

[From Dirty Linen #59 August/September '95]

The concept of a "Superstar Band" probably originated in the 60s and was was usually associated with the world of rock 'n' roll. Groups such as Cream, Blind Faith, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, and Fleetwood Mac drew hot players from already established bands and counted as much on their collective reputations as they did on their musical abilities.

The notion of a "Superstar Group" might seem a bit out of place in the tamer world of folk or traditional music. But such collectives as Patrick Street, Relativity, and Clan Alba have proven to be successful in Celtic musical circles.

Enter Arcady, formed after master bodhrán and percussion player Johnny "Ringo" McDonagh left DeDannan in the late 80s. In its short life Arcady has seen enough personnel changes to rival McDonagh's old band. At one time or another the band has included Sharon Shannon, Brendan Larrisey, Frances Black, Peter O'Hanion, Tommy McCarthy, Louise Costello, Derek Hickey, Sean Keane, Cathal Hayden, Gerry O'Connor, Patsy Broderick, Nicolas Quemenar, Jackie Daly, and Niamh Parsons.

The band you are likely to see on this summer's tour promoting their new album Many Happy Returns [Shanachie] will include McDonagh, Parsons, Broderick, Larrisey, Quemenar and Conor Keane. The superb three-man a capella harmony group The Voice Squad will be opening, as well as joining Arcady on some new material.

Founder and band leader McDonagh sat down after a show at the Parting Glass pub in upstate New York, to talk about history, the new album, and the instrument that he is the grand master of, the Irish bodhrán. "Grand master, eh?... I'm the oldest, is that it then...?" quips McDonagh. "I started off using the stick (striker) with the bodhrán, I use both ends all the time, even though you don't always see it. In the beginning I experimented a lot and started out with a half stick with a leather thong on it, this was over 25 years ago. I also experimented with just playing with my hand. I saw guys damping the drum and that is where I got the idea of putting my other hand inside of it. I don't push the skin, I don't have the need to do that unless I'm trying to get a really high noise, which I do when I'm feeling frustrated or mad. Usually I like to treat the skin very delicately."

McDonagh seems to get more tone out of what is often considered a purely percussive instrument, the bodhrán, than any player. Early on, he discovered that by damping the drum head with his free hand and then moving his hand up and down the skin, he could make a wide variety of different tones and sounds. The "rim shots" in which he hits the wooden frame with the beater to syncopate the rhythm came much later. "There was a song on the radio a long time ago, called `Ruby Don't Take Your Love to Town.' I was playing with it and the rim shot started with me trying to get that rhythm. Up until that time no one had ever done that before.

"I went into the country looking for the old bodhrán players and I met with them all, in places like Kerry and Clare. At that time there weren't very many of them and there wasn't much variation between them."

With limited instructors or mentors, McDonagh slowly began integrating further innovations that served to broaden the musical palette of the instrument. "I was the first one to introduce the use of brushes into the playing of the bodhrán. I'd actually use these hair brushes that have bristles on both sides. Years and years ago I used to use them. I used them a lot on Mary Bergin's albums."

As is often the case with musicians, McDonagh discovered the instrument that would be his musical voice nearly by accident. He had gone to a free festival that happens in villages and big towns. During the festival all manner of musicians get together in bars and the street to jam. "About 1969 I had gone to one of these festivals and I was watching two musicians play. The flute player was Paddy Carty and the whistle player was Tom McHaile; both were some of the best at what they played and both are, unfortunately, dead now," said McDonagh.

"There was a guy playing the bodhrán and I noticed he kept playing the same thing all the time. The same rhythm, up and down, up and down, and he was going out of time. It was very monotonous. I thought; `Jesus, I can do better than that.' A few hours later a guy came into the same bar and he was selling bodhráns and I bought one, for like 10 shillings. He gave me a stick as well. I was playing by that night, I just knew I had it in me. I was actually doing better things than the other guy was doing, already.

