I have always been wary of describing Black 47’s music as Celtic Rock especially since Horslips and Fairport Convention wrote the book on that genre forty years ago.
On another occasion I’ll deal with the tragic magic of Fairport but their album, Liege & Lief, will add luster to any collection.
My connections to the roots of Horlips go back to the churning ‘70’s Wexford Rock scene. Christy Moore’s brilliant guitarist Declan Sinnott – amazingly, I introduced him to his first minor chords – informed me that he had joined a Dublin outfit that played “revved up jigs and reels.”
As often happened with the mercurial Deckie, as we then knew him, he stayed barely long enough to leave an indelible mark on the band. But the Horslips legend had begun.
Not only did they create their own particular myth, they were at their best when dealing with legends and concepts - from The Táin to Book of Invasions, and now they’re exploring Rotha Mór an tSaoil.
It was this latter project that caused my path to once more cross with Jim Lockhart and Barry Devlin. They were recently over to film a four part series for TG4 based around Rotha Mór an tSaoil or The Big Wheel of Life - the autobiography of Micí Mac Gabhann who left Donegal and trekked across the US in the late 19th Century to find gold in the Yukon.
Ambitious as ever, Jim and Barry are using the book as an analogy for Horslips’ own musical travels - and travails - from Ireland to a fabled America. What a blast then to introduce them to Bainbridge Avenue in the Bronx, the dead center of Irish-American music in the latter decades of the 20th century.
Horslips recently reformed but despite a hiatus of almost 30 years band members have never stopped searching for connection. That quest has been their strength. They’ve always been fascinated by the American experience particularly pertaining to Irish immigration.
Jim and Barry are also two of the funniest and most self-deprecating characters in rock & roll. Not surprisingly, a gleeful sense of irony has always permeated their work and kept it from veering towards the precious or lugubrious.
We almost rolled around 204th Street as they recalled the horror of having a soon to be monster Van Halen open for them at New York’s Palladium. When I confessed that Pierce Turner and I were mightily ill after hijacking the champagne they’d abandoned in their dressing room, Barry wryly noted, “at least some good came from that bloody night.”
I hear echoes of Horslips in so much of today’s Irish-American music. Bands who may never have heard Dearg Doom or King of the Fairies casually stroll through arrangements where once Horslips kicked down doors by injecting Les Paul power into Irish Trad.
“It was the times.” Jim casually explained. “Everyone was into fusion - we were inventing it as we went along.”
And what a job they did. Listening to the haunting introduction to Paddy’s Green Shamrock Shore I was transported back to a coldwater flat in Rathmines where I listened to that recording while making the decision to get the hell out of Ireland.
Marvel at the power of Dearg Doom as Eamonn Carr and Johnny Fean respectfully put the boot into Sean O’Riada. Or listen to Charles O’Connor nail a Scots-Gaelic weaving song to a Rocksteady beat on the mesmerizing An Bratach Bán. Horslips been there and done that!
It’s their fearless melding of old and new – along with a willingness to fall on their faces – that has always kept Horslips a step ahead.
And one recent summer’s evening I was lucky enough to be given a chance to add infinitesimally to the Horslips legend when Jim and Barry joined Black 47 onstage for a frenetic version of their classic Wrath of the Rain.
The Great Wheel of Life has done many the spin since Deckie Sinnott first told me about these guys back in Wexford. In an age where banal retreads are the norm, it was pure pleasure to help a couple of originals knock the dust off the ceiling for what will surely be a riveting television series.