Sunday 30 October 2016

Yellow Moon v Polished Dust

           “Kirwan,” the old showband head addressed me.  “There are only two types of music, good and bad. Now step aside!”

            With that he belted into “Down By The Riverside,” and soon had the dance floor “black” with delighted jivers and quicksteppers who had been ominously absent during my previous pop meanderings.

            The head’s judgment may still stand but what would he think of today’s polished mediocrity? For with the advent of computer software even your Aunt Gerty can “make a record.”

            Not everyone, however, is a songwriter. That breed appears to come in two types: volcanic talents like Van Morrison or Brill Building types who master their craft after years of trial and error.

            In one of my other gigs I host Celtic Crush for SiriusXM. This entails a lot of listening – more like scratching around for diamonds in piles of polished dust. One thing you learn quickly on Satellite Radio - every song must be distinctive; with over 100 competing music channels, not to mention the lurking appeal of Howard Stern, each number must capture and hold the listener’s attention or else it’s “c u l8r.”

            Originality, unfortunately, is a rarity and though you may long for it like a cat in a tripe shop, you’re more often forced to settle for a dollop of emotion chiseled into some decent lyrics and arresting melodies. 

Shane McGowan still stands out for his ability to encapsulate the Irish soul – a rare diamond, indeed; and yet, I often rue the effect he’s had on Irish-American songwriting. While aping the man’s phrasing and subject matter can work on stage before a boozed-up audience, more often than not it comes off as parody in the recording studio. 

            Far better that Shane’s musical disciples mine his original sources - Brendan Behan, Irish showbands, London punk and Tipperary Trad. Channeling these through the prism of a unique creativity McGowan gave us The Pogues.

            Shane would be the first to note that there are still vast virgin tracts of the Irish Folk Tradition to draw from. Time to get cracking, Shaneheads! You have the chops - all you’re lacking is the material and that divine spark of originality necessary to ignite it.

            Which brings me to Yellow Moon. You might wonder what’s the connection between the Neville Brothers from New Orleans and anything remotely Irish? Oddly enough, quite a bit!

            Yellow Moon has long been one of my favorite albums but I hadn’t listened to it since the 90’s. Was I afraid it wouldn’t stand up – or perhaps I didn’t want to mess with the memory of sharing a stage with them some years back?

            Neville is a very popular name in my neck of the woods. Were the Brothers descended from long-ago Wexford emigrants or, as some of you are probably muttering, had their slave masters hailed from the Model County?

            Perhaps, both! When Black 47 first played Tipitinas in New Orleans’12th Ward we were treated like royalty by the city’s music lovers and local Irish-Americans.

            At the end of our “meet and greet” line stood a dozen or so of what I took to be African-Americans. Each one, however, exulted in trumpeting Irish surnames like Murphy and Doyle. They told me that their forefathers had come to Crescent City in the 1860’s to dig the canals and married “locally.”

            Yellow Moon not only stood up - it floored me all over again. Each song was a gem, from the title track to My Blood, from Rosa Parks to A Change Is Gonna Come. It’s the story of a people rooted in one of the world’s great musical melting pots. And, sure enough, beneath Daniel Lanois’ incandescent production, one can glimpse sparks of the Celt.

            Listen to Aaron Neville update Sean-Nós on Bob Dylan’s With God On Our Side – itself lifted from Dominic Behan’s Patriot Game - and you feel the ineffable pain of all the world’s dispossessed reclaiming their dignity.  
            Like much great art, Yellow Moon is timeless and self-reflecting. By flirting with perfection this album allows us to reflect on what we were when we first heard it, while revealing what we have become down the years in between.

            It’s a diamond that still sparkles; pulsing with raw humanity it helps us differentiate between genius, and the curse of mediocrity and parody. That’s no small thing in an age of polished dust.

Wednesday 19 October 2016

Malachy McCourt and Eugene O'Neill

            When I first called Malachy McCourt to inform him that he was the choice of the IAWA board to receive the 2016 Eugene O’Neill Award for Lifetime Achievement he laughed.

            It took a minute or so to persuade him I wasn’t joking. That’s our Mr. McCourt – unassuming, humorous and totally without pretension.

            Don’t get me wrong – the man is not without pride. Some would say not without arrogance too, though I feel they confuse that trait with his willingness to speak his mind, particularly on behalf of the less fortunate.

            But then he is a McCourt and that family has never been hesitant to lay it on the line. Malachy went a step further by embracing the public and political arenas.

            His life has been informed by his Limerick childhood. Unlike many he has been unwilling to turn the other cheek; he sees poverty for what it is – a grinding, debilitating, inhumane station.

            There’s little nobility in it – only shame. But if childhood poverty didn’t scar him it did leave a deep bruise that has led him to challenge the spiritual and political status quo both here and in Ireland. He’s never had time for those who insist that political change should come glacially, or that one should suffer here on earth in exchange for a mythical paradise in the hereafter.

            It has always been a joy – and sometimes a relief - to see him on the protest lines against the various US wars of choice of the last 40 years, or in support of the rights of political prisoners in Ireland.

            He has never been without humor, however. Once while unwisely singing Fixin’ To Die Rag at an anti-war rally in Woodside, Queens, a bottle came winging through the air.  

Malachy sauntered out on stage and in regal tones advised Turner & Kirwan of Wexford that “perhaps a strategic retreat is called for;” while we bolted back to the Lower East Side our tails between our legs.

            Like his brother Frank, Malachy left school at 13; that was the system in the Ireland of his youth: schooling is wasted on the poor, continuing education is for your betters. No wonder so many fled the country.

But Malachy never suffered from a lack of formal education for he had a love of books and a burning desire to distill what he read and pass it on.

            You can witness this at the many IAWA salons he attends. He is revered at these gatherings, not so much for what he does – although he is a mighty performer - but for the encouragement he gives the other writers and artists.

            Our goal at the salons - produced by IAWA treasurer, John Kearns - is to provide a safe space for both the experienced and the novice to air their new work. Each participant, well known or otherwise, is given the same time and attention.

            It’s a particular thrill to see someone read or perform for the first time and then bask in the hearty applause. There’s a spring to their step as they stride away from the podium and you know they’ll soon be back with more accomplished work.

We encourage everyone with a story, a song, or a dream, to become a member of the IAWA; it costs less than a buck a week. You never know - that carpenter in Queens who dabbles in plays could be the next O’Casey, or the homemaker in Staten Island with the store of scintillating stories may well be an Edna O’Brien in the making. We have a platform for everyone and admission is free for non-members.

The Eugene O’Neill Award night is our one fundraiser. All monies go towards funding salons around the country and supporting various causes, including The Frank McCourt Award, a financial prize to encourage young writers at the Frank McCourt High School in New York City.

On Monday, October 17th celebrities will rub shoulders with the lesser known at Rosie O’Grady’s Manhattan Club as we come together to honor a man who overcame so many odds to receive our lifetime achievement award. I have a feeling that the brooding spirit of Eugene O’Neill will not be displeased. Join us.

For information about IAWA visit