Philip and Tracey Maguire with (L-R) Sean, Aoife and Emma during their recent visit to Boston. Sean Smith photo
Philip Maguire doesn’t lay claim to being a philosopher, but then again he does seem to have a pretty good angle on what it takes to be part of a suddenly popular Irish music family band that features two teenagers and one pre-teen.
First, you don’t so much move the goal posts – you look for different sets of goal posts to put in front of you. And second, and perhaps most importantly, you develop an appreciation for the little absurdities of life, such as oxymorons and their exalted place in Irish conversation.
There’s a bit more to it than that, of course, but things seem to be working just fine for Philip – guitarist, PR/marketing director, sound manager, travel agent, and most of all, father – and the rest of the Wicklow-based Maguires, who earlier this summer passed through Boston on their first-ever US tour: 17-year-old Emma (fiddle, flute, piano), 15-year-old Aoife (concertina, uilleann pipes, fiddle, whistle, piano) and 12-year-old Sean (bodhran, percussion); Maguire’s wife Tracey doesn’t play instruments or sing, but is universally acknowledged as an invaluable member nonetheless.
Relaxing the day after their appearance at The Burren Backroom series – and several hours before their concert at the Irish Cultural Centre of New England in Canton – the family reflected on their eventful past few years, in which they went from playing informal gigs in and around their home base to touring around Ireland, appearing on national TV, and recording a well-received CD. Some good luck has certainly contributed to their success, along with a social media-assisted convergence of factors. But at the root of it all is – as always – hard work, and the willingness of a father and mother to devote time, energy, and resources to what they see as a positive family experience.
“There’s never been any plan here,” said Philip. “Everything has just evolved, organically, and we all try to stay on top of things. If there’s a gig happening tonight, we go play it, and then we see what happens tomorrow.”
Of course, Philip and Tracey’s outlook stretches a bit farther than that – but never too far. “We think of the horizon for them, individually and together, something they can look forward to,” he explained. “It might be getting a new instrument, or going to see a band we really enjoy, for example; actually, we already have some gigs booked for next March in Orlando, so that will be on our calendar. But it’s always important to look forward to something, because it’s too easy to stand still if nothing’s on the horizon.”
“It still amazes me. I think, ‘How did this happen?’ – or maybe ‘How did you let this happen?’” said Tracey. “Putting a music career and a normal life together is definitely a challenge, but they do it, and seeing how much everyone enjoys it – especially Philip and the kids – is just wonderful.”
The US tour – which also included performances in Philadelphia, New York City, Connecticut, Montana, and at the Milwaukee Irish Fest – had loomed big on that metaphorical horizon. This was clearly the next step for The Maguires to take, and one they didn’t take lightly. It’s one thing to go to the States for pleasure, as the family has done several times; it’s quite another for business – especially when that business involves performing music: Philip can give a whole seminar on the red tape needed to get the proper work visa.
Yet the early returns were very encouraging. “The response we’ve gotten has been phenomenal,” said Philip. “The people who’ve come out to the shows really sit and listen. They’re very into it. And we definitely appreciate that.”
Those who went out to see them in Somerville, Canton, or elsewhere, were handsomely rewarded. Musicians in their teens or younger sometimes face a can’t-win situation, because so much attention may be focused on the fact of their youth and less so on their actual ability and grasp of the music. The fact is: Emma, Aoife, and Sean are accomplished musicians, full stop, and more to the point, display a clear sense of engagement, with the audience and each other. There are no dour or deer-in-the-headlight expressions on their faces as they play; instead, it’s little smiles and nods – along with an occasional “I saw what you did there” sidelong glance – among themselves and a general body language that affirms the enjoyment they derive from making music.
“Once you start playing for other people, instead of just for yourself,” said Emma, “music becomes something else entirely.”
