The musician pays tribute to his boyhood idol in a special show in Dublin tonight. Here, he talks about getting back to live gigs, collaborating with rising Irish stars and why the crowd went wild for Planxty
It was love at first listen when Andy Irvine encountered the music of Woody Guthrie. It was 1957 and he was 15. The American troubadour’s stark folk songs took a fierce hold and wouldn’t let go. It’s a passion that still burns brightly
“It’s been a lifelong devotion,” Irvine says, speaking via Zoom from his home in Wexford. “When I first bought one of his records and played it I was hooked from the first bar of the first song — it was like, ‘Yes! I’ve found it — this is it.’ And I can’t quite explain why. There was an honesty about him and his music that I appreciated.
“He wasn’t all that good as a musician and sometimes when I play his music to people who don’t know him and I hear him through them, I think, ‘Hmm, it’s not all that great’. But I loved the way he played guitar and I loved his singing voice and I’d play the guitar in the same style that he did and I’d even try to copy his Oklahoma accent.”
These were the songs that encouraged Irvine to pick up a guitar, and so began one of the great innings in Irish music history. He also picked up a pen and wrote to Guthrie himself. “The world was a much bigger place then and it could be hard just to get information — I didn’t know if he was alive or dead or how famous he was. I wrote a letter to ‘Woody Guthrie, USA’ and after about three weeks it came back.
“Then I found out he was in hospital so I wrote to him there. I found out later that the people who would take him out at weekends, Bob and Sidsel Gleason, would read the letters to him. And they wrote back to me. I made some recordings for Woody of his songs and in a letter that [the Gleasons] sent me, they said that he had sung along with me.”
He is still tickled by the memory more than 60 years later and he says he was greatly touched when on a visit to the Woody Guthrie Centre in Oklahoma, he discovered that the letters he had written as a teen were on display there. “They had found the letters at the hospital when it was being knocked down and they ended up in his archive. I photographed them all and it’s like a diary from when I was 16 and 17.”
Tonight, at Dublin’s National Concert Hall, Irvine plays tribute to Guthrie in a special show as part of the venue’s acclaimed Tradition Now series. He will be accompanied by his friend, the Dutch multi-instrumentalist Rens van der Zalm.
“I’m looking forward to it, but not without trepidation. I had to relearn all the songs over the past 19 months [the duration of the pandemic] and the accompaniments are typically Andy Irvine: they’re difficult. There’s a lot to remember and I have three days of rehearsal with Rens, who’s great — he comes to rehearsal knowing what he’s going to do. And those three days will be make or break and I’m pretty sure it will be make,” he says.
“Despite my devotion to Woody, this is out of my comfort zone.”
Irvine turns 80 next year, but this genial man could pass for someone in his early 60s. Although he says his fingers can’t race around the fretboard like they once could, his body has not betrayed him and he is still able to play live — something he clearly loves to do.
“Sometimes, when I hear myself playing 20 years ago I think, ‘Wow, I don’t think I could play that piece now.’ It doesn’t bother me because I’m still agile enough to accompany myself in the way I want to. And over the course of this pandemic, I’ve changed the way I hold the plectrum and I think it’s an improvement.”
He greatly missed the business of playing live. “I didn’t enjoy those streaming performances,” he says, “especially the ones that weren’t live. There’s nothing like playing in front of actual people.”
Last weekend, he played at the inaugural Hibernacle festival at Claregalway Castle, Co Galway. “It was wonderful. Everything had been put together so well. Normally, you wouldn’t notice the organisation, but we were treated fantastically well. The collaborations were great and the music was fantastic.” Irvine was the elder statesman among a home-grown line-up that included Lisa Hannigan, Jape, Tolü Makay and Saint Sister. “In one of the collaborations, they sang all the harmonies in all my songs — I don’t know how they learned them so quickly!”
Irvine was born in London in 1942 to an Irish mother and Scottish father. He was drawn to acting at an early age and became something of a child star. He appeared in ITV and BBC productions and featured in the acclaimed 1958 film Room at the Top.
But music, which had been a central part of his life for as long as he can remember, started to take over after the Woody Guthrie discovery. He moved to Ireland aged 20 and never looked back. His first band, Sweeney’s Men, made waves in a country that could sometimes be hostile to anything that was considered ‘trad’. By the end of the 1960s, Irvine had earned a reputation as one who was keen to leave a distinct mark on culture. His mastery of the bouzouki, the traditional Greek stringed instrument, demonstrated a yen to try different things.
Irvine is revered for his gifts with several instruments, but two of them loom large in his affections. “The bouzouki looks like a guitar and I’m sure half the audience think it’s a guitar, but it’s got eight strings and it delivers a really
special sound,” he says. “And I love the mandola — it’s tuned a fifth below the mandolin. It’s still a bit on the high side, but it’s got a lovely plaintive quality about it and it’s great for slow songs.”
He brought both those instruments and more to his next band, Planxty — by any measure, one of the most significant groups to have emerged from this country in any genre. Right from the off, audiences sensed that this quartet — Irvine, Christy Moore, Dónal Lunny and Liam Óg O’Flynn — was special.
“We did a tour supporting Donovan in 1972,” Irvine recalls, “and the first gig was down in Galway in a ballroom called the Hanger. We’d never seen so many microphones or so many lights. We went on and we hadn’t done much of a soundcheck — about halfway though it, the audience made noises. Initially, I thought there was a fight going on but I looked at the others and they were smiling from ear to ear. At the end of it, as the crowd went berserk for more, I came to realise that we had pulled the house down.
“We brought into the band what we’d been doing solo. Dónal Lunny was very important in that he was really good at knitting the whole thing together. Basically, Christy, myself and Liam were soloists and, somehow, that gelled to the success we got. I’m not sure any of us were ever sure about how or why we were so popular.”
Although Irvine found great acclaim after Planxty finished — not least when he and Paul Brady joined forces for a classic album in 1976 — he often longed for the band to reform. After Leagues O’Toole’s book and documentary on the band restored interest in the early 2000s, Planxty reunited. “They were some of the best shows I’ve ever done,” he says. “I really believe we were better, musically, in our 60s, than we had been all those years before.”
He has no intention of calling time on life on the road. He’s itching to get back out there and the New Year will see him tour with Liam Brady. The gigs had to be postponed due to Covid.
“I craved audiences. And I missed it so much. I’d practice daily, but I came to find that I couldn’t play certain things, like the riff at the end of my song, O’Donoghue’s, and I thought, ‘This is the end, Andy. This is the slippery slope.’ But as soon as I was able to play in front of an audience — actual people — I found I could play it as well as ever.”
Andy Irvine’s The Woody Guthrie Project is at the National Concert Hall, Dublin, tonight. In-person and streaming tickets are available