BY SEAN SMITH
SPECIAL TO THE BIR
There was never any doubt, really, that Colm Gannon would play music – nor any doubt as to what kind of music, nor which instrument he would use to play it. Not with a father who is an accomplished Irish accordion player, and an older brother following suit.
But then, Gannon hardly needed any nudging to take up the box. Quite the opposite.
“When I was 7, I’d be begging Dad to play the accordion – I’d practically chase him down until he would,” recalls Gannon, who grew up in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood. “From a young age, I just knew it was it was something I’d get into. There’d be conversations around the kitchen table where I’d be asked, ‘So, what are you going to do with your life?’ and I had the reply all ready: ‘I’m just going to play music.’”
Gannon’s youthful enthusiasm for his family music tradition has proven to be long-lasting and fully engaging, one that led him to relocate to his ancestral Connemara and to pursue a career that has included a stint in “Riverdance” and a series of recordings – the most recent being “The Rights of Man,” released this past fall.
Early last month, Gannon returned to the Boston area to visit family and friends and play a few gigs, including a performance at The Burren “Backroom” series in Somerville, house concerts in Medford and Worcester, and a ceili in Braintree. The homecoming was an opportunity for Gannon, who was married last June, to reflect a little on his inextricably linked life and music.
“It’s definitely meant a lot to be able to carry on this tradition which has been so important to my family,” says Gannon. “I got to visit Ireland frequently and learn about the tradition there, but growing up in Boston, where there is such a hunger for the music, was ideal. There’s my Dad’s and my brother’s influence, of course, but my mother took me out to sessions and concerts around town, and I got to meet so many people who, like me, felt a strong connection to Irish music.”
Gannon’s parents were both Connemara natives: John, a self-taught box player from Droim, and Gerry, from Tuirin. John immigrated to the US in 1959, and it would be more than 20 years before he picked up the instrument again – the arrival of Colm’s older brother, Sean, and then Colm prompted John to revisit his music so he could hand it off to the next generation. If John wasn’t playing the box himself, he would have his boys listening to recordings of estimable musicians like Seanin Phat Mylea McDonough, Kevin Coyne, Finbarr Dwyer, Joe Burke, and Martin McMahon.
Not only did John successfully pass on the music, and to great effect (Sean is universally acknowledged as one of Boston’s best Irish accordionists), but he wound up almost as musically active as his sons, recording two albums – “Melodeon,” which includes two duet tracks with Sean and Colm, and “Trasna Na dTonnta,” a duet album with Colm that also features a pair of songs sung by John’s sister Maureen Creighan (now deceased) – and regularly co-hosting a popular session with Sean at The Burren.
Exposed as Colm was to the different styles of Irish music – especially in and around Boston, where he would play with notables like Tina Lech, Jimmy Noonan, Frankie McDonagh, Brendan Bulger, and Larry Reynolds – he got a thorough grounding in that of Connemara.
“The most distinctive thing about the Connemara style,” he explains, “is that it has this great sense of rhythm – which it gets from sean nos dance – and, at the same time, sweet melodic variations. This came about because dancers would tend to ask for the same tunes as accompaniment, so putting in their own variations was a way for the musicians to keep things interesting for themselves.”
By the mid-1990s, Gannon (by then with an All-Ireland title under his belt), Lech and fiddler Jesse Smith were playing a lot of gigs, not just in Boston but elsewhere. Ireland seemed a natural place to expand musical vistas, and in 1998 he and Smith moved to Ennis, where they stayed for a couple of years. Then Gannon got one of those bona fide golden opportunities: an invitation to join “Riverdance.” He was a little unsure about taking the plunge at first – “I didn’t want to just do the same tunes over and over again” – but decided it was too good to pass up.
As a still young, up-and-coming musician, he found the experience eye-opening. Four years in the show “gave me an insight into the big-scale production side of things,” says Gannon, and he was quite impressed with the scale of the operation, and the task of getting everything organized in a different city every week.
“It was different than what I was used to,” he says. “In fact, sometimes I’d hear a complaint about having to ride the bus for four or five hours to the next destination, and I’d be thinking, ‘I used to have to drive to gigs for four or five hours packed into a little car.’ Definitely gives you some perspective.”
When his run with “Riverdance” was over, Gannon happily settled in his father’s old stomping grounds of Droim, and into a less peripatetic musical life. Not that he hasn’t kept busy with gigs, touring and – in addition to finishing a degree in traditional music performance at the University of Limerick – appearing on a host of recordings, especially including his own.
For “The Rights of Man,” Gannon is joined on most tracks by two esteemed former De Dannan members, pioneering bouzouki player Alec Finn and bodhran master Johnny “Ringo” McDonough, as well as his long-time accomplice, guitarist/pianist John Blake. Finn’s characteristic modal, contrapuntal style, in particular, is perfectly suited to Gannon (as it is to most everyone Finn plays with), forming a latticework of rhythm and harmony around the drive and exuberance of the accordion – perhaps to no better effect than on the “Cronin’s Reel/Tim Maloney’s” set. McDonough and Blake certainly have their moments as well, such as their typically tasteful backing in the “Sporting Nell/Drowsy Maggie” medley.
The ensemble pieces are wholly enjoyable, and so are Gannon’s solo tracks, notably the jigs “Banish Misfortune/Morrison’s.” This set, along with the tunes “Paidin O’Rafferty’s” and “Green Grow the Rushes,” among others, demonstrates Gannon’s enviable store of settings and variations sure to catch the ear of anyone familiar with such well-known staples of session and ceili.
Gannon also shows the Connemara predilection for, as he puts it, “songs that make nice tunes when the words are stripped away”: For instance, the air “Amhrán na Trá Báine” (written, he notes, by a Connemara woman near his part of Boston) is marked by expressive, sean nos-like ornamentations and chords that tend more toward tenor than bass.
As Gannon notes, most of the tunes on “Rights of Man” are taken from recordings of various musicians whose influence goes clear back to his youth. And these aren’t simply LPs or cassettes, mind you, but reel-to-reel tapes, 78s and even cylinder recordings. “One of Johnny’s Own,” for instance, came from a field recording that Dublin fiddler James Kelly made of Chicagoan Johnny McGreevy, while the source of “The Green Groves of Erin” was a 78 of Westmeath concertina player William Mullally, and a 78 of Sligo’s James “Lad” O’Beirne provided Gannon with “The Newcastle Hornpipe.” It’s this attention to detail, and to tradition and legacy, that deepens one’s appreciation for Gannon and his music.
Speaking of legacy: While neither John nor Sean is on this album, Colm’s wife Kelly plays concertina on the reel set “The Merry Merchant/Miss McDonald’s/Drag Her Around the Road.” One might surmise this portends a further proliferation of the Gannon family’s presence in the Irish music tradition.