Of course, you don’t have to watch them live (or on YouTube) to glean this. Listening to their 2016 album, “Little Giants and Other Oxymorons,” offers an illuminating, and most flattering, portrait of the band. Mixed in with their takes on venerable tunes like “Fergal O’Gara’s,” “Hunter’s House,” “O’Carolan’s Draught,” “Moving Cloud,” “Mason’s Apron” and “Humours of Tulla” are Maguires originals, most of them composed by Emma and Aoife.
The highlight of these is “WiFi in the Dark,” a reel/jig hybrid that toggles between the two rhythms seemingly at whim – no small challenge for Philip and Sean to follow – yet acquires an infectious momentum. There’s also a similarly captivating trio of jigs, “The Seagulls’ Blessing/Stuck in the Bog/An Tigin” – the first written by the band. Aoife’s nimble concertina, with some fine harmonies by Emma, is in the spotlight on her hornpipe/reel set, “The Mushroom/Furbo’s Friend.” Other notables are Emma’s winsome slow reel “The Flattened E Flat,” graced by a fiddle-guitar duet at the beginning, and Aoife’s intricate jig “Na Cailini.”
But their repertoire also has a touch of the exotic to it. While it’s not on the album, The Maguires perform “The Pernold Waltz,” a wonderful bit of faux-Gallic fancy composed by two late-greats, Micheal O Domhnaill and Johnny Cunningham. And on “Little Giants,” Aoife masterfully essays “Tico Tico,” a traditional Brazilian choro tune with multiple key changes often played on accordion.
“My concertina teacher Cillian King taught it to me,” said Aoife. “I really like taking on the challenge of tunes that are unusual or difficult – it’s one of my favorite things about playing music.”
One other feature of “Little Giants” bears mentioning: The title of each track is an oxymoron, like “Seriously Funny,” “Organised Chaos,” “Fierce Quiet,” “Deafening Silence” and “Go Ahead Back” (a distinctly Irish one, Philip notes, commonly used by Dublin parking attendants a few decades ago). But the titular oxymoron has special meaning, according to Philip.
“It has to do with the fact that, even though the three of them are still technically ‘little people,’ they seem like musical giants to musical mortals like me,” he explained. “I see and hear them play all the time, but they never cease to impress me. When we were in The Burren green room the other night, getting ready for our concert, Emma played us this new tune – she’d learned it on the car ride up. The way they all will get locked in when it’s time to perform, they’re forever teaching me what’s possible.”
Philip’s musical roots weren’t particularly trad-oriented, although he did pick up tin whistle through his father; his interest was sparked by Ireland’s late-1980s set-dance craze, when he observed the interaction in the musical families he encountered on his travels. So he was gratified when a then-four-year-old Emma came up to him with whistle in hand and asked him to teach her. One by one, the younger Maguires found their way into music, and Philip realized that “if I was going to play with them, it was going to have to be rhythm – I couldn’t keep up with them on melody – so I played guitar.”
Still, as Philip and Tracey readily attest, their kids are, after all, kids. So there are social obligations as well as school-related ones to work into the family schedule, and as always, ongoing negotiations to sustain familial peace and fellowship. And then there’s simply the delight in seeing what makes your young ones tick: Sean (whose social media-disseminated bodhran solo a few years ago helped bring The Maguires to a wider audience) is an inveterate tinkerer with a great fondness for Legos – on the day of the ICCNE concert, he showed a visitor one of his creations, a jet-assisted florist shop.
“He’s always inventing things,” laughed Tracey, “and driving his sisters crazy.”
The younger Maguires aren’t sure if their music activities make their family dynamics different from others, but Philip and Tracey feel there’s definitely something special going on.
“We played a bunch of gigs in Clare over a weekend, and it was just exhausting,” recalled Philip. “There was a four-hour drive home, but instead of everyone listening to music or fiddling around with phones, we talked the whole way back. Music is a common focal point for the people we meet, even the food we eat.”
Not that there aren’t some occasional strains: “Emma and I are the ones most likely to argue,” he said. “You know, ‘creative differences.’”
But that’s the beauty of a family band, as Tracey pointed out.
“You don’t fall out,” she said, “because you can’t.”
For more about The Maguires, see www.maguireband.com.