By Sean Smith
Special to the BIR
It sounds like the kind of moment only the imagination of a singer-songwriter—like, say, Bob Bradshaw—might cook up, only it really happened.
The quick lead-in: Irish native moves to the US at the tail end of the 1980s, pursues a musical career that eventually lands him in Boston, where he decides to apply to, and is accepted by, the Berklee College of Music. Then he has misgivings, so he calls the school to cancel his enrollment.
“The lady at Berklee who answered the phone listened and asked me, ‘Are you sure?’ ” recalls Bradshaw. “I thought for a few seconds and said, ‘No.’ And then I hung up.
“If she hadn’t asked me that question, if she hadn’t made me think about it, I wouldn’t have ended up going to Berklee.”
But Bradshaw did, ushering in another chapter of a career that has often proved to be more interesting than he might’ve thought possible—full of, as he puts it somewhat self-deprecatingly, “sideways or even backward steps.” The more recent years, coinciding with his time in Boston, have seen Bradshaw focus on his craft in new ways, whether obtaining his degree in professional music from Berklee or gaining a fresh appreciation for the music traditions of his homeland.
“Maybe,” he quips, “I’m the ultimate late bloomer — just figuring it all out now.”
These and other experiences are distilled in Bradshaw’s newly produced CD, which features 12 songs solely or collaboratively composed by him. Simply and appropriately titled “Bob Bradshaw,” the CD represents a meshing of Bradshaw’s past and present through contributions from long-time collaborators like Scoop McGuire (who in addition to playing various instruments also produced and arranged the album) and more recent Boston/Berklee-era acquaintances such as Dan Gurney, Annie Lynch, Duke Levine, and Maeve Gilchrist.
Bradshaw’s songs are situated comfortably in a country-rock/acoustic folk-pop landscape that has been shaped by influences like Guy Clark and The Waterboys; fiddles, mandolins and accordions—even a harp—provide cross-hatching across guitars, lap steel, bass, keyboards and drums.
His songs can be sparse yet abundant with just-below-the-surface emotion (“Carlos”), keenly observed cautionary tales (“Iowa Girl”), simultaneously fanciful and thoughtful (“Wings of Desire”) and sometimes suddenly, startlingly nimble (“Remember Me”).
“Long Way to Go”—about the emotional as well as geographical distance a pair of wary lovers must travel—is marked by Gurney’s accordion, acting almost as a soothing counterweight to the angsty elements in the song.
“The song is in F-sharp, and I couldn’t find another accordion player in Boston who could play it the way Dan does,” says Bradshaw. “As far as I’m concerned, the accordion made that song.”
“Wings of Desire,” he says, takes its inspiration from the 1987 Wim Wenders movie of the same name, “about an angel willing to give up his wings”—even if it doesn’t follow the plot. “I’ve always loved that movie, and for years I tried to work it into a song. I thought it would be kind of amusing to have a harp in a song about an angel, so I asked Maeve Gilchrist to sit in, and she did a fantastic job.”
The album’s final track, “Mourning Dove,” stemmed from Bradshaw’s participation in a Holocaust-themed play, “Budzin,” that was staged in Harvard’s Sanders Theater. Recruited at first as a guitar player, Bradshaw wound up one of the production’s main actors: a concentration camp inmate who must, literally, perform for his life. The song touches on a succession of powerful emotions, summed up by a masterful couplet of a chorus: “It’s a rising up and laying down/Of a boundless love and a thorny crown.”
Therein, Bradshaw says, lies the paradox in many of his compositions.
“My songs are not autobiographical, but they do incorporate autobiographical elements in them,” he says. “The songs may focus on a particular character, but they’re not me. I may be in the songs, somewhere, but at the same time I want to seem as if I’m not.
“Mostly, they’re simply stories.”
Born and raised in Mitchelstown, Co. Cork, Bradshaw found a model of music appreciation in his father, who “sang at the drop of a hat.” But as a young man, once he decided he wanted to play music, too, and got himself a guitar, Bradshaw looked elsewhere than his own country’s music for inspiration—from American country rock performers like Guy Clark and The Eagles, who in the 1970s were capturing the fancy of many Irish singer-songwriters; fellow countrymen like Mick Hanly and Freddie White also caught Bradshaw’s ear.
Bradshaw did have the paradigmatic day job for a while, writing for a local newspaper and, after moving to Dublin, contributing stories to the Irish Press and In Dublin magazine. He even earned a bursary from the Irish Arts Council, and set about trying to write the elusive novel that all writers supposedly have within them. But Bradshaw couldn’t make his novel emerge, and found that, as far as writing went, he had “hit the wall.” So he turned to music, and hit the road, first going east to Portugal, Spain, Germany, and Sweden, and then west, all the way to New York City and San Francisco.
