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All text (c) Ita Kelly 2009
It’s not easy to sum up the thirty nine years of music making and entertainment that Shaskeen have been at the forefront of Irish Traditional Music. Listening to their new CD ‘Walking Up Town’ it is clear they are going to be leading the way for quite a while yet.
Having been caught up like many musical groups in the whirlwind of the set-dancing era, Shaskeen’s last four albums were of music for the sets. Now they are making a change to concert style performances.
Album number fifteen got its first showcase at the launch in Ennis on January 17th and it marks a return to their original musical formula. It’s an album ‘for listening to’ and features a generous collection of jigs, reels, waltzes, polkas, barndances, and songs. The title tune ‘Walking up Town’ is an American ‘breakdown’, a fun rag-style tune. It’s probably the best summing up the band could ask for.
It is hard to beat well-seasoned musicians and the members of Shaskeen are as experienced as they are skilful. Another winning thing about Shaskeen is that they have maintained the same ethos over the many years and the many variations in line-up. Although quick to tell you how much work everyone else does in the band, the continuity may be because of founding member Tom Cussen who has steered the course of the band and managed its affairs.
There is a great honesty to Shaskeen, in every way, their music, the way they perform and in the way they get along together. The current line-up boasts eight musicians, all well known in their own right, and on ‘Walking Up Town’ they also have a number of invited guests.
Formed in London in 1970, at a time when Irish Traditional Music was at its peak, Tom Cussen responded to a request from the owner of the Oxford Tavern (now changed) in Kentish Town to put a band together to play on Friday nights. Tom had been in London since late ‘67 having moved there from Galway and was playing in sessions in some of the music pubs. The first line up included husband and wife team, Johnny and Maureen Minogue (on accordion and fiddle), Sean McDonagh on flute and Benny O’Connor on drums. Tom and Benny had met through the Fleadh Ceoil Competition in London and a ceili band they competed with called The Old House Ceili Band.
“I think the name came about” remembers Tom, “because I was probably after learning The Shaskeen reel, and I said we’ll call it The Shaskeen Band and it stuck. We played every Friday night for 12 months in the Oxford Tavern, and we had no singer at the time. We sat up there belting out jigs, reels, a few hornpipes and waltzes, and the place used to be heaving.”
Tom returned to Galway in 1971 when he was offered a job there and became immersed in the music scene, playing in pubs and attending the Comhaltas sessions which were held in O’Reilly’s in Forster Street. As it happened, Benny had also returned to Galway and they met one day in Eyre Square. Tom had also met up with P.J. Hernon in O’ Reilly’s and said to him he was thinking of re-starting the band. P.J. was interested and so they started with P.J. on accordion, Benny on drums, Johnny Dooley on guitar and vocals and Tom on banjo. They rehearsed and found they played together well, and began playing in O’Reilly’s on Wednesday nights. Brian Mooney, another legendary character in Galway musical history joined the band when Johnny was unavailable. “It went from zero to log jammed as well” recalls Tom about that early success in O’ Reilly’s. They began playing in other venues around the county and one notable residency they had was in The Shamrock Bar in Tuam where they played every Monday night for two years. “People went out that time four or five nights a week” says Tom, “There was a huge amount of live music.”
P.J. stayed with the band for two years. Connie Murphy joined after that for about six months to be followed by Johnny Walsh from Kiltimagh, Co. Mayo who stayed with the band for some seven or eight years.
They recorded their first album in 1974 with Release Cabaret, and quickly followed it with albums in 1975, 1976 and 1978. The years from the mid-70s to the mid-80s were the band’s busiest time. “We were really up there with the best of them” says Tom. And they were, their records were in every household in the country. Certainly in Co. Galway, Shaskeen were top of the hill, synonymous with dancing and fun. They could be heard on Radio Éireann every week; their records were played regularly, increasing their popularity and fame.
They continued to record, issuing singles, EPs and four more albums during the 1980s. The band line up changed from time to time, with Sean Conway, Mike Fahy and Sean Keane coming in as singers. Charlie Harris was with the band for some 14 years on accordion. Kevin Rohan stepped in and out as he was available and featured on several recordings.
They didn’t confine themselves to Ireland but spread the good music to England going there up to three times a year. “In latter years we’ve travelled to Spain and Germany and Norway to festivals. One memorable trip was when we played in Moscow in 1990.” says Tom. “We did America a good few times but getting into America is hard work – it’s difficult to cover and you need a lot of people doing the groundwork. Now we’d like to go back and do some of the festivals and hopefully with this line up we’ll get invitations to do so.”
