The Song Harvest

Paul Brady

The Song Harvest

Paul Brady's songs have soundtracked Ireland since the 1970s, crossing many styles, but what are the characteristics that bind his songwriting together? Deirdre Clare, in the latest review from our Journal of Music/Clare County Council Music Writer Mentoring Scheme, listens to a song-rich performance at Glór.

Paul Brady, bespectacled troubadour, folk-rock artist of long standing within the Irish music scene. Known to me first as a songwriter, he was part of my 1980s upbringing in recession-era Dublin, with a voice full of passion and courage, and perhaps the energy to unstick the stuck locks of self-expression in a Dublin of few opportunities. My father spoke in awed tones of Brady shushing crowds harshly when they didn’t listen to him in clubs. That self-belief required to shush the crowd and demand silence for his voice was a high-tide marker of artistic courage for me for years to come. Where did he get his spit?

Probably from his previous folk and traditional music career, but that was all news to us. To us, Paul Brady was a symbol of a new kind of Irish singer-songwriter, whose material was rooted in an accessible pop/rock style but laced through with tight musical intelligence, great guitar playing and an unashamed, unsentimental examination of life and love. He even had the courage to approach hot-button topics like the Troubles in the North of Ireland and the trials of living in England as an Irish person during those times. For me, Brady’s honesty and emotional courage around both desire and disappointment were a breath of fresh air in a country not entirely mature enough to admit to either. Brady’s set of solo albums from Hard Station in 1981 and onwards to Spirits Colliding in 1995 mark the rise and rise of a talented and committed artist.

Unique, uncomfortable story
It was with all this in mind that I went to see Brady at his recent show in Glór in Ennis. My feelings towards him had cooled considerably in recent years. His output throughout the noughties had not inspired me.  His songs had moved towards an easier, more platitude-riven place where positivity reigned and an ‘easy listening’ ethos seemed to have replaced his earlier pent-up intensity. He was more famous for other people singing his songs than he himself and this seemed a sad achievement for someone so able to tell his own unique and uncomfortable story.  

On 21 July last, the stage was ready for a solo performance – guitars, mandolin, keyboard and grand piano all laid out for Brady to move between. He comes on, casually dressed, exuding a comfortable, benign presence. With the instruments around him, the tone is set for an evening of discovery and a sense of songs being brought out as treasures to be examined.

Back to the centre
Brady began with some less well-known material from his later albums, ‘The Law of Love’ from Oh What a World (2000) and continuing with two songs from his 2005 album Say What You Feel, ‘The You That’s Really You’ and ‘Smile’. I fear I won’t enjoy this lighter material, which seems a tad trite and full of exhortations to be my best self. Musically, the songs sound more formulaic than someone of Brady’s talent should need. However, there is a charm to these songs in performance that takes me by surprise.

Making reference to his new album, Unfinished Business, which has just been released (8 September), he plays ‘Harvest Time’ in which he makes humorous reference to ‘howling out of tune, up at someone else’s harvest moon’. Brady is open with the crowd, in a disarming way, about his frustration that he has never really hit the ‘big time’ as an artist. ‘Harvest Time’ is a comfortable, witty song of acknowledgement of his hard time at the hands of ‘Mother Nature’, who has not yet aligned the stars in his favour. 

I start to get excited with the opening notes of ‘Wheel of Heartbreak’ from Back to the Centre (1985) and my feeling is mirrored in a warm murmur of approval from the crowd. Brady has moved to the piano for this and ‘Unfinished Business’, the title track from the new collection. There is a powerful connection between singer and audience during these songs and we start to be reminded of the power of some of these earlier works with their rock beats, synth-licks and ambitious production values. There is an earthy intimacy about the title track, but it is somewhat obscured by his struggle to accompany himself on the piano. Making out that he is sweating from his exertions he head-butts the mike, accidentally, and moves back to the centre to resume playing the guitar.

Stories
Brady’s hit, ‘The Long Goodbye’ (Oh What a World), co-written with Ronan Keating, follows and then a move backwards to the extremely well received ‘Mary and the Soldier’. Addressing the shift in genre from rock’n’roll back to his earlier folk catalogue, Brady quips, ‘it’s nice to have a couple of stories’. I have only recently delved further into Brady’s traditional catalogue, but have always loved his assured playing and musical presentation of these songs. His voice too seems to lose some of its worn edges on these melodies. Brady moves to the mandolin for a joyful rendition of ‘The Jolly Soldier/The Blarney Pilgrim’.

As the momentum of the gig gathers pace, Brady gives us a masterful re-imagining of ‘Nobody Knows’ on guitar from the Trick or Treat album (1991). There is no fanfare when he sits at the piano to play ‘The Island’, the most beautiful and self-depreciating love/protest song ever written. I hold this song as the ultimate proof of the value of the subjective made universal. One man’s story, ‘Hey, don’t listen to me, this wasn’t meant to be no sad song’, cuts to the quick of the tragedy of young deaths in Northern Ireland and more. It’s a testament to his talent and his unique gift to Irish music. In a world of rebel songs, he crafts the ultimate protest from a song of tenderness and longing.

The crowd erupts and he follows through to a triumphant rendition of ‘Crazy Dreams’ from Hard Station (1981). By the time Brady finishes with ‘The World Is What You Make It’ from Spirits Colliding , the audience are singing along to every word. Throughout this solo set, Brady’s guitar playing is elastic and interesting in a way that is unique to his playing. He doesn’t seem to accept the limitation of what the instrument can do and achieves a multi-layered accompaniment that defies expectation. 

The musical world feels like a rich place with Brady up in charge of the stage. Harvest or no, there is a wealth of music here that he can bring forward for our pleasure. 

For more, visit www.paulbrady.com

This review is published as part of a new scheme for music writers in County Clare. The Journal of Music/Clare County Council Music Writer Mentoring Scheme is supported by Clare Arts Office and was launched in March 2017. Over 12 months, the editorial team of The Journal of Music will work with four new writers – Deirdre Clare, Ian Bascombe, Ruth Smith and Alan Reid  – to expand the magazine’s coverage of musical life in the county. The first review, focusing on the Riches of Clare concert series, is published here (Ian Bascombe).

This is one of two schemes currently underway. A second – supported by Galway City Council  – supports five new writers to cover musical life in Galway City. See the first three reviews from the Galway scheme here (Vincent Hughes), here (Jake Morgan) and here (Dylan Murphy).

For further details on the background to the schemes, please visit https://goo.gl/QY83ga. 

Published on 13 September 2017

Deirdre Clare is a piano player and singer and writes her own material, both classical and contemporary folk. Her piece for viola and tape, 'Fite Fuaite', was chosen by Roger Doyle to be included in a series of contemporary music concerts and she has recently written music for Barry Casey’s play, 'Another August'. Deirdre teaches piano at Coole Music in Gort.

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