Wednesday, May 2, 2007

The Humours of Planxty: My IBR review

The Irish Book Review (3.2 Spring 2007; pp. 29-30) published my review of this new book on Planxty by the splendidly named Leagues O'Toole. My copy arrived today; I admit I was delighted to see it there. The first American reviewer in the IBR's pages there to appear, I gather from the notes after each contributor's entry in my small stack of issues from the start. Not inexpensive, but an intelligent and necessary publication that we need now more than ever in an age where, as both the LA and NY Times in articles noted the past few days, book reviewing in traditional media is diminishing. While the managing editor who encouraged my effort, Brian Langan, is departing for Poolbeg Press, I send him and his colleagues at IBR my thanks for their handsomely designed and attractively edited magazine.


Leagues O’Toole
Hodder Headline Ireland, hardcover
334 pp, €19.99, 0-340-83796-9

Reviewed by John L. Murphy

Christy Moore muses how he enjoyed his two hours on stage each night with his bandmates; the “other twenty-two hours”, however, proved difficult. Leagues O’Toole presents Christy’s predicament as part of the challenge shared by his three colleagues in Planxty. O’Toole compiles their collective biography after his Planxty documentary for RTÉ television’s No Disco. The young author idolizes them as predecessors to his own musical era rather than his grizzled contemporaries. O’Toole favours too worshipful a tone, tending towards superlatives. Still, this readable account reveals much about Christy Moore, Andy Irvine, Liam O’Flynn, and Dónal Lunny-- interspersed with chapters analyzing each album. O’Toole concentrates upon the band’s renowned original incarnation, from 1972 to 1975.

Like the Beatles, four musicians contributed distinctive talents. Dónal and Christy grew up in Newbridge, Kildare; Dónal’s mother hailed from Donegal, so from the pair’s boyhood they heard varied traditional influences, alongside pop, jazz, rock, and folk. Christy dominated floorboards with bodhrán and banter; Dónal arranged many rare tunes he played on bouzouki. Andy left London and a child acting career. He roamed 1960s Ireland with mandola or guitar, inspired by Woody Guthrie. Liam hailed from Kill in Kildare, with a Dingle father. Liam studied under Leo Rowsome, Willie Clancy, and Séamus Ennis, “three monoliths of uilleann piping”. (p. 24)

Liam’s rigor, combined with Andy’s dramatic sensibility, created “filigree” patterns elaborated by Dónal and grounded by Christy. Andy and Christy, already skilled singers, presented old tunes alongside new folk songs and original ballads during incessant touring. This wore them down rapidly; drink and drugs fueled energy but hastened dissipation. Contracted for six albums after an unwise deal with Phil Coulter and his management that generated the band little income, Planxty recorded. Although limited by Coulter and Nicky Ryan’s awkward production, their albums gained acclaim. Their lively début, aka “The Black Album”, grabbed attention; they topped this with “The Well Below the Valley”. After Dónal’s departure, a fair “Cold Blow and the Rainy Night” appeared with ex-Sweeney’s Men (as was Andy) Johnny Moynihan. O’Toole may settle pub contests: Johnny, rather than Dónal or Andy as often asserted, popularized first the “Irish” bouzouki.

Andy and Dónal overlaid strummed and plucked ornamentation atop Liam’s fluid piping and Christy’s deft percussion. This sophisticated style gave rock fans a traditional band that played as if it was louder. Planxty’s drive amplified them rather than electricity. Planxty appealed to a broader audience than that for traditional music with which Liam had been raised. Alarming CCÉ purists, Liam’s control disciplined Planxty, while Andy and Christy stirred an earthier mood. Dónal refined their arrangements with an increasingly adept intricacy rivaling that of jazz, bluegrass, or classical masters. They blended devotion to the Irish tradition with modern experimentation.

O’Toole recounts too little of the craic that he claims delighted crowds; excerpts from Andy’s tour diaries, however, tally the impact of poor roads, low pay, much drink, and a sleeping bag for shelter that filled for years his other twenty-two hours. O’Toole displays press clippings, promotional material, and in one telling instance a newspaper ad listing a nationwide tour. One night they play Cork, the next Sligo. Another day they leave Drogheda for Donegal; Galway to Newry demands a third journey. The ad promises thirty-one concerts, all in cinema venues, scheduled without a day’s break. Understandably, Planxty lost momentum. After three albums they halted. Three years later, the founding four recruited Paul Brady and Matt Molloy. They enjoyed Dónal’s producing skills but unstable line-ups (including Bill Whelan, Arty McGlynn, and Dolores Keane) persisted. This Planxty struggled from 1978 to1983.

O’Toole’s attention to the band’s interim years strengthens the tale’s “down time”. Andy and Paul under Dónal’s guidance cut a classic 1976 LP. Matt and Dónal joined the second Irish trad supergroup, The Bothy Band. Liam with Shaun Davey, and Christy in Moving Hearts (later with Dónal) matured musically, freed from Planxty’s instrumental selections and conceptual design.

The work concludes with O’Toole’s fulsome recollections of making the documentary and Planxty’s reunion in 2003. He only skims Christy’s activism and recent recordings; he barely mentions Andy’s stint with Patrick Street or Andy’s recent partnership with Dónal in Musaik. Typos mar this book. A second use of “monolith” puzzles. Christy sings “Little Musgrave”; O’Toole notes that “it takes a special voice to sing such a poetically sewn monolith”. (p. 278)

Usually, O’Toole’s diligent narrative suffices. He mixes his own conversations with the band into coverage from press archives. This combination plays off O’Toole’s position as authorized chronicler against earlier journalists both well- and ill-informed. Paul Brady and Johnny Moynihan earn their place, as O’Toole credits their often overlooked contributions to this memorable band generously and fairly.

{My name} coordinates the Humanities sequence at {name of employer}, and researches Irish literary and musical cultures.

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