April 30, 2015
You have to feel pretty good about your direction in life when you land a job in your desired field and the ink on your college diploma is barely dry.
So it was with Worcester native David Doocey, who on the day he graduated from the National University of Ireland-Galway got an invitation to join the band Gráda. In the seven years since then, Doocey has built on his successful beginnings – which included All-Ireland titles in fiddle and concertina and the first-ever World Fleadh fiddle championship – and ensconced himself firmly in the Irish music scene.
In addition to Grada, he has played in the band of Mayo accordionist David Munnelly as well as the Salamanca Ceili Band, and toured with international dance shows like “Irish Dreams.” And in 2013 he released his first (and presumably not last) solo album, “Changing Time,” containing not only traditional tunes but some of his own compositions, and featuring his brothers Patrick and Kevin on several tracks.
In fact, with Gráda on a hiatus of late, these days Doocey is able to focus quite a bit on his own work, including a recent tour that took him back to his old stomping grounds, playing a gig with Patrick at the Worcester Hibernian Cultural Center.
“It was good to be back,” said Doocey, who at present is dividing his time between Mayo and New York City. “We went down to Tatnuck, our old neighborhood [to the northwest of Worcester), and drove past our old house. And we saw a bunch of old friends. Just a very enjoyable experience overall.”
Doocey’s days in Tatnuck were the start of his involvement in music, but not of the Irish variety. His school had a strings program, and his parents – Irish natives who had immigrated from Foxford in Co. Mayo during the 1980s – insisted that Doocey and his brothers take violin. Doocey got to use his grandfather’s fiddle, although at the time he wasn’t playing jigs or reels on it. That didn’t happen until after he and his family moved to Foxford, when he was 11.
“We always said we’d learn Irish music,” Doocey explained. “The strings program at school had given us the basics in playing and sight-reading. So when we got to Ireland and saw how thriving the traditional music scene was, that really got the ball rolling.”
Ironically, Doocey first found himself under the tutelage of an American fiddler, Rob Thornburgh, who had been a member of the Washington, DC-based band Celtic Thunder (not to be confused with the stage show of the same name). Doocey soaked up the teachings of Thornburgh, listened to numerous CDs and tapes to orient himself to Irish fiddle, and received occasional mentoring from notables like Oisin Mac Diarmada, Frankie Gavin, and Liz Carroll.
While he was at it, Doocey picked up concertina: “I got a piece of paper of where all the notes were off Tommy Doherty, a great musician from Foxford, and then got a lesson off Bernie Geraghty, a wonderful musician and teacher from Mayo. After that I kinda figured out things on my own and went to a summer school or two for a few ideas and techniques. I guess my biggest influences would be Micheal Ó Raghaillagh and Padraig Rynne. But I listened to, and still listen to, as many concertina players as I can: Noel hill, Niall Vallely just to name a few. It’s an interesting instrument as it’s completely different from the fiddle, so it’s great to try and bring ideas from the fiddle to the concertina and vice versa.”
But even as Doocey honed his trad Irish fiddle style – he pegs it as largely Mayo but “inclined toward Sligo” – he also gravitated to jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli, as well as bluegrass fiddlers like Stuart Duncan and Darol Anger, and even the Quebecois je ne sais quoi of Andre Brunet. As it turned out, this expansive set of tastes helped to prepare him for his stint with Gráda, a band pretty cosmopolitan in its outlook as well – their repertoire has included Eastern European and Breton material, and songs by writers as varied as Suzanne Vega and Sonny Condell.
“They’ve always been known for trying different things,” said Doocey, “so they seemed a natural fit for me.”
The fit had to be a rather quick one, because Gráda was about to embark on a tour of Denmark when he joined them, and he had about two weeks to learn the sets and arrangements. Nonetheless, Doocey was able to catch on quick and found that he liked his initial plunge into life as a touring musician.
“I always had thought it would be nice to play with a band, “ he said. “I really enjoyed it – you just learn so much on the road. So I kept going.”
His foundational Gráda experience came about a year later, when the band went to Nashville to record their fourth album, “Natural Angle,” with American roots mainstay Tim O’Brien serving as producer and guest star. True to Gráda form, the album included traditional Irish tunes and songs, but also O’Brien’s “John Riley” – about an Irishman serving with the San Patricio (St. Patrick’s) Brigade in the US-Mexican War – and even a cover of blues legend Mississippi John Hurt’s “Louis Collins.”
“It was so exciting,” said Doocey. “Meeting all the different musicians we worked with – like Tim, who’s an iconic figure, and [five-string banjo player] Alison Brown, who’s just outstanding – was a thrill, and then seeing how it all worked out in the two-and-a-half weeks or so we spent recording was so rewarding. You pick up so much from an experience like that.”
So when Doocey had a relatively clear calendar a couple of years ago, he decided the time was ripe to make his own album. Recorded at Sonas Studio in Killarney, “Changing Time” reflects the kaleidoscope of influences and impressions he’s gathered throughout his musical explorations.
The CD includes brisk fiddle-guitar duets (“Martin Wynne’s #2/Man from Dunblane”) out of which occasionally pop some jazz stylings; small-ensemble arrangements that balance the traditional and contemporary (“Captain Kelly/Humours of Westport” and “Collins’/Mist-Covered Mountain/Mary’s Shoes”) with texture from flute, percussion, accordion and bass; straightforward pure-drop-style (“Man of the House/Laurel Tree/King of the Clans,” in which Doocey showcases his concertina playing).
Three tracks put Doocey’s compositional talents squarely into focus. One pairs the Breton-flavored “Up Bráid” (named for a small mountain near Mayo) with another unusually accented tune, “Tory Fort Lane” (the street in Tatnuck where the family lived), enlivened by Ryan Molloy’s electric piano. And then there are two tracks that, while separate, essentially function as one: Doocey penned these for an as-yet unreleased documentary about the Magdalene Laundry survivors produced by a friend of his.
“She had about 20 survivors come for a retreat, during which they talked about their experiences,” said Doocey. “She asked me to come down on the last night to play some music for them. They were amazing to be around, so full life of life but with so much suffering in their past.”
The mournful and minor-key “Dark Shadows” is meant “to convey the hardship and abuse the Magdalenes endured,” explained Doocey, while the hopeful, hymn-like “A New Dawn” points to the promise of redemption in light of the Irish government’s acknowledgement of the decades-old scandal and agreement to discussion compensation for the survivors.
“Normally, when you compose something, you kind of wait for the tune to come to you,” said Doocey. “But this time, I was trying to bring to life an idea and create a mood, an emotion. So this was a great experience in many ways, not the least of which was the opportunity to get an insight into the Magdalenes and their lives.”
Doocey has plenty on his plate for the rest of 2015. In July, for example, he’ll be teaching at “Willie Week” – the Willie Clancy Summer School of Irish music, song and dance – in Miltown Malbay in Clare. Come fall, he and Patrick will hit the road for tours of Japan, New Zealand, and England.
“Gráda is taking a bit of a sabbatical – mainly because we’re all so busy with other projects – but we’re in touch and always bumping into each other, so we’re definitely keeping up the connection,” said Doocey. “That’s just how it is when you’re part of this music scene, sometimes: There’s a lot of stuff in the pipeline. But I enjoy it a lot, because you meet so many great people.”