James Carty’s Upon My Soul and Various Artists’ Paddy In The Smoke: Irish Dance Music, From A London Pub

image004The Auld Triangle, usually simply referred to as the Triangle by London musicians, is a three-cornered building sitting at a three-way intersection in a quiet neighborhood in Finsbury Park. Sunday nights, if there’s no Arsenal match (if there is, there’s no session), usually find the place stuffed to the gills with Irish expats. You will usually find James Carty, Gary Connolly, Reg Hall, and/or Sinead Linane leading the session, and most of London’s Irish traditional musicians have dropped in at one point or another.

Karen Ryan, the indefatigable organizer of the London-based Return to Camden Town Festival, e-mailed me that James Carty is “stone raving mad” about Irish traditional music. “There seems to be nothing more that he likes doing than playing a few tunes (often sporadically – as he does like a chat!), then having a few beers into the early hours, while having the craic and enjoying everybody else’s music.”

Ryan recalls asking Carty, coming off stage from making some great music at the Luminaire in Kilburn during the RtCT Festival, when he’d be making a solo album. Carty, she says, immediately ticked down a laundry list of excuses why he’d never record on his own…but a year later, Upon My Soul was launched.

Events had conspired to make a recording somewhat inevitable, Carty explains. “Like musicians and friends always telling me that it was about time I should make one, a friend having access to a studio that was really comfortable to work in, having the time to be able to record, new and old tunes that I thought had to be heard, and that I was confident that I was playing some of my best music over the last few years,” Carty says. “So it was an accumulation of all these things that finally made me get the flute out and record.”

MI0001926467“He’s one of those musicians who is known and loved in London,” Ryan told me, “but has been somewhat of a hidden treasure to much of the outside world until the release of his debut album.” While he’s no stranger to the studio, having appeared on many other musicians’ recordings, this is Carty’s first solo release.

Carty cites his father, John P. Carty, his multi-instrumentalist brother John Carty (probably the best known of the musical Carty family), and his box-playing uncle, Paddy Folan, as his biggest influences. He also learned a great deal of his music from the musicians playing in London as he was growing up, which reads as something of a partial Who’s Who of the great London musos: Brian Rooney and Bobby Casey on fiddle, Sean McDonagh, Finbarr Dwyer, Joe Whelan, Liam Farrell on banjo, Raymond Roland and Jimmy Philbin on box, Roger Sherlock on flute. “Michael Hynes and Marcus Hernon always encouraged me when I was young,” Carty adds.

Carty has the family traits of encouragement and passing the music on; Ryan has many stories of him encouraging her students at fleadhs and sessions, recording tracks with them and giving a workshop or two. I remember being asked to start a set at my first Triangle session which included a fine tune of Jackie Coleman’s, sometimes considered one of those tunes so common as to be little played at sessions. (When one is nervous and uncertain about playing in public, it’s often best to stick to tunes one knows very well!) Later, Carty made a point of telling me it was a good set, confiding that “Jackie Coleman’s” was one of his favorite tunes and that he’d appreciated the chance to play it.

Upon My Soul includes favorite Carty tunes and some tunes learned for the recording. “Old favorites of mine that don’t be played that much,” he explains. “I wanted to give the listener some tunes that they wouldn’t have heard that much, so they’d find it interesting.”

Interesting indeed. However, Carty on his tune choices are exactly what one wants to read, so much so that I had to keep starting the tracks over many times, as I’d get so involved in the succinct, but informational, liner notes that I would then realize that I hadn’t been concentrating on the tracks playing. (This runs in the family. I have the same “problem” with John Carty’s recordings.)

The track that really popped my nose out of the liner notes, though, was the three flute track of “The Merry Harriers/The Hut in the Bog/Flowers of Red Hill.” John P., John, and James Carty sound like they’re having fun, backed by Joe Kennedy playing hand on bodhran. Possibly I’m becoming sentimental in my old age, but it’s remained my favorite track, perhaps in great part because it’s a family track.