The set dancing era descended on Ireland in the early 1990s and dances and the cabaret pub music scene changed utterly. Shaskeen adapted and took to the longer more arduous gigs that set dancing demanded with the same vigour they approached the cabaret and dance performances.
“Dances at the time would be ceili and old time and there would be sets as well.” says Tom. “But there was a great mixture; you’d be doing a quickstep in the middle of it as well. When the set dancing came in, at the beginning you had ceili and set dancing, then the set dancing took over and the waltzes disappeared almost out of it, but they’re beginning to come back again a bit now because people want a bit of enjoyment.”
“Walking Up Town” represents a return to that former style where interaction with the audience and variety in the performance is to the fore. It is augmented by some modern influences introduced by the new members in the band. Tom explains Shaskeen’s early musical formula,
“We were doing the cabaret thing, the folk thing, the jigs and reels, and I think the combination that we had at the time was relatively new, in the sense that we had box, banjo, drums and guitar. There was a right ould kick out of it, even if I say so myself. I think people enjoyed that aspect of it. Maybe it was a bit raw but it was good and lively and the whole emphasis really was on entertainment and talking to people. The idea of talking to people and having the craic and just bouncing off people and they off you, and that’s still happening today and that’s why we want to go back.”
In the current line-up on ‘Walking Up Town’, Tom Cussen is the only one of the founding members still there but Benny O Connor who retired from the group five years ago joins the band for a number of tracks. Eamon Cotter is the next longest serving member with some twenty years in its ranks. Seán Conway who soldiered with the band for many years also makes a welcome return with the great sing along ‘All for me Grog’. P.J. Curtis who produced the album got the gentlemen in the band to provide backing vocals, perhaps the first time we have heard their dulcet tones on a CD. Sean Tyrell who once toured with Shaskeen also guests with the beautiful ‘Angel’s Whisper’, a poem that he recently set to music.
At the core of the band are Tom Cussen on banjo, Eamon Cotter on flute, Patsy McDonagh on accordion, Johnny Donnellan on bodhrán, Pat Costello on banjo, mandolin and guitar, Pat Broderick on pipes and whistle, Tony Howley on flute and saxophone and Geraldine Cotter on piano. Geraldine accompanied Shaskeen on all their recordings for the sets and is now a regular in the band. Pat Costello has a long involvement with Shaskeen having produced many of their recordings before becoming a regular band member.
For their launch in Ennis on Jan 17th last, Shaskeen had the full ensemble present with guests and the additional musicians who appeared on the album – Alan Wallace on guitar and Maeve Boyd on fiddle. It was a joyous occasion and the music was out of this world. The banter from the stage was humorous and entertaining and there was never a dull moment.
A unique spirit in traditional Irish music, Shaskeen has something special. They have an ease and a comfort with each other, a one-ness with the music and a love for the craic and especially for their audiences.
All text (c) Ita Kelly 2008
Matt Keane is a curious mixture of devilment and determination, quick witted and humorous both on and off stage but also earnest about his work and music. “I’m desperately serious at the back of the whole lot” he says, “It’s determination rather than intent, when I put something into my head, nothing really moves it.”
‘Every picture tells a story’ he says in the sleeve notes to his new album ‘Pictures in Time’, and this, his second release in less than two years is aptly named. ‘Any collection of songs” he continues, “is a snapshot of that period in your life, although you don’t realise it until you look back”
Matt is one of the renowned Keane family from Caherlistrane in Co. Galway and like his siblings has been singing all his life. “It was a very natural thing” he says. “We didn’t learn music at all, we absorbed it.” Although singing all his life like the rest of his family, his early forays were in musicals and operas, performing in over 25 productions with Tuam’s Marian Choral Society and the Headford Musical Society. His first role in 1979 was as Detlef in ‘The Student Prince.’ “That gave me the confidence to go out in front of any stage” he says.
His first recording experience was in 1984 on ‘Muintir Catháin’, an album by Gael Linn which featured the whole family, Teresa, Pat Christina, Matt, Dolores, Noel and Seán, as well as his parents Bridie and Matt snr and his aunts Rita and Sarah.
More recently he recorded ‘Echoes of the Valley’ with Kevin Coyne, with whom he has performed in pubs and sessions for over fifteen years. Then in 2002 he recorded again, this time with his brothers Seán, Pat and Noel as ‘Citizens Keane’ and they performed a series of sell out concerts around the country.
Matt is a curious mixture of devilment and determination, quick witted and humorous both on and off stage but also earnest about his work and music “I’m desperately serious at the back of the whole lot” he says, “It’s determination rather than intent, when I put something into my head, nothing really moves it.”
