Dan Gurney, musician, entrepreneur, writer, Lives Life by ‘Just Seeing What Comes Along’

By Sean Smith
Special to the BIR

How’s this for a resume? Graduated from a prestigious Boston-area university. Trekked around the world as a travel writer and video maker (experiences included finagling a prime location at the annual solstice celebration at Stonehenge). Spent a year in Ireland soaking up as much traditional music as is humanly possible. Returned to Boston to start an Internet broadcast enterprise that might possibly be the next big thing in live music.
Oh, and he is already long-established as one of the more talented young Irish accordion players on the East Coast. And he’s starting his own record label to help preserve traditional music.
Such is the life of Dan Gurney, and that’s just from the past couple of years.
Hardly in his mid-20s, Gurney would seem to be a natural candidate for the “Renaissance Man” tag, given his assorted activities and interests, which include playing tunes that go back decades, if not centuries, and honing his expertise in the latest Internet audio-visual technology. But in conversation, at least, Gurney is laconic about how he integrates the various facets of his life. There’s no dynamic, unifying vision at work here, just a guy who feels comfortable slipping into whatever role -- musician, entrepreneur, writer -- is required of him.
“I’ve always been independent, and enjoyed working on my own projects,” says Gurney, a native of Rhinebeck, NY, about two hours north of New York City. The son of artist and illustrator James Gurney (creator of the science/fantasy series Dinotopia), he says he has had an up-close and personal example of successful self-employment. “I like to be able to act on an idea without having to clear it with other people.”
Which is not to say that Gurney doesn’t work and play well with others. Since arriving in the Boston area as a freshman at Harvard more than five years ago, he has appeared with such eminent local musicians as Jimmy Noonan, Joe Derrane, and Matt and Shannon Heaton (he appeared on their CD “Lover’s Well”), and frequented popular sessions at The Burren and The Druid. He also co-founded The Hay Brigade, an acoustic quartet that offers a heady blend of folk and jazz styles, and has performed on WGBH-FM’s “A Celtic Sojourn.”
Then there’s Concert Window, the brainchild of Gurney and his Hay Brigade comrade Forrest O’Connor. Last fall, the two -- along with third co-founder John Garrett -- struck up an agreement with Club Passim, the legendary folk and acoustic music venue in Harvard Square, to stream concerts for free via a website they created, concertwindow.com. As of late December, Concert Window had carried a dozen shows from Passim, each attracting hundreds and hundreds of viewers. “We’ve gotten an amazing response -- people are very enthusiastic about it,” says Gurney. “Passim was absolutely ideal as the starting point, and we‘re really grateful to them.”
The theory behind Concert Window, Gurney explains, is that both performer and venue ultimately benefit by the increased exposure (and by splitting sponsorship proceeds with Concert Window). A place like Club Passim has a strong, loyal following to begin with, but Concert Window offers the opportunity to get the Passim name out to a wider audience, even beyond Massachusetts or New England, and generate additional interest that can translate into more bodies in the seats. Similarly, he says, the performer can expand his or her fan base: “People watch him or her do a show through Concert Window, and they like what they hear -- and there’s a link to the performer’s website they can follow to find out more. So maybe these people will want to buy the performer’s CD, or go out to see him or her next time, or they’ll tell somebody else, ‘Hey, you should listen to this great singer I saw on the Web the other day.’ ”
For Gurney and O’Connor, Concert Window was no modest undertaking. “We had to do a lot of research, to find out what cameras and cables would do the best job. Then we had to go out and get sponsors and advertisers. But we’re very excited about the possibilities, and hope to take it nationally. We feel we’ve come up with a model that’s more expandable than what’s out there: The system can broadcast shows every night and, potentially, we could have 110 concerts available at a time.”
If Gurney can view Concert Window from the performer's perspective, it's probably because he began developing that outlook very early on. He started playing the accordion seriously at age 7, with the great fortune of having legendary Irish concertina player Father Charlie Coen living nearby -- "He would have concerts or sessions, and I started to go regularly. I just loved it." Although largely self-taught, Father Coen's East Galway style proved to be the most influential on Gurney in his formative years on the box. By the time he had finished high school, Gurney had made his mark in the competitive arena, winning the Eastern US Fleadh Cheoil Irish music competition six times and earning three bronze medals at the All-Ireland Fleadh Cheoil. But while the fleadhs were "a good learning experience," Gurney had become far more interested in the virtues of the music itself.
