Thursday 19 September 2019

Still walking down the Curra Road

Reporter Conchubhar Ó Liathán met singer/songwriter Ger Wolfe, who has plenty of projects keeping him busy

It's raining on the Curra Road. Not at all like the idyllic summer scene depicted in Ger Wolfe's eponymous song, in which he talks about going walking down to the river under a blue sky.

In the summer we'll go walking,

Way down to the river down the Curra road,

There's a blue sky we'll walk under,

Listen to the humming bees and on we'll go,

We won't worry about the traffic,

Worry about the radio, worry about the phone,

In the summer we'll go walking,

Way down to the river down the Curra road

I didn't realise until I put his Eircode into my phone that the Curra Road is where he lived and was also a place with which I had a strong family connection. 

The Curra Road will feature this week in a gala concert at the National Concert Hall with Zoe Conway and John McIntyre with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra.

As a singer/songwriter, Ger is used to other people performing his songs. He loves Zoe Conway's version of one of his most well-known works. 

"She has a soprano voice and sings all the high notes beautifully," he remarks as we chat in his kitchen, full of light on that dark afternoon on the road to Clondrohid from the Halfway House.

He'd like some day to sing in the National Concert Hall.

It's a long way from where he started off all those years ago as a teenager with his friends in Mayfield in Cork. He was writing songs at a young age, listening to the likes of Bob Dylan, busking in the streets of Cork city, getting gigs in the likes of the Lobby Bar. 

That's how I came across Ger first. He features in a famous song by fellow Cork singer-songwriter John Spillane, Magic Nights in the Lobby Bar.  

In that song, Ger is singing 'The Lark of Mayfield' and he's on a list of other great musicians who send John away, transport him to a different time and place.  

Both 'The Curra Road' and 'The Lark of Mayfield' feature on Ger's newest album, his eighth. Melody Bright and the Favourite Sparrow, in which he plays with his band, the New Skylarks,  is a compilation of some of his most well-known songs, and at least one you may not have heard previously. 

The New Skylarks features musician friends - Paul Frost on base, Martin Leahy on drums and fiddler Edel Sullivan - with whom Ger has been playing since he came back to Cork after a few years wandering in London and Louth.

There was always music at home as well, and he remembers spending a lot of time in the City Music Library, now known as the Rory Gallagher Room, where he listened to as varied a selection of albums as possible. It wasn't Spotify - it was probably better. 

His time in London brought him in touch with great live music from Ry Cooder to Ali Farka Touré, jazz and blues and everything in between. 

"In the 1980s, when I was working up in County Louth, I used to call into a famous music pub in Drogheda: Carberys," he says.

"That's where I first heard traditional music - the likes of Bert Jansch, the Voice Squad.

"When I came back to Cork I fell in with 'The Lobby Washed Down', a Monday night session in the Lobby Bar," he recalls.  The Lobby may be long gone, but its  spirit lives on in a nearby community venue, the former Nano Nagle Convent on Douglas Street, and there's a venue there named after the Lobby Bar, at which Ger recently played in a gig organised by former Lobby impresario Pat Conway.  

He had a  21-date tour of Ireland in the early summer, and he's working on getting a new tour ready to go in September. In the meantime, he's just returned with his wife, Nora, from walking a third of the Camino di Santiago, from St Jean Pied de Porte on the French side of the Pyrenees to near Burgos on the Spanish side. It was around 800 kilometres. 

It's not the first time he's done the Camino, as he once walked it by himself from Porto on the Portugese side.  

"The Camino is a great metaphor for life," he believes.  "We're all trying to get to the end, but we meet countless characters along the road, who make the journey all the more enjoyable and fascinating."

When he moved with Nora to the Curra Road in the 1990s, their first-born was only a year old.  Ger fell in love with Múscraí and attended his first Éigse Dhiarmuidín in the mid 1990s. He has been teaching music appreciation in local schools for 20 years and also teaches in UCC.

When the family moved to the Curra Road, the house needed a good deal of care and attention. One day he was working on the roof when an elderly neighbour arrived up next to him on a ladder.

That man was Seán Lehane, my granduncle, and his help was invaluable in getting the house done. The same fellow had helped my father and grandfather build our family home in Cúil Aodha almost 30 years earlier.  When the house on the Curra Road was originally built 30 years still further back, Seán had been a young boy tending to the builders.

"I  see music as one of the strongest things , along with language , that links us as human beings and something that can be a huge force for good," he says.

"Sometimes I've been called a writer who writes about  nature, such as in the Curra Road, but I like to write about all human life, including war and peace, as in my song 'Lay me Down' written at the height of the 1990's war in Serbia/Croatia, which was covered last year  by US band Solas on their most recent album."

His songs are admired by other singers and are covered regularly by the likes of the aforementioned Zoe Conway, Fiona Kelleher, Karan Casey and John Spillane.

Ger is still writing songs and hoping to get a new album out soon.  He's also kept busy working on the house and, as I leave him, he's off to finish a flower trellis he promised a friend.   He has his own music label, Raggedy Records, and he also does a Sunday Papers Youtube video in which he sings a song from his extensive catalogue.  This can be on his website,  

"I have a few projects in the pipeline including a collection of new songs provisionally entitled  'Remembrance' and a poetry collection called 'The Parliament of Gossip,'"  he says. "I'll be on the road gigging again in the autumn and early winter, and in the meantime I'll keep myself busy with some teaching work and my love of digging the garden, cookery, herding bees, and the odd woodwork project. That all keeps me interested in a world full to the brim."

He's a busy man.