In San Francisco, he found pretty regular pub gigs, but more importantly, for the first time began playing more often with other musicians. This led to the formation of Resident Aliens (whose members included Scoop McGuire), which built on the American roots sound Bradshaw had been playing to include the 1990s Celtic folk-rock that had come into vogue; that development owed a great deal to a collaboration with legendary singer-songwriter Ron Kavana, who had the Resident Aliens as his back-up band and recorded a live album with them.
Most of all, San Francisco was where Bradshaw first dipped his toe into the songwriting pool—somewhat out of necessity, as he explains: “It all started because someone offered to make a CD of us. I felt there was no point in making an album of cover material. So I started putting together some songs. It was all part of an interesting transition in many ways. I had been used to playing in pubs, where you’re mainly concerned with hitting people over the head to get their attention. But when it comes to ‘listening rooms,’ you have to be that much better.”
In any case, Bradshaw found he had a knack for songwriting, slow a process as it was, and continues to be: “If I write six songs a year, that’s great for me. And then I seem to spend years tweaking or fiddling with them; I also throw away a lot of them.”
The next, critical part of Bradshaw’s development came after he moved to Boston, when practically on a whim he enrolled in Berklee—a whim he later second-guessed. “I thought, ‘This is ridiculous, I’m in my 40s, I don’t belong there.” But after the fateful phone call that brought him so close to pulling out of Berklee, Bradshaw went all in. He took part in the college’s Celtic ensemble, led by the late John McGann, and Dave Hollander’s bluegrass ensemble, entered the school’s singer-songwriter competitions and, in general, soaked up as much as he could.
“It was a struggle,” he says. “I had to learn to read music. I had to learn to stop singing so far behind the beat. But at Berklee I found both the confidence and the vocabulary for my music.”
Bradshaw has found other avenues of exploration at Boston, including a new appreciation for Irish music: For a performance in Harvard Square’s Club Passim, Bradshaw played songs that were associated, in one way or another, with his native Cork; he also has taken lessons from Shannon Heaton and Liz Simmons, whose style and repertoire tends to traditional singing. What’s more, after having sung in Spanish while gigging in Barcelona, and in Polish for “Budzin,” Bradshaw says he began thinking, “Well, why not sing in Irish, too?”
“I guess I’m famous for taking a detour,” he laughs. “There are things I want to do, but it seems like I have to go through something else to get there. But at least I’m still going.”
Generous crowd gathers to help Sergio
Musicians, singers, dancers from the Greater Boston area came out to The Burren in Somerville’s Davis Square on May 20 in support of Sergio O’Connor, a 1-year-old boy from Ireland who is undergoing treatment at Boston Children’s Hospital for tracheo-oesophageal fistula, a rare condition that prevents him from eating, drinking and swallowing due to a hole in his esophagus. An estimated $20,000 was raised at the six-hour-plus event to help the O’Connor family pay for the treatment. Sergio’s father, Donal – who along with his wife Rosa are staying in Boston while their son is in the hospital – was on hand for the festivities and joined in the music himself. The helpsergio.com website reports that Sergio has been responding well thus far to the treatment, and at press time he was scheduled to undergo esophageal repair surgery.
Davis Square events
will heat things up
Early this month will see Somerville’s Davis Square once again be a hotbed for Irish music, with a pair of events spotlighting some highly popular Celtic performers.
This Sat., June 2, Johnny D’s Uptown Restaurant and Music Club will feature two Massachusetts-based acts, singer-songwriter Robbie O’Connell and all-female quartet Long Time Courting. One of the most beloved performers of Irish music around today, O’Connell has authored songs like “Keg of Brandy,” “The Man from Connemara,” “Islander’s Lament” and other compositions that have become staples of many a folksinger’s repertoire. In addition, O’Connell has appeared as part of The Clancy Legacy and The Green Fields of America.
Long Time Courting is comprised of four accomplished traditional musicians: Shannon Heaton (flute, accordion, vocals), Liz Simmons (vocals, guitar), Sarah Blair (fiddle, vocals) and their newest member, cellist Val Thompson. Their vocal harmonies and excellent musicianship, combined with material from Irish, English, Scottish and contemporary sources, have won the ears, as well as hearts, of audiences.
The concert begins at 7 p.m. For more information, see johnnyds.com.
More from ‘Backroom’ series
On Wed., June 6, Caoimhin O’Raghallaigh and Mick O’Brien, along with Boston-based duo Matt and Shannon Heaton, will perform in the latest offering of The Burren’s “Backroom” series. O’Raghallaigh has emerged as one of Ireland’s more intriguing traditional fiddlers of recent years — especially with his use of the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle — and his duos with Uilleann piper O’Brien have proved captivating and invigorating. The two recently released their second CD, “Aoibhinn Crónán (The Deadly Buzz).”
The Heatons are among the more high-profile performers in the Boston area, both as a duo and in their various other musical pursuits. Their instrumentals and songs, which include both traditional and original material, are featured on their four albums as a duo; Shannon also