April 27, 2020
Matt Heaton, left, and Flynn Cohen have been collaborating on and off for more than a decade.
Photo by Erin Prawoko
They are easily among the most accomplished Irish/Celtic guitarists in Greater Boston, New England, and beyond – and also have been among the busiest. Flynn Cohen, a one-time Boston-area resident now living in Brattleboro, co-founded the band Low Lily (formerly Annalivia) with his wife, Liz Simmons, and is a long-time backer for accordionist John Whelan. He has also played with performers like Aoife Clancy, Dylan Foley and Skip Healy, and offers online guitar lessons via Peghead Nation. Matt Heaton and his wife Shannon – who reside in Medford – are a highly popular Irish music duo, and he has been an accompanist for the likes of Robbie O’Connell and Karan Casey. He also heads up a surf-rock band, The Electric Heaters, and in recent years has made a splash as a children’s/family music entertainer.
And somehow, Cohen and Heaton have occasionally found time to play together, whether as a duo or as part of The Deadstring Ensemble. They are scheduled – the default word nowadays for any kind of live event – to appear at Fivesparks in Harvard, Mass., on May 22 as part of the notloB Parlour Concerts series [eventbrite.com/o/notlob-parlour-concerts-6730833315] and on May 24 at Club Passim’s Campfire festival [passim.org].
I recently caught up with Cohen and Heaton as they continued to work toward their hoped-for reunion tour.
Q. Okay, obligatory question: How has the coronavirus crisis been affecting your musical activities? What kinds of things have you been doing to keep busy?
Cohen: Though my performing career is on indefinite hiatus, I’m lucky enough to find constant inspiration for composing and recording music every day. I also exercise and cook regularly and, honestly, I think the routine really helps – I haven’t had such a predictable schedule since I was a student.
Heaton: I was on tour with Karan Casey when things began to shut down. We spent quite a while in the car playing “Will it cancel?” (Spoiler – it did). Since then I’ve upped my online children’s music game, doing daily sing-alongs for the younger set. I’m fortunate to be married to a stellar tune player, so we still get to play tunes around the house, and do a weekly online session.
Q. What were your foundational experiences in Irish music?
Cohen: I grew up in Cleveland, which had an immigrant Irish community, including traditional musicians. A guy who worked for my dad ran a concert series that brought in a lot of the touring acts and also got me invited to some sessions early on. But really, I was first inspired to play this music when my uncle gave me a stack of old records from the 1970s, including the Bothy Band album “Out of the Wind, Into the Sun,” where I heard Michéal Ó’Domhnaill’s driving DADGAD guitar playing.
Heaton: I grew up in Cleveland’s NFL rival city of Pittsburgh. I really didn’t get into Irish music until I went to college in Chicago. I sought out sessions, which was fortunately fairly easy, and kind of fell into it that way.
Q. It used to be that the guitar was kind of a poor cousin in Irish music – some looked askance at its very presence. Are we past that now? Even if you just use the mid/late 1960s as a starting point, that's a good solid five decades of the guitar in Irish music, with plenty of innovative styles and techniques. Whom do you point to as the most important and influential Irish music guitarists?
Cohen: It seems like there will always be a conservative strain in every type of traditional music, and I certainly still see that in America today with the Irish music, even among younger players. But the commercial recordings of the music since the 1920s have always influenced what happens in the underclass of amateur and part-time musicians. So, yes, the guitar has made more of a place in the music, especially in sessions.
Paul Brady was probably the first acoustic guitar player to come up with a playing style that was an authentic accompaniment for the music. This meant rhythmic techniques as well as open tunings and chord voicings that let the tunes be themselves while providing an additional element of rhythmic drive. The folk and popular American guitar styles that had been applied to the music before that tend to direct the tunes in a simplistic harmonic way that doesn’t honor the modality of Irish music. Other early players in a similar style were the aforementioned Michéal Ó’Domhnaill, as well as Daithi Sproule and Arty McGlynn.
Q. Your first bona-fide collaboration was back in 2008, when you covered that landmark Paul Brady-Andy Irvine 1976 album in a set for BCMFest. Why that particular album?
Heaton: Because it’s the best record ever! Seriously, though, we had both been listening to it for years, and all of the stuff from that era is so rich and so deep. It was kind of an excuse to spend a lot of time with it, try and figure out what makes it tick.
Q. And you didn’t just sing the songs, you basically recreated the Brady/Irvine arrangements, practically note for note. How long did that take to put together?
Cohen: Yes, that was the challenge of the project and it was really worth the work. I had transcribed some of Paul’s playing before, but this gave me a real depth of experience with his amazing approach. It probably took a few months to work out all the parts and run the stuff in advance of the performance.
Q. So you went on to form the Deadstring Ensemble with Danny Noveck and John McGann, which became a trio with the sad passing of John in 2012. Deadstring certainly featured a strong Irish component but there were quite a few layers to the sound. What did you like about it?
Cohen: After we did the Irvine/Brady concert, Matt and I started to arrange our own tune sets with double guitars, combined with mandolin and bouzouki. We played a lot as a duo before I put together the Deadstring Ensemble, the ostensible reason for which was to have an act to perform the music off of my three solo records, including guitar quartets and other original pieces influenced by early music and modern composers as well as bluegrass and old-time fiddle music. But I have written loads of neo-traditional fiddle tunes that are intimately connected to the Irish tradition and still continue to play tunes I recorded on my first solo record in 2001, which was all Irish music.
Q. Give us an idea of what we might hear at a Cohen-Heaton concert – hopefully, the ones taking place later this month.
Cohen: We still perform our arrangements that we came up with over a decade ago, mostly traditional music. We continue to add material that showcases our latest artistic efforts, including Matt’s original songs and my original instrumentals. We sing about 25 percent of the time; the rest is us shredding as much as possible.