James Keane launched his new album "Sweeter as the Years Roll By" at Chief O'Neill's Smithfield on Thursday 4th November 1999. FolkWorld's contributor Sean Laffey was there to report.
There are launches where the company is the finest, launches where the craic is mighty, launches where you'd be destroyed from the mountains of finger food, launches that swamp you with great music. Rarely do you get the full deck. Once in a while something special happens; maybe it's the venue, could it be the mix of people, the relaxed organisation or simply the sense of history and occasion? When you get the full combination as I did at tonight's launch, it is like the best hand of bridge; No Trumps: four aces and all the pictures.
Chief O'Neill's is a very special new venue on the north bank of the River Liffey, it is an ambitious mixture of history and modern technology, it says "look here this is 90's Ireland, we are the fastest growing economy in Europe, we have the youngest population in the EU; but we haven't forgotten how to party and we are damn proud of our heritage.
Tonight a crowd from two continents gathered to pay their respects to an accordion player who is very much a part of that rich musical history that is celebrated by the bricks and mortar of Chief O'Neill's. Although this accordion player hasn't been what you'd call a prolific recording artist, he has nonetheless been generous with his music. A measure of the respect fellow professionals have for him can be judged from the fact that Greg Anderson, who recorded the album, flew in from Paris breaking his return journey to the States just to be here. Fellow Shanachie team mates, John Doyle, Winnie Horan, the lads from Danú represented the younger generation, as did Turas, the youthful band who are equal partners in the music with James on his latest disc. Heritage doesn't stand still in Ireland it is carried forward with the generations, and often in the past, as with James Keane it has travelled and flourished on foreign shores.
James Keane now lives in New York, but at heart he's still a boy from south Dublin, (Drimnagh to be exact). He hasn't lost the accent and his recall of the early sixties around Thomas St. and Church St is as vivid as ever. "We used to go for chips, just across the road there, between breaks in the music" he told me just before the official launch. Séamus MacMathuna and Mick O'Connor gave us more of this historical background, tales of madcap trips to Fleadhs in Longford, wild dangerous visits to West Clare. Rows and ructions, hilarious re-tellings of digging matches (the Irish version of heated sibling rivalry), scrapes and scraps between the teenage James and brother Sean.
That brother has been one of the fiddlers in the Chieftains for over twenty years, he's the tall blond one - as Seamus remarked "he always seemed to be at least seven feet tall."
Harry Bradshaw presented the brothers with a CD from the Ceol archive. We were treated to a snatch of tunes as the CD was played over the PA system. The sounds of two young lads caught forever on tape and a regular feature in the Ceol experience. There were barrel load of thanks, James said he'd "wouldn't cross the road without the assistance of producer Garry O'Briain," such was his contribution to the album. Thanks too to those musicians who had been there at the beginning, Jim Seery of the Piper's Club, John Kelly who lived around the block on Capel St.
Then a rare treat, James was joined by brother Sean and Garry O'Briain for a set of tunes, the one's they did together on the album, Micho Russle's, The Little Pig Lamenting the Trough and Paddy Taylor's. As if this wasn't enough another set of tunes followed from the trio, then a third, this time we had something historic. Mairead Hanly, dancing to the Ballymahon Reel, composed by her father and James' uncle, the late James Hanly (RIP). The crowd formed a semi-circle around the stage giving Mairead the main breadth of the floor to move to the music. It could have been sentimental, even mawkish, but no, it was as if time had stood still, a case of tradition transcending the clock.
Formalities over we all retired to the main bar, itís a huge space, with very high ceilings, full of light and air, it has a balcony where you can relax around small tables, sip the points of plain and take in the action on the mezzanine floor beneath you. This lower space filled rapidly filled with players who I suspect would have shovelled through a snowdrift to join James. As he settled in for a few hours of music making with old friends, I counted the number of "names" who were simply standing by and watching it all unfold before them, Mary Bergin, Tom Doorley, Antoinette McKenna, Winnie Horan, John Doyle, the list goes on.
If a box player can draw an audience like that he must be something special. Special night, special treat.
James new album Sweeter as the Years Roll By is available from Shanachie Records, Catalogue Number Shanachie 78031. Like James itís a class act.
Photo Credit: All by Sean Laffey
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