Recording his own album was always a dream and in 2006 he began the process in earnest, putting down a song here and there, culminating in the release of ‘Out in the Fields’ in January 2007. A perfectly produced package, its acoustic ballads and folk songs were greeted with enormous enthusiasm and Matt has been performing to full houses at his concerts ever since.
Matt himself has five children and naturally being Keanes, they all sing as well. His second daughter Orlaith sang on Matt’s first album, Mary Chapin Carpenter’s ‘The Moon and St. Christopher’. On ‘Pictures in Time’ she sings almost half of the tracks. Gaining confidence and enjoying performing since the earlier effort, Orlaith demonstrates her ability and massive potential. Matt recalls “They all would sing a song at parties and occasions like that but when Orlaith would sing, everyone would be quiet. She has something special as well as being able to sing. Lots of people can sing. I think it’s more than that. Its being able to pick a song that she’s able to do and make a good job of it.”
Like their Dad, Orlaith and her sisters Eimear and Eilish, gave their first performance on stage with the Marion Choral Society. “I was Mr. Snow in ‘Carousel’” says Matt, “and they were my children. They sang and walked around the stage with me.” After that it was sessions at home, choirs and groups in school and whenever the opportunity arose to sing.
For Orlaith herself recording has been quite a new experience. “I don’t think I would have ever thought about it” she says. “Daddy said one day, ‘For the craic why don’t you go in and do a song and see how it turns out’. It wasn’t really decided, it just happened. A lot of people wouldn’t get the opportunity to do it, so it’s brilliant.”
“Scary!” was how she described her daunting first stage appearance at the Town Hall Theatre, Galway last year. Now she looks forward to the concerts. “I love it” she says, “and there’s more stuff I’d love to do.”
Her interests and influences in music are quite diverse. Crystal Gayle was a great favourite of herself and her sisters growing up, now she enjoys some of the American country singers like Alison Krauss and Tricia Yearwood. Of the Irish divas, her favourite is probably Maura O’ Connell, but she also likes Mary Black, and of course her aunt Dolores Keane has always been a strong influence.
On ‘Pictures in Time’ Orlaith showcases a variety of songs in style and tempo. The gentle country rhythm, of “I Wish it would Rain” gives way to the more up tempo beat of Alison Krauss’ ‘The Lucky One’ and ‘Candlelight and Wine’, Richard Thompson’s ‘Farewell Farewell” and Eric Bogle’s ‘Leaving the Land’ are thoughtful and plaintive, while Tricia Yearwood’s ‘Hearts in Armour’ is full of emotion and feeling.
On stage Matt and Orlaith share just one song – the Dick Gaughan classic ‘Both Sides the Tweed’ and their harmonising is definitely something they will do more of in future, given the right material.
Matt’s songs come from a variety of sources as well. ‘Somebody Special’ written by his good friend Don Stiffe has already become a favourite with his audiences. He covers two John Prine songs; the swinging ballad ‘Souvenirs’ and ‘Hello in There’, a song he chose because of its personal meaning to him going to visiting his mother now living in a nursing home. He takes the local ballad ‘The Lovely Green Woodlands of Ower’, and having researched its origins dedicates his new treatment of it to local man John Joe Garvey, who sang it as his party piece for years.
“If I try to analyse myself with a song, I would say it has to be melodic and tell a story” says Matt. “I’m drawn to songs and sometimes I don’t know why I’m drawn to them. I’m drawn to writers who can paint a picture for me with words.”
Sometimes songs are personal, and sometimes they are full of emotion, it’s important for Matt to feel the songs and as he sings he brings that understanding out. Orlaith displays that same forthright and honest quality in her singing as well; it’s a family trait.
Before going into studio, Matt always works out the initial arrangement for the songs himself. The three main musicians in his band multi instrumentalist Seán Regan, keyboard player Peter Gannon and guitarist Pat Coyne then take over. Matt refers to them as ‘the three divine persons’ because together they are at the core of the recording and performance. At the live gigs, the band also includes fiddle and drums.
At the moment Matt manages all the organisation around his concerts and promotions. He enjoys it but it is hard work and the future plan is to have someone else doing the management, publicity and organisation. He and Orlaith would also like to travel further afield, throughout Ireland and to Europe and America.
“We’re filling a niche that nobody is filling around here” says Matt. “It’s toe in the water for us at the moment. Our music needs a platform. It’s hard to get the people to travel but it’s easy for us to travel to them, and that’s our plan, to develop it and get people to hear it.”