Like many musicians throughout Greater Boston – and beyond – Flynn Cohen feels he owes a lot to the late guitarist-mandolinist John McGann, a much-beloved figure in the area’s Irish music community. Along with considerable amounts of advice, inspiration, and wisdom that he bequeathed to Cohen over the years, McGann had a key role in planting the seed for a fascinating music project that has now borne fruit.
That project would be Cohen’s Deadstring Ensemble, which explores the connections between various acoustic genres, principally Irish and old-time Appalachian, but also bluegrass, folk-rock, and even early music. They’ve just released their first CD, “The Lazy Farmer” (Wepecket Island Records), and will mark the occasion with a concert at Club Passim in Harvard Square on May 5.
McGann was an original member of the band, whose ranks also include Matt Heaton and Danny Noveck. His death in April of 2012 came about a year after the Deadstring Ensemble’s founding; their album is dedicated to McGann, described as “mentor, friend, bandmate, plucked-string virtuoso, musical and comic genius.” But as Cohen relates, McGann’s contribution to Deadstring goes back a few years before it actually came together.
“I released a CD in 2005 called ‘Mellow Yell,’ which was mainly traditional and original American music and bluegrass,” says Cohen. “I wrote a tune, ‘Dogwood Reel,’ on which I played guitar, and John accompanied me on mandolin and octave mandolin. Even though the tune definitely was in the character of American folk tradition, John gave it some Irish-Celtic touches, and that particular track got a lot of accolades.
“So for my next album, ‘Fierce Modal’ [released in 2009] – which was all original tunes – I employed that methodology of fusing different musical influences: bluegrass, old-time, Irish traditional, folk rock, early music. And the more I thought about the experience, the more I thought how cool it would be to have a band which was rooted in that concept.”
To get the sound he envisioned, Cohen recruited three of his favorite guitar players who, like Cohen, also played other instruments – McGann, Heaton, and Noveck. Whatever their individual backgrounds, all four had considerable involvement in Irish/Celtic music: McGann, though very much rooted in American music, was no stranger to Irish music, and was part of the legendary trio The Boston Edge, with fiddler Seamus Connolly and accordionist Joe Derrane (McGann played on Derrane’s “Grove Lane” CD); Heaton, who also performs on bouzouki and bodhran, is half of a popular Irish-American duo with his wife Shannon; Noveck (mandolin, fiddle) has performed or recorded with a number of prominent Irish musicians like John Whelan, Jerry O’Sullivan, and Liz Carroll, and teaches at the music school run by Boston’s Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann branch.
Cohen himself – a former student of English guitarist John Renbourn, his resume includes stints with the John Whelan Band, Cathie Ryan, Aoife Clancy, and Lawrence Nugent, among others – has long been interested in the links between the American music tradition and those of Ireland, England, and Scotland, and has traversed some of this ground in his “neo-trad” band Annalivia (co-founded with his wife, Liz Simmons, who sings harmony vocals in spots on “The Lazy Farmer”).
The last couple of decades have been rife with Irish and American musical fusion, from the ubiquitous Steve Earle song “Galway Girl” to the work of Tim O’Brien, Grada, and Maura O’Connell, to name a few; there are reel sets pairing uilleann pipes alongside dobros and five-string (as opposed to tenor) banjos, or contemporary Nashville-style songs peppered with Irish flute or tin whistle. But Cohen and his cohorts zero in on the DNA of American music, largely via field recordings and published collections of songs or tunes from rural North Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky and elsewhere within sight of the Appalachians.
Rather than imbuing the songs with an urban-contemporary, neutral voice, Cohen’s singing retains the “high lonesome sound” with which they are associated, while his guitar essays those equally classic, intricate runs associated with bluegrass. But instead of employing banjos or dobros – or perhaps a string bass with a steady 2/4 rhythm – the bouzouki-mandolin (and occasional fiddle) backdrop Heaton and Noveck provide recalls the fretted-string dynamic of the late 1960s/70s Irish bands like Planxty.
“Matt and Danny didn’t come in with the experience or familiarity with old-time, bluegrass and other American music that John and I did,” says Cohen. “But instead of asking them to step outside what they do, I figured I’d use their strengths to support the arrangements, because these tunes, and the melodies of these songs, have so much in common with the music of Ireland and Britain.
“So what we do is apply a kind of contemporary Irish approach to the American versions of Irish-Anglo songs and tunes.”
Nuances like that may or may not interest listeners, but the virtues and rewards of this approach on “The Lazy Farmer” are many. On the North Carolina fiddle tune “Lady Hamilton,” for example, Cohen flatpicks the melody with Heaton’s bouzouki tracing a counterpoint before shifting to more of a chordal accompaniment, at which time Noveck’s mandolin enters to double up the melody; at times, it sounds like a hornpipe you’d hear at your local Irish session. Cohen also leads the way on the tune medley “Fine Times at Our House/Falls of Richmond,” but the presence of Heaton’s bodhran and Noveck’s fiddle once again hint at the Irish/Celtic influences.
The songs, whether you consider them at face (ear?) value or in the Anglo-Irish context, are simply outstanding. Deadstring’s arrangements give plenty of space to the vocals, and the duets with Cohen and Simmons in particular, on the briskly paced “Neighbor Girl” and “Black Is the Color,” are nothing short of delightful; on both songs, as Cohen points out, his guitar-playing borrows elements from Irish, bluegrass and old-time.
Of course, what would an album celebrating the Anglo-Irish-American folk tradition be without a couple of chilling murder ballads? Cohen selects some real beauties. A North Carolina song, “Young Emily” – with the distinctive steeply descending interval in the first line of each verse, like a fatal fall from a cliff – features a recurring guitar-bouzouki-fiddle riff that could’ve come as easily from a 1970s Paul Brady album (and, in fact, Brady did record a version of the song), and at one point an ominous, the-bell-tolls-for-thee strumming pattern by Cohen (also, the lyrics have their special brand of dark humor: “Young Edmund fell to drinking/and then fell into bed…”). “Conversation with Death” is about as goosebump-inducing as they come (a popular version of this song is Ralph Stanley’s cameo in the film “O Brother Where Art Thou?”), what with pronouncements like “I’ve come to get your soul/leave your body, and leave it cold/drop the flesh from off your frame/the earth and worms will have their claim,” as Heaton’s bouzouki and Noveck’s mandolin help churn the pot.
But back to those nuances and subtleties, because they do make for some fun, enlightening revelations. For instance, “Sailor Being Tired” has Cohen’s vocals accompanied solely by an Indian drone instrument called a sruti box; listening to the inflections and ornaments as he sings over the sustained notes, it’s easy to imagine uilleann pipes playing a slow air. Then there’s “Mathie Grove,” which has all the makings (all-consuming passion, adultery, nudity, and murder) of an archetypal “Game of Thrones” subplot: With its pace and feel, as well as the Cohen-written instrumental at the end, it serves up a Southern mountains-style tribute to the groundbreaking version recorded by Fairport Convention.
The other, not-to-be-overlooked reward in “The Lazy Farmer” is the liner notes Cohen provides for each track, as well as information on the guitar tunings used on the album, and even on the modes (scales) that make up the songs. There’s a lot of technical stuff that may go right over the head, but also plenty of useful details on song/tune sources and antecedents – as well as anecdotal nuggets, such as about the fiddler Edden Hammons (source for the aforementioned “Fine Times/Richmond” set), whose response to his wife’s suggestion that he get a job was, “I’ll lay my fiddle down for no damn woman.”
And Cohen also adds, where appropriate, a note about his own engagement with a particular song or tune – in some cases, a field recording of a traditional singer or musician; in another case, a Grateful Dead album. In this way, Cohen and the Deadstring Ensemble make their brand of music accessible on a number of levels, from the intellectual to the personal. Which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to resist.