Hands up those who’ve heard of Usher’s Island? No, not Dublin’s medieval quay on the Liffey, rather the coming together of five of the best Irish musicians of the last five decades. Apart from a few ripples that spread after their appearance during Celtic Connections in January 2015, if you’re based in the UK, you’d be hard pushed to read much about them. Surely this will change after their appearance on the last night of FolkEast festival in Suffolk, one of the most memorable sets of songs and tunes I’ve had the privilege to hear. The organisers of FolkEast deserve big praise for picking up on the opportunity to bring Usher’s Island together for their only scheduled UK appearance this summer. And, while I’m on the subject, praise also for putting together one of the quirkiest, most enjoyable festival sites and programmes of the year. I really regretted only getting there for the last day, I must try to return for the whole weekend next year.
The five names in Usher’s Island read like a nominations list for an Irish traditional music hall of fame: Andy Irvine (Sweeney’s Men, Planxty), Dónal Lunny (Bothy Band, Planxty, Moving Hearts), Paddy Glackin (Bothy Band), Michael McGoldrick (Lunasa, Capercaillie [yes, I know that’s a Scottish band]) and John Doyle (Solas). I turned to John for some background on how this stellar grouping came about. He and Andy did several US gigs together around three years back and conversation often turned to Andy’s notion of forming a new band. After Planxty’s ‘final’ reunion came to an end in 2005 with the departure of Christy Moore, remaining members Andy, Dónal and Liam O’Flynn eventually teamed up with Paddy Glackin, forming LAPD, the band name coming from the initial letters of their first names. LAPD played its last gig in October 2013 and Andy began thinking about a band that would include today’s generation of Irish musicians. With Andy then in his early 70s, Dónal late 60s and Paddy just turned 60, John, in his early 40s, was just the man to add that dimension and with John’s contemporary and long-standing collaborator Michael McGoldrick coming on board, the perfect line up came together. By late 2014, Usher’s Island was ready for a few initial gigs leading up to that appearance at Celtic Connections 2015. Since then they’ve played a handful of gigs in Ireland. As John said, “it’s not easy to get together as a band” and so their appearance at FolkEast was an event to savour.
When Usher’s Island take to the stage, something strikes me as odd, John Doyle on guitar and Dónal Lunny on bouzouki are holding their instruments the wrong way round. In a short time, it’s clear the same is true of Michael McGoldrick’s flute. 60% left-handed players in a band is surely unusual but, maybe, as a left-handed bodhrán player, there’s hope for me yet.
The set opens with a few tunes, John’s signature style of percussive guitar driving them along. The bouzoukis of Andy and Dónal at times reinforce the rhythm but just as readily take on the melody parts alongside Paddy on fiddle and Michael, initially on flute, later bringing in uillean pipes. The seemingly effortless ways the five interact, developing both the pace and the complexity of the tunes is just what the audience have been waiting for and they respond with gusto. Having two bouzoukis in the line-up gives Dónal freedom, occasionally, to add his bodhrán to the instrumental mix, no tipper, just hands on the goat skin front and back giving a smoother, less insistent rhythm. Jigs, hornpipes, polkas are interspersed through the set but with two top-class songwriters in the line-up, Usher’s Island’s repertoire is also rich in memorable songs.
Both Andy Irvine and John Doyle have brought new songs to the band but the first song to catch my attention was one that John has been singing for a few years, his minor key version of The Wild Rover. If you thought you couldn’t bear, ever again, to hear that tale of the returning wayward son, wait ‘til you’ve heard John’s gentle, melodic take on it and delight in the absence of a table thumping chorus. A new song from John, Heart in Hand, is a celebration of Richard Joyce, the Galway man credited with creating the earliest claddagh rings in the late 1600s. The song tells the tale of how Joyce left Galway to sail to the West Indies, was captured by pirates, enslaved in Algiers, learned the goldsmith’s trade, was freed and eventually returned to Galway. John’s voice, rooted in Dublin but with some edges smoothed after 20 years living in the US, is ideally suited to recounting such tales and he’s long shown the knack of composing songs that seem to fit instantly into the tradition. The song also gave Andy an opportunity to take up his harmonica.
Andy had plenty of songs of his own to contribute, old Planxty favourites such as My Heart’s Tonight in Ireland and the newer As Good As It Gets. Both songs show Andy in a mood for reminiscing, for the free and easy life of playing the pubs in Co Clare in the mid-60s and for the time, a few years later, he spent in Ljubljana, which he seems to remember for its large numbers of beautiful, but ultimately unattainable, young women. There’s a gentle humour that threads through these songs and both Andy and Dónal are great storytellers in their introductions. As with so many of the best Irish bands, Usher’s Island deliver music that can vary from joyous to heart-wrenching, served up with a hefty portion of good old Irish banter. By the end of their set on the open stage at FolkEast, the weather had turned distinctly wet, but the crowd wasn’t noticing, clapping and cheering to make sure they got an encore or two.
What of the future for Usher’s Island? There only seems to be one confirmed gig in the calendar, The Irish Festival of Oulu, Finland, in October. As for recording, there’s good news and bad. The good news is that they have already recorded enough material to fill an album. Earlier this year they met up at Michael McGoldrick’s family cottage in Co. Galway and for three days converted it into a recording studio. The less good news is that turning those recordings into an album is a slow process and the best John could offer, when pressed, was “maybe March next year”. Believe me, it’s an album that will be worth waiting for and you can be sure you’ll see a review of it on Folk Radio just as soon as we get our hands on a copy.
Although we’ve no live footage from FolkEast here’s a recent clip of their performance at The Gathering Traditional Festival in Killarney: