Heart afire

Irish music legend Andy Irvine, the man who helped spawn Riverdance, comes to Duffy’s Tavern

Irvine’s fine: Andy Irvine plays at Duffy’s Tavern on Monday, Sept. 10, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10.

Chico (and the rest of the world, for that matter) has been gifted with a bevy of talented Irish performers in the past 10 years or so. The new professional performing groups and soloists that are contributing to the commercial success of Irish music today can all be traced back to Ireland’s music scene of the 1960s and ‘70s.

Andy Irvine was a big part of that scene, as he sings in “My Heart’s Tonight in Ireland,” describing his days with his band Sweeney’s Men and the abundance of music at that time, especially in County Clare. Sweeney’s Men might seem like ancient history to some of the young pups in Irish music today, but I’ve never come across a musician who didn’t name Planxty, Irvine’s second band, as a major influence. Planxty, the first Irish super group, was made up of the forefathers of Irish music today—Andy Irvine, Christy Moore, Donal Lunny and Liam O’Flynn.

In Ireland, Irvine is a legend and inspiration as recognizable as Woody Guthrie is to American folk singers. Born in London to an Irish mother and a Scottish father, Irvine had an early career as a successful child actor and took up classical guitar after hearing Lonnie Donegan on an early skiffle record. The back of the album mentioned an American singer named Woody Guthrie and, intrigued by the uncommon name, Irvine searched out a Guthrie album.

Later, Guthrie became Irvine’s friend and mentor, leading the 15-year-old to the decision to make music his life. Guthrie’s touch can be seen in Irvine’s songwriting and harmonica playing. (Ramblin’ Jack Elliot taught him the Woody style of harmonica playing: Hold the low notes on the right-hand side and “start sucking when the instructions tell you to blow and blowing when they tell you to suck.")

Many Irish-music fans in this country are unaware of the scope of Irvine’s influence. He’s largely responsible (along with Donal Lunny) for the use of the bouzouki in Irish music today, and without him there would be no Riverdance—ironically seen as introducing many of the uninitiated to the joys of Irish music. Riverdance is predominantly based on Balkan musical inflections, which in turn came from Irvine’s important effort of teaming Irish and Balkan music from the late ‘60s onward.

You can hear the Balkan influence as far back as Planxty, on all of Irvine’s solo CDs and in his brief stint with the East-Wind Trio, whose CD was produced by Riverdance composer Bill Whelan.

Whelan, who will enjoy a luxurious retirement based on Irvine’s years as a struggling musician in Eastern Europe, is gentleman enough to give credit where credit is due. He dedicates the Riverdance CD: “To Andy Irvine, whose pioneering enthusiasm for and love of Eastern European music became totally infectious to any of us lucky enough to come into his line of fire.”

In the United States, apart from those hardcore Planxty fans, many people know Irvine mainly as the voice of Patrick Street, the renowned traditional Irish band that still tours the U.S. He also does occasional solo touring, and this year the tour corresponds with the release of his new solo CD, Way Out Yonder (Appleseed Recordings). Its a typical Irvine mix: You’ve got a union song, an emigrant song, a whimsical song, a depressing song, all with Irish undercurrents—except for the Balkan tune!

So what can one expect from an evening with a legend? A musical history lesson on at least one of Irvine’s personal heroes—James Connolly, Woody Guthrie and Wobblies activist Tom Barker are good bets; illuminating and funny stories (let’s hope he talks about his mother!); dexterous playing of the mandolin, mandola and bouzouki on tunes from Ireland to Bulgaria; an enthusiastic audience joining in on an anti-Fascist chorus; superb vocals on traditional and contemporary Irish songs; and a sense of having experienced a bit of Irish musical history right here in Chico.