Bill Clinton was president, Thomas Menino was in only his second year as mayor of Boston, and Bill Belichick was soon to begin the last season of an unremarkable tenure as head coach of the Cleveland Browns on the day in 1995 when Boston-area musician and West Clare native Tommy McCarthy took his friend, accordionist Sharon Shannon, to see the unassuming commercial property in Davis Square he and his wife Louise Costello had recently bought, and planned to turn into a pub.
“We kind of stood there looking at it, and Sharon stepped up, put her two hands to the glass front and looked in,” recalls McCarthy. “‘Well, Tommy,’ she said, ‘it’s awful big, isn’t it?’”
McCarthy described to Shannon the plans for how the pub would be laid out: the bar there, the kitchen over there, a cluster of tables there, there and there. And, he added, there would be an area for concerts and other special events – a back room.
Nineteen years later, McCarthy and Costello would join Shannon, along with guitarist Jim Murray, on the stage of that back room for a couple of reels, and the result has been captured on a recently released CD that celebrates the music series named for the Burren’s renowned performance space. The 14 tracks recorded between October of 2011 and August of 2014 offer a sampler of the now three-and-a-half-year-old Burren Backroom Series, featuring some of the biggest names in the Irish/Celtic music realm of the past few decades, including Dervish, Sliabh Notes, Andy Irvine, Liz Carroll, Jacqueline McCarthy & Tommy Keane, Robbie O’Connell, and Lúnasa.
Oh, and the Backroom Series organizers are quick to point out that the title of the CD includes the tag “Volume 1.”
“There was a phenomenal amount of material to go through, and we easily could’ve made it a three-CD set,” says Brian O’Donovan, who conceived the series with McCarthy and is its host. “It was very challenging to pare down what we had to one disc, and that’s a testament to the quality of the performers – and the quality of the room.”
“I’m absolutely delighted with how the series has turned out,” says McCarthy. “But then, I envisioned it would be a success once Brian became a part of it.”
While The Burren has been a frequent setting for concerts of traditional music and other genres during its nearly two decades, the Backroom Series was conceived with a particular mission and format, says O’Donovan. “The idea was to offer a place where a touring band or individual could come to present traditional music in an ideal way, up close and intimate. Now, of course, The Burren has tradition built into it; it’s part of its DNA. But we also wanted to make the series a homey, relaxing experience for both performer and audience, and create a respectful atmosphere in which the music was front and center.”
To reinforce the casual, comfortable atmosphere, O’Donovan makes a point of engaging the featured performers in conversation at the beginning of each show, getting them to talk a little about some aspect of their involvement and interest in traditional music. Backroom audiences come away knowing that much more about the performers and the music they play.
Obviously, the phrase “traditional music” has always been open to interpretation, and as the CD makes clear, the Backroom Series is built on that foundation of open-mindedness. Its shows reflect a wide range of styles within, and approaches to, traditional music.
For instance, Sliabh Notes (Matt Cranitch, Donal Murphy, and Tommy O’Sullivan) showcases the distinctive Sliabh Luachra tradition with a medley of polkas, while the harp-accordion-fiddle trio of Dermot Byrne, Florianne Blancke, and Brid Harper brings forth the Donegal sound on a jig-reel set. Tommy McCarthy’s sister Jacqueline and her husband Tommy Keane present a taste of the music of County Clare that has been so dear to the McCarthy family.
The post-folk revival concert band model is well represented with Dervish (the song “The Creggan White Hare”), Lúnasa (“The Minor Bee Set”) and a tune set from Scotland’s Battlefield Band. The Backroom CD also celebrates collaborations like the aforementioned Sharon Shannon/Tommy McCarthy/Louise Costello/Jim Murray mash-up, otherworldly fiddler Liz Carroll with guitarist Jake Charron, and the powerful trio The Teetotalers – fiddler Martin Hayes, Lúnasa flutist Kevin Crawford and guitarist John Doyle. On the more exotic side is the Celtic-world music dynamic of Galician piper Carlos Nunez and his band, playing a gloriously regal “Aires de Pontevedra.”
The Backroom also has been fortunate witness to talented singers such as Téada’s Seamus Begley (a performance of the Gaelic song “Cill Mhuire”), Andy Irvine (“Farewell to Fellswater”), Robbie O’Connell (“Farewell Until Tomorrow,” with the chorus getting a generous and loving assist from the audience) and Sean Keane, covering O’Connell’s “Man from Connemara.”
Naturally, an audio archive only conveys so much of a performance. You can’t see, for example, the interplay between Hayes, Crawford, and Doyle as they roar through the set of reels, or Nunez’s unabashed exuberance as he wrings seemingly every possible iota of expressiveness from his bagpipes. You might, however, be able to visualize O’Connell’s smile as he gazes out upon the singing audience.
Likewise, there are sometimes Backroom back stories not even the audience is privy to, as O’Donovan explains: “When Andy Irvine came to do his show, he had some travel difficulties: He ended up arriving in Newark the day of the concert, he had to fight traffic going through New York, and he got to The Burren with hardly any time to spare. But you’d have never known it, because he went up and just did an outstanding show, as that track on the CD indicates. And keep in mind that Andy’s no spring chicken, either – he’s 72; but then, he’s been doing this sort of thing for a while now, so perhaps it’s no surprise.”
O’Donovan and McCarthy look forward to more such memorable moments as the Backroom Series rolls along, and as it continues to explore the full spectrum of traditional music, from the “pure drop” to the more contemporary, multiple-influenced styles. In addition to next month’s line-up, with singer-songwriter Sean Tyrell (April 1), the Máirtín O’Connor Trio (April 15) and April Verch Band (April 23) – see the separate story in this edition on April events in Greater Boston – the Backroom schedule includes legendary uilleann piper Paddy Keenan and the Canadian roots-based band The Duhks.
If the music and ambiance isn’t attraction enough, McCarthy points to a perhaps underappreciated characteristic of Backroom events: Because all the seating is arranged around tables, chances are very good you may wind up sitting next to someone you don’t know. “So,” he explains, “not only do you get to hear some great music, you might make a new friend or two in the bargain.”
To purchase the Backroom Series CD, and to see the Backroom Series schedule, go to burren.com.