I meant to put the liner notes down and start the recording over again after this, but Carty’s lovely jig, written for his uncle Josie Folan (RIP), “Road to Rosroe,” caught my ear, followed by a ripping rendition of Seamus Quinn’s “Tae in the Bog.” Then, I started the CD over again.

It’s certainly a testament to the liner notes that I wasn’t distracted by the music earlier. On first blush, the Cartys playing together may have been strong enough to distract me, but after a careful listen I found that there were no real highlights to this recording: it’s all good.

I’ve only sat in sessions with Carty maybe three or four times, but his sense of humor, camaraderie, friendliness and supportiveness to other musicians were amply evident even on such meager acquaintance. As Michael Hynes points out in his liner notes, these qualities are also communicated clearly on Upon My Soul — along with that mainly unconscious self-confidence that often marks the great players, to play exactly as Carty plays, with no thought for fashion. Carty plays with a shorter phrasing that Gregory Daly’s notes point out is typical of the older Connaught style that’s rather uncommon now among the current crop of recording fluters.

Carty’s mastery of this “most personal and unique of all instruments” (Hyne) is ably demonstrated throughout, and his effortless balance of creativity and tradition is sterling. “James’s playing right now is the best I’ve ever heard it,” John Carty told me at Zoukfest. “I’ve really enjoyed listening to him play at the concerts.”

If I was forced to choose favorite tracks over others, it might be a strong set of jigs (“The Streamstown Jig/The Stolen Purse”), a set of Josie MacDermott tunes with brother John on banjo and Francis Gaffney and John Blake backing (“Trip to Birmingham/Darby’s Farewell”), a stunning set of “John Towey’s” and “Mulvihill’s,” and of course the aforementioned three flute set.

Alec Finn, Francis Gaffney, Joe Kennedy, and John Blake provide able backing throughout, playing with their usual taste and delicacy.

While the production values are good (John Blake behind the desk for most of it, so not surprising), this is what I’d call a “quiet album”– you won’t find clever harmonized riffing over stunningly complex arrangements, just truly excellent traditional playing by truly excellent musicians.

Just a few days ago, I sat with a small group of friends over a couple of pints and we discussed whether current times seem to be a sort of Age of the Flute or was it more of an Age of the Banjo. We never really came to a conclusion (although we had fun trying), but Upon My Soul would argue for the flute. This recording should be in the collection of any Irish flute player, anyone interested in the old Connaught or Sligo style of playing, and everyone who loves Irish traditional music.

James and John Carty appear with Francis Gaffney throughout 2007. “I have enjoyed the concerts I’ve played with me brother John and Francis Gaffney,” Carty says. “We know each others’ music so well, so we kind of click straight away.” For their schedule or to purchase Upon My Soul, please visit John Carty’s Web site.

The first time I ever laid eyes on James Carty and Reg Hall was on a Sunday night at the Auld Triangle, when I was being shepherded round London’s sessions by a forbearing friend who is well-known on the London session circuit. As we trundled in the doors early in the night, fiddles in hand, Carty and Hall (standing at the bar, pints in midair) caught sight of us and broke into wide, welcoming smiles.

When I was introduced later, I was elatedly mortified to find out that not only was that friendly man a member of the well-known Carty family, but the charming gentleman with the twinkling blue eyes I’d been chit-chatting with between sets was Reg Hall, one of the UK’s best known musicologists and collectors in both Irish and English traditional music (he is often credited with being the single most important musician of the English trad dance music revival), writer of countless liner notes and other essential reading for Irish and English trad musicians.

Hall was one of the prime movers behind the recording of Paddy in the Smoke, which is simply one of the most important and influential recordings of Irish traditional music ever made.

Recorded by Bill Leader in 1968 at The Favourite, one of the great London pubs for music (on Queensland Road, off Holloway Road), Paddy In The Smoke was captured with a microphone dangling from the ceiling. It recorded not only the music played from a small stage at the far end of the bar under the careful management of Jimmy Power, seconded by Hall, but also the noise of the crowd, crammed into the small pub and unwilling to miss any of the fun to be had. This was not an open session per se; Power and Hall would look about the crowd as they played, see who was there that day, and call people up to play or sing. Perhaps it was here that singers at sessions first found their due; Peta Webb wrote in 1998 that a lack of proper attention to singers would get a “Shhh!” in the microphone from Power.

