James Patrick Gavin – Chewing the Fat
Sleight of Hand Records – 26 January 2018
It’s likely you’ve read innumerable reviews describing albums in words such as “this artist’s most personal album yet”. Similar phrases, so commonly used, often communicate little of substance. Well, the not so good news is that I can’t avoid using the “personal” word about Chewing the Fat. The much better news is that, even if you believe you know what the word implies, James Patrick Gavin has produced an album that is sure to make you think again. It reaches out to members of his family both in his native North London and in County Fermanagh where his family’s roots lie. Its combination of traditional and contemporary compositions with short passages of spoken word brings to life snippets of family history. Of themselves, they may illustrate quite trivial incidents but, collectively, they evoke a heritage shared by so many Irish families. Families dispersed through emigration but nonetheless preserving a sense of belonging both to a place and to a culture.
Chewing the Fat is available as a download but the 24-page booklet that comes with the CD is a treasure trove of photographs and background information on the songs and tunes as well as an introduction to members of the Gavin family. It also includes drawings from a remarkable book, In the Ould Ago (available here: http://www.folklorebook.com/). Published in 2010, just months before he died, the bookmarks the culmination of 40 years work by Fermanagh’s self-taught historian and folklorist, Johnny McKeagney. The illustrations are hand drawn maps, crammed with text and drawings, annotations that cover everything Johnny discovered of the history, archaeology and traditions of Fermanagh. They cover Cavanacarragh, where James’ grandmother, Philomena (Mena), spent her childhood and Mountdrum, where she still lives. Opt for this magnificent CD package and you get access to the download as well, so pretty much a no-brainer which to choose.
Two lengthy paragraphs and nothing about the music yet. That’s a fair reflection of the impressive combination of music, prose and graphic design that Chewing the Fat gives you, but the music alone would make the album stand out from the pack. This may be his debut album but James is a well-established guitar and fiddle player both on the North London session scene and with bands, notably TEYR and Jez Hellard’s Djukella Orchestra. Musicians from both these bands play on Chewing the Fat, from TEYR, Tommie Black-Roff and Dominic Henderson play accordion and Uilleann pipes and whistles while Jez Hallard handles some vocals and guitar. Importantly, Seamus Gavin, James’ father, ensures the music is a family affair with his vocals and harmonica.
The album opens with Mena’s Teapot, the track starting with a pair of James’ own tunes, featuring himself on fiddle along with the first of several familiar, and not so familiar, faces from London’s vibrant Irish music scene, Tad Sargent, formerly with Ranagri, on bouzouki and Hugh O’Neill on banjo. As these tunes slow and fade we hear, for the first time, from Mena, talking, not surprisingly, about tea and teapots. Then the music kicks back in, the traditional Dreaming of Home driven along by Tad’s familiar bodhrán. Short passages from James’ recorded conversations with Mena are scattered through the album, each one, along with a few sentences of liner notes, reinforcing the family’s connections to the music. A snatch of recorded birdsong links to the second track, the traditional air, The Lark in the Clear Air, sung by J Eoin, and this, in turn, links to Mena telling us how she’s always loved watching the birds feeding in her garden.
Tea makes another appearance with Seamus Gavin’s song Tae, a lengthy paean to the drink and its central rôle in Gavin family life. Seamus’ distinctive voice is perfectly complemented by gentle guitar and fiddle, the lyrics referencing loss and farewells, Seamus leaving the family home for London and later, the wake for his father, Jim, during which, evidently, more than 1500 cups of tea were consumed. Mena has the last word, “Tea’s very important, if you take tea with somebody, you’re part of the family.”
With Longing the focus of the album shifts to London, as the liner notes put it, “it forms the bridge of sighs between Fermanagh and London”. A poem spoken by its author, Stephen “Harpo” Muldoon, its original location was Nepal but with its themes of migration and endurance it speaks for the Irish diaspora that has long found a semblance of belonging in parts of London. J Eoin’s song that follows is in memory of one place in London where an Irishman could feel a sense of home, the Lady Owen Arms, the Lady O’Dreams of the song’s title. Seamus and James team up again on London Town, a song that Seamus may have written in London but which is focussed firmly on Fermanagh, particularly Mullyknock or Topped Mountain, a hill a few miles to the north of the family’s home ground. A slow blues with guitar, fiddle and accordion, but it’s Seamus who adds the blues with his harmonica. Musically quite distant from the previous traditional and traditional style compositions but entirely in keeping with the album’s story.
Having brought the focus back to Fermanagh, Standing Stone has Mena telling about the house she and Jim built and which she’s now determined not to leave. The music is back to a traditional style, James’ fiddle with guitar from Adrian Lever, the second piece inspired by another trip up to the cairn that tops the summit of Mullyknock. Under any circumstances, Ewan MacColl’s The Joy of Living is capable of producing a lump in the throat of anyone with a love of mountains and wild places. Here it’s given a characteristically poignant treatment from Jez Hellard and is merged with the last few comments from Mena, clear she won’t ever take the walk to the top again, James and his friends will do it for her. Yes, the lump is very definitely there. The album could close on this note but I’m beginning to realise that wouldn’t be the Gavin family way. Instead the final track, First Born, gradually picks up pace, music to get you on your feet and raise your spirits. It also brings in the outstanding flute of Orlaith McAuliffe leaving us with fiddle, Uilleann pipes and flute all interweaving their magic.
For a closing comment I really can’t do better than repeat James’ dedication, For those that have gone and those that are yet to come… …This is a love letter to my family and Ireland.
Order Chewing the Fat via Bandcamp: https://jamespatrickgavin.bandcamp.com/album/chewing-the-fat
For more details and live dates visit: http://jamespatrickgavin.com/
Photo Credit: Keifer Taylor