"From the beginning, I just always felt attracted to Irish music," he says. "I never thought about whether it was something I wanted to do. It was just there for me."
Gurney knew that his choice of college would be partly determined by the proximity to, and quality of, an Irish music scene. So being accepted by Harvard, where he majored in music, fulfilled more than his educational goals. "My classmates would wonder why I was spending nights going out to play in Dorchester, or other places around town. But those first years in Boston were really important: I was surrounded by interesting people, and exposed to a lot of insights and ideas," recalls Gurney, who in 2007 was awarded a fellowship from Harvard to study with Joe Derrane, one of Boston's most celebrated traditional Irish musicians.
Not all of that exposure involved Irish music. For example, Gurney wound up touring as an accompanist for New England roots musician Lissa Schneckenburger. And then there was his collaboration with O'Connor, fiddler Duncan Wickel and, eventually, double bassist Nicky Schwartz, which culminated in the debut of The Hay Brigade in early 2008.
"It was a chance to try something new," says Gurney. "I saw The Hay Brigade as totally separate from Irish music, but also part of who I am. This was a chance to play music without any labels and to see what came out."
Gurney also pursued other kinds of opportunities, notably a job writing and making videos for the Let's Go series of travel guides, which had him bouncing around from Barcelona to Istanbul "in a 'Where's Waldo?' suit." During one of his Let's Go stints, Gurney happened to be in London on the night of the solstice, and on the spur of the moment decided to go out to Stonehenge at 3 a.m., where he witnessed hundreds of people in druidic costumes marking the changing of seasons. Gurney actually managed to work his way into the celebration's inner circle, and wound up playing accordion as the sun came up.
But Irish music was still very much at the forefront of his interests, and he landed a post-graduate fellowship that enabled him to live in Galway for a year and immerse himself in the tradition. He worked part-time in a music shop, played sessions four to five times a week, spent time with a veritable Who's Who of musicians like Colm Gannon, Ronan Flaherty, and Johnny "Ringo" McDonough, got the occasional gig -- including one with much-revered singer Dolores Keane -- listened to old tapes and recordings, and generally reveled in his circumstances.
"The whole experience was filled with epiphanies, and it would probably take days to go through them all," says Gurney. "But the best thing about that year was seeing how much traditional music fits into the culture there, how it has enriched the lives of so many people."
One important realization Gurney had during that year was how many of Ireland's traditional musicians from older generations had never been recorded -- and that the opportunity to preserve the sounds and styles of an earlier era in Irish music was therefore slipping away. Along with Cormac Begley, brother of accordionist Brendan Begley, Gurney hatched the idea for a record label, Anam Records, that would focus on bringing these musicians to the attention of the Irish music audience.
Anam's inaugural project was Monahan fiddler Seamus Quinn, who agreed to do a recording in a friend's living room. "The best place for most all of these older musicians to play for a recording is in a casual environment, like a living room or a kitchen," says Gurney, who says the CD should be released in a few months. "So we got Seamus all set up, and he did 14, 15 tracks worth, some solo and others with pianist Brian McGrath. It was such a privilege to be there; that was some of the best music I've ever heard."
Gurney's not exactly imagining himself as a record mogul, though. "Obviously, I want Anam to succeed, but I think it's just important to have this music out there, so that we will always be able to listen to, and remember, the musicians who have been so closely tied to the Irish tradition."
Even as he forges ahead with Concert Window, as well as Anam Records, Gurney isn't neglecting his own musical involvement. He's putting together a solo album of his own, continuing to play out at sessions -- he recently helped inaugurate one at The Haven in Jamaica Plain, with Scottish harpist Maeve Gilchrist -- and is more than willing to give accordion lessons (he invites interested parties to e-mail him at gurney.dan@gmail.com).
"There's a lot of interesting things happening, and I like what's going on in my life," says Gurney. "No master plan here -- I'm just seeing what comes along."