While I think anyone who loves Irish traditional music should own a copy of Paddy In The Smoke, clearly, it’s a recording that might not be understood for what it is by the casual listener or someone who has found Irish music through the modern artists — Lunasa, Altan, even as early as The Bothy Band. The ‘newbie’ would probably think it at most “nice” or “quaint” or even admire it as a sort of snapshot of the way the music was once played and simply leave it at that.

Those with a few more tunes under their belts, however, practically revere this recording. It is a snapshot of a time and place, of an era; when The Favourite was demolished to make way for the new Arsenal stadium, many felt that part of the history of two generations of Irish migrants and musicians went with it. Many feel it captures the joy, laughter, pain and sorrow of an entire generation of Irish immigrants in London, that this was music that really means something. This was how they spent their Sunday afternoons, some of the small amount of the leisure time they had to command. For those who can hear, this music truly moves the heart, both in its genius and raw emotion bared.

An acquaintance of mine remembers that, after the 2:00 closing time and Jimmy Power’s famous admonishment to “go home and have your dinner!” everyone would spill out onto the pavement, where the musicians would often re-group and carry on. The police would come by (it was a neighborhood of mainly factories and warehouses) and tell them they wanted the sidewalk session gone when they returned, but no one would leave until they were famished for their dinner.

Paddy In The Smoke gives us just a small taste of the many years of music, song, and fun to be had at The Favourite, but it’s a very satisfying one. “We didn’t get everyone we wanted (on the recording),” Hall told me between sets, “but we got what we could over the time we had to record. We didn’t do too badly with it, I think.”

An understatement.

One can’t help feeling that there’s no way to come up to the level of the liner notes by Hall by going through the tracks in a review, so I’ll leave that enjoyment to the listener when they get their own copy. But there are no bad tracks on this recording, and each offers a feast for the ears and mind of those who love Irish trad music. Clearly these musicians played the music as played for dancing as well as for the enjoyment of itself, and it’s difficult to keep the feet still. The crowd is appreciative.

To me, every session recording I listen to, carefully passed along from musician to musician, harks back to this one.

The musicians are among the finest London had and ever will. The first three tracks are of Martin Byrnes of the ponytail and immense verve of style and creativity. Danny Meehan (who still works laying slabs in London; he sometimes will give his co-workers some tunes to go with their lunch on job sites, stowing the fiddle in a handy van, and he recently was invited up on stage to play during a recent Tommy Peoples concert) regrettably makes only one appearance, but on my favorite track! “Paddy Ryan’s Dream” is a tune I’m extremely fond of Lucy Farr and Julia Clifford provide ample proof that the women kept up, Bobby Casey (whose son Seán led the session after it re-located to The Victoria — known as Tommy Flynn’s these days) is on many of the tracks, including two with Seán O’Shea, who made the session whenever his schedule as a policeman allowed.

I’m always astounded by the number of people who consider themselves well up on Irish traditional music recordings who have never heard this very classic recording. If you haven’t, it’s time. If you have, get it back out and re-visit if you haven’t in a while. I hear something new with every listen. So will you.

(Celtic Grooves, 2006)
(Topic Records, 1997)

About Zina Lee

Zina Lee, Reviewer, is an Irish fiddler, writer, designer, and teacher (not necessarily in that order). “Career” is an excellent word for her working past; she has owned a landscaping company, designed and made wedding gowns, worked for lawyers, UPS as a delivery driver, several newspapers as a writer and editor, been a SAG/AFTRA actress, taught software, is an award-winning theatrical costumer, been a credit manager, a sales person, and a stage manager for an opera company, owns and runs several Web businesses, taught Irish stepdancing and makes Irish stepdancing solo dresses, among other things. Zina can’t quite make out how a Chinese American woman ended up with her life built largely around the arts of a tiny island country thousands of miles away. Zina plays out at sessions around the globe and with Denver area Irish traditional music band Ask My Father, and can be reached by e-mail here. Slán!