October 5, 2022
Flynn Cohen, right, and Matt Heaton will perform at The Burren Backroom series on October 23.
Guitarist/mandolinist Flynn Cohen is taking the old better-late-than-never maxim to heart, and on the road – “late” as in 20 years late.
A longtime pillar of Greater Boston’s Irish/Celtic music scene now living in Vermont, Cohen will mark the two-decade anniversary of his 2002 album “Dead String Rhythm” – 12 tracks of traditional Irish and original tunes arranged for flatpicked guitar and other instruments – via a series of concerts this fall in New England with frequent collaborator and fellow guitarist Matt Heaton, who has played as part of Cohen’s Deadstring Ensemble. The tour will include a stop at the Burren Backroom series on October 23 at 3:30 p.m.
“Matt and I were supposed to tour in 2020, but the pandemic scuttled all that,” says Cohen. “This way, we’re celebrating an anniversary and looking back at the original inspiration for the Deadstring Ensemble. I haven’t played with Matt in quite some time, so I’m looking forward to playing tunes I haven’t done in a while with someone who’s very much like me in terms of guitar – even down to the same thickness of the guitar pick we use.”
While Cohen has a solid footing in the Irish/Celtic domain – he’s played with John Whelan, Aoife Clancy, Cathie Ryan, Joe Derrane and Frank Ferrel, among others – he has long been equally at home with old-time and bluegrass music. One of his foundational projects is the band Low Lily, which he and his wife Liz Simmons have fronted since its initial incarnation as Annalivia, dating back more than 15 years. While Annalivia started out interlacing Celtic and British Isles music traditions with those of America, its fascinating arc – and eventual transition to Low Lily – led to a sound grounded in Americana folk but hardly confined to it.
“Dead String Rhythm” represented both a personal milestone for Cohen as his first solo album and an important benchmark for considering the guitar’s station in Irish traditional music as a lead as well as a rhythm instrument. But his various commitments at the time, along with other factors, made it impossible for Cohen to mount any kind of tour to perform “Dead String Rhythm,” and after a while the album was superseded by his subsequent solo or band recordings.
The album also is a testament to a cherished friend and mentor of Cohen, the late John McGann, who served as producer, helped with some arrangements, and was among the guest musicians appearing on “Dead String Rhythm”; he also was part of the Deadstring Ensemble. Like Cohen, McGann – a talented guitarist and mandolinist and Berklee College of Music faculty member who died in 2012 – had ties to bluegrass/old-time and Celtic music alike; among other collaborations, McGann teamed with fiddler Seamus Connolly and legendary Boston-area Irish accordionist Joe Derrane on the album “The Boston Edge.” Cohen credits McGann not only for being a key influence in his flatpicking approach but for convincing him to move to Boston. In fact, the album title itself was inspired by McGann’s wisecrack to Cohen on the day of a recording session about the state of his guitar strings.
Other guests on the album include Boston-area musicians Tina Lech (fiddle) – whom Cohen cites as a major resource for his tune repertoire – and Frank Gibbons (flute), along with Rhode Island-based uilleann piper Patrick Hutchinson and David Cory on tenor banjo and bodhran.
While the music on “Dead String Rhythm” is largely from, or in the style of, Irish tradition, it’s tinctured with an Americana feel – hardly surprising, since flatpicking is associated with Appalachia, and bluegrass in particular. Cohen, wisely, doesn’t belabor the Irish/Americana fusion, but rather lets it percolate through at well-chosen junctures.
On some tracks, the focus is squarely on Cohen, such as a set of reels (“The Steampacket/Morning Star”) – with Cory’s bodhran adding some extra oomph to Cohen’s powerful rhythm guitar – and on his own composition, the tender “Planxty Catherine Hart”; Cory is also on hand for Cohen’s moody/modal jig “The Visiters.” The medley of “Monaghan Twig” and Charlie Lennon’s “Road to Cashel,” meanwhile, demonstrates a fine sensibility for arrangement, as Cohen plays (lead and rhythm) the first reel at moderate speed before turning on the jets; he switches to mandolin as the lead instrument for “Cashel” – sounding very much like a soloist in a bluegrass combo – with Lech joining him the second time through.
This talent for orchestration is in evidence elsewhere, as Cohen shares the spotlight with other musicians. He and Lech are a solid pairing on, for example, “Bonny Kate” – which transitions to “Jenny’s Chicken” and Cory on tenor banjo along with Cohen’s lead guitar and mandolin – and “Farrell O’Gara,” which segues into an all-Cohen “Good Morning to Your Nightcap.” Two traditional jigs, “Hag’s Purse” and “Bryan O’Lynn” (Cory on bodhran again), set up a grand entrance by Lech and Hutchinson on a Cohen-Hutchinson original, “Miss McDevitt’s.” Easily one of the album’s highlights – and one of its most palpable Irish/Americana mashups – is a pair of hornpipes, “The Girl Who Broke My Heart” and “Murphy’s,” deliciously flatpicked by Cohen with McGann supplying an infectious oom-chuck backing on octave mandolin; then comes a shift, as Lech and Gibbons break into “The Honeymoon Reel” over Cohen’s rhythm guitar.
Guitars are ubiquitous in Irish music now, of course, but it took many years – even after the Irish folk revival of the 1960s and ’70s – for the instrument to gain acceptance (grudging at that) in some quarters of the Irish traditional music community. Even today, guitarists who drop in on an Irish music session sometimes talk of feeling wary eyes being cast upon them.
Which doesn’t mean there aren’t legendary, universally admired and respected guitarists in Irish music, and Cohen’s list includes Paul Brady, Arty McGlynn, Daithi Sproule, Micheál Ó Domhnaill and John Doyle.
“With Brady, who was around playing in the early stages of the folk revival, he gave trad an authentic voice, honoring what’s natural to the music,” says Cohen, who along with Heaton once worked out a practically note-for-note recreation of Brady’s landmark album with Andy Irvine for a performance at the 2008 Boston Celtic Music Fest. “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. He was one of the first who let the tunes be themselves, instead of steering them harmonically and rhythmically.”
Cohen, a Cleveland native, was 15 when he discovered the Bothy Band and he was intrigued by what Ó Domhnaill brought to the table: “He’s not virtuosic, but rhythmically in synch with the keyboard or the bouzouki. The music is alive in a way it wouldn’t be if not for him. His accompaniments for ‘Portland,’ meanwhile – his album with [fiddler] Kevin Burke – were sculpted, not experimental or ‘in the moment,’ and it’s just really stunning.”
Still, it will likely take a while before the guitar achieves the exalted status of, say, the fiddle, uilleann pipes or accordion in the Irish tradition. And when it comes specifically to flatpicking, even with worthies like Brady, Sproule, Doyle and the late McGlynn, “there’s not exactly a ‘tradition’ of it in Irish music,” notes Cohen, which leaves the field pretty wide open for invention. Dead strings and all.
For tickets and other information related to the Flynn Cohen and Matt Heaton concert, go to burren.com/music.html