"I brought it home and kept at it for several years and I practiced to rock and roll music and Fairport Convention records. The first guy I listened to was Peadar Mercier, who was the original bodhrán player with the Chieftains. What he played was very simple and very tasty. He was a pure gentleman. We were discussing the bodhrán one day and he told me that the sound of the bodhrán should be what you hear when you're in your mother's womb, it's the heartbeat. That's always stayed with me."

McDonagh was soon to be bringing these new innovations to a growing public as part of the premier Irish band of the early 70s: DeDannan. Along with Clannad and Planxty, DeDannan would define the new interest in Irish traditional music, both at home and to an international audience. The original band consisted of McDonagh on bodhrán, bones and percussion; Alec Finn on bouzouki; Charlie Piggott on banjo, whistles and accordion; Frankie Gavin on fiddle and whistles; and, eventually, fellow Arcady mate Jackie Daly on accordion. "I was playing at home for a good while and learning things fast," recounted McDonagh. "I knew Alec Finn, who used to hang out in the same bars as I did. I told him I had a bodhrán and he told me to come 'round with it and we started to play. After that I used to take it with me all the time, everywhere. Then one night I met Charlie Piggott -- he had just arrived in Galway at one session. So Charlie and Alec and me used to play around together. Frankie Gavin was a kid at the time and a piano player, so we'd go around to see him play in a local bar. He would also get up and play a set of tunes on the fiddle. One night the four of us had a session and then we started having regular sessions on a Sunday morning. That developed into DeDannan. We got invited to Dublin and started to be more professional."

After recording some nine albums with DeDannan, McDonagh felt it was time to start a band of his own. Once again working from a circle of musical friends, a band organically grew. In spite of many lineup changes over its short life, Arcady has settled into a welcomed period of stability. "Arcady is more or less the same band except Niamh Parsons has replaced Frances Black.

"Myself and Sharon Shannon used to play as a duo, while she was working with the Druid Theatre. I had not been playing with DeDannan for a while and I was looking to start a new band. So what I did was, I invited all these people to a bothy out on a small island on the West of Ireland. Brendan Larrisey, Frances Black, Sharon, Sean Keane, Patsy Broderick, Nicholas Quemenar, and Cathal Hayden [who's now with Four Men and a Dog], all came.

"The first gig we played was in the Point Depot, which is the biggest place in Ireland. That's where U2 plays. It was for a TV series that they were filming called The Sessions. We were the opener for Guy Clark, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Lyle Lovett... Us and the Americans," snorted McDonagh. "When that TV series came out we became very popular, very quickly. We were a very large band, eight musicians and a manager and a sound guy. It was too much really, because we were doing a bit of traveling to places like Iraq, Finland, Scotland and England. It was a big band and it wasn't really paying for itself, so some of the boys decided they'd call it a miss. Cathal decided to leave. Around that same time Mike Scott used to come to see us play and he asked Sharon to come join the Waterboys. We had recorded an album with that band which was never actually released," lamented McDonagh.

"With the smaller lineup and the addition of Jackie Daly, we recorded the After the Ball album. Financially, it's been one of the most successful albums I ever worked on, the reason being that the title track was featured on the A Woman's Heart compilation with Frances singing, and it did very well."

One wonders if McDonagh has ever gotten used to the near-constant rotation of singers since his days with DeDannan. "Frances was interested in doing solo stuff but the real reason she left is that we were touring a lot and she has two kids that she's really attached to. She hated being away from home so much. We said, `Fine, no problem at all.' We're great friends and all still. The only problem is you spend a lot of time working on this thing, then as soon as you get a little recognition, it's off to a solo career. Niamh has another band but she's always been available to us."

The other core members of Arcady also have a host of extra curricular activities. Niamh Parsons divides her time between Arcady and her own band The Loose Connections [see sidebar]. Nicolas Quemenar is Arcady's guitar player from Britanny, which of course is a Celtic cousin of Ireland. He plays both traditional Irish music and Breton music. Other times he can be found moonlighting as a jazz drummer. Keyboardist Patsy Broderick is a very popular piano player in Ireland, as well as a major collector of old tunes. She is currently doing a solo demo tape. Fiddler Brendan Larrisey, accurately described by Parsons as possessing "liquid wrists," has a solo album coming out called, appropriately, Flick of the Wrist. Jackie Daly has spent most of his career roaming from one great band to another, including DeDannan, Patrick Street, and various duos. His replacement this next tour will be Conor Keane.

Even with all these other projects, McDonagh has managed to reassemble everyone for a new album called Many Happy Returns. The album's title refers to a re-embracing of he music that first inspired McDonagh and his generation to be musicians. "I started noticing that all the albums that had come out in recent years featured songs not just from Ireland, but all over. The last Arcady album had a lot of American tunes on it. I was in a bar and this old man was playing `Sally Gardens' and the young kids weren't interested. They only wanted to play this very fast thrashy stuff, they weren't interested in the old music. I come from a place of listening to the old musicians. We decided we'd do this album of all old stuff. It's great, we do all the songs that were popular when we were growing up."

Songs on the new Arcady include the aforementioned "Sally Gardens," beginning a set of reels that incorporates "Miss McLeod's Reel," "The Foxhunter's" and "The Bucks of Oranmore." Parsons sings a stunning version of Sigerson Clifford's "The Boys of Bar na Sraidre" and she is joined by the Voice Squad on an unaccompanied version of "The Banks of the Lee." "It's an straight Irish album, except for the last song which is a very well known Cajun song, which was popular when the other songs on the album were. Brendan Power, the harmonica player, is also on it. We will be touring this summer with the Voice Squad and I'm looking forward to it very much."

Review from Dirty Linen #60, October/November '95.

Many Happy Returns
Shanachie 79095 (1995)

At one time, Arcady could have been thought of as a sort of clone, grown from genetic material supplied from the great band De Danann. The music they played was very similar of course, but there was more. Some of Arcady's first members, including founder and stalwart Johnny McDonagh, and extraordinary accordionist Jackie Daly, had come from De Danann. Other important members, like Frances Black and Séan Keane, were siblings of De Danann members.

One listen to the opening strains of their new CD, Many Happy Returns, proves that Arcady is a band with its own vital identity, ensured of a place among the first rank of Irish traditional groups. Nicholas Quemener lays down a driving, aggressive guitar rhythm reminiscent of the Bothy Band. Conor Keane's accordion, rhythmically more syncopated and complex than Daly's ever was, begins the tune proper. By the time the set is over, they have been joined by McDonagh on bones, Brendan Larrissey on fiddle, Patsy Broderick on piano, and various guests. This first, powerful arrangement sets the stage for what is to come. Rollicking sets of traditional tunes make up the bulk of the album's material, always played beautifully and arranged expertly. Every member of the band, including pianist Broderick, gets a chance to shine as an inventive and virtuosic lead player. The exception is McDonagh, who sounds, if anything, more subdued than usual. But his percussion is nonetheless the heartbeat that drives these exciting sets along.

The rest of the album is taken up with songs sung in the lush and magnificent voice of Niamh Parsons. Parsons, who has a Dolores Keane-like smokiness to her singing, gets some absolutely choice songs to interpret. "The Boys of Barr Na Sraide," one of the most popular song at pubs in Ireland, has been recorded relatively rarely, and Parsons' rendition is welcome. Other classics that she sinks her teeth into include "The Banks of the Lee" and "The Rambling Irishman," which of course invites comparison to Dolores Keane's performance on De Danann's very first album. Arcady has wisely chosen an extremely different arrangement, an a capella harmony version on which Parsons is joined by the Voice Squad. Most of the songs feature tasteful arrangements by the band that enhance Parsons' expressive singing.

In many ways, Many Happy Returns is just that, a return to Arcady's roots, a return to a repertoire of Irish traditional music's "standards." Because it takes tunes and songs from the very core of traditional Irish music and presents them in exciting and contemporary arrangements, this disc will in time be considered a classic.

Steve Winick (Philadelphia, PA)

See also Niamh Parsons, So you want to play the bodhrán?.
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