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Crazy days with those old-time, bluegrass boys

Thirty-three years together and the Lee Valley String Band are better than ever writes David Monagan.

IF YOU want a unique musical experience, full of joyous, foot-stomping American songs like the Yellow Rose of Texas or Are You from Dixie?, there's no need to head to Austin or Alabama, no sir. Go to Cork.

That's right, Cork.

Because in the heart of that quirky city lies a hidden treasure that has been quietly burnished and enriched for decades, and about which a documentary by Declan O'Connell of the Wild Acre production company is now being prepared. The documentary will be shown at the Cork Film Festival in the autumn.

Every Monday night, Ireland's secret stash of Willie Nelsons a salty dog eightsome called the Lee Valley String Band sidle into the Corner House for a session that, in one venue or another, has gone on now for 33 years. It was 1968, year of the Paris riots, of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, of the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Haight Ashbury, when the band formed.

The participants in most of those events have reinvented themselves many times since, or passed on.

But not these bluegrass boys, whose nucleus banjo-strumming leader Mick Daly, 50; autoharp player and lonesome-voiced Christy Twomey, 56; mandolinist Mick Murphy, 50; guitarist Mick O'Brien, 52 has stuck to their common love ever since. Other founding musicians like the celebrated Niall and Colm Toner left for Dublin in the early years.

The Lee Valley String Band today offers an extraordinarily rich and multi-layered musical sound, a raucous twang of celebration propelled by just about any instrument upon which man can nail a string.

"Young blood" has been added in the mid-40s forms of Hal O'Neill, a former rock guitarist now improvising on fiddle when he's not teaching second-level English; Kevin Gill, a Crawford art professor who coaxes steel slide riffs off a Dobro resonator guitar, or Pete Brennan, who strums on a 153-year-old Hungarian upright bass. Then there's the mandolin-playing pup Brendan Butler, 35, whose high, Hank Williams singing, steeped in seven years of Kentucky living, conveys all the heartbreak of Appalachia, along with the Irish and Scottish hills and heaths whose spirit breathe throughout so much of bluegrass music.

Actually, every member of the band sings, belting out refrains like Give me back my five dollars I paid for my wife, with a vocal umph that is part of Lee Valley's special appeal.

Last summer, the group had a brush with the big time, playing before a crowd of over 7,000 at the Denmark Tonder Festival. They were still euphoric when they took to the stage at the Corner House in late August and let loose, with added muscle from Dublin's Rough Deal Band, with one of the most exhilarating performances of the Cork Folk Festival.

One sensed they could be a hit on the American circuit, if they cared to reach for the bright lights. But they're content to be merely scheduled as a centrepiece of the determinedly unadvertised next Cork Folk Festival in August, which offers about as exhilarating and intimate a range of musical experiences as Mother Ireland has left for those with an ear to her past.

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Lee Valley's secret strength may lie in the fact that they are so determinedly unprofessional, so hillbilly natural. Fergal Mac Gabhann, the owner of the Corner House and a great supporter of Cork's traditional music scene, put it this way: "Getting the eight of them out to Denmark was one of the biggest organisational challenges Ireland has ever faced."

"Could we do more? Hardly at this stage of our lives," Mick sighed.

"We wouldn't even be together now if we were more of a professional band because we would have gone our separate ways," added Mick Tana (after Montana) O'Brien, who drives a forklift when not drawing or writing songs. No, the boys from the Lee Valley String Band just play for the love it. They'd much rather tell about all the great crack they've had, crazy times driving to festivals around Ireland in an unheated white VW bus (naturally called "The Bosch!"), the old pub gigs in Captain Macky's or Dr John's or the Donkey's Ears (all gone), the moments on RTÉ, or at the Belfast Festival in 1998.

"We just don't give a f**k," roared Christy Twomey. And he means it. One of the band's most revered influences, the great American songwriter Bill Monroe, found that out a while back on a visit to Cork. With much anticipation, the famousbluegrass man was brought to Twomey's house for a Sunday morning introduction. But Christy, who had been drinking the night before, refused to get out of bed.

In fact, the band would have never cut its wonderful 1998 CD, Corner Boys, without the intercession of the accomplished Nashville record producer (Nancy Griffith, John Prine, Iris DeMent, etc) Jim Rooney.

The CD was entitled Corner Boys, but these corner boys are delighted to have figured out a way to drink (rather impressively) for free.

So the Lee Valley boys pluck on. Tana worries that Ireland's interest in the music they love may soon die out.

But the others insist that the taste for old-timey bluegrass music is actually stronger than when they started. Christy, however, gets back to the central point: "We're getting older, and we still don't give a f**k."

* The Corner House, 7 Coburg Street, tel (021) 450-0655, has CDs available, and there may eventually be a second edition. On Sundays, several of the boys play with a mike at An Spailpín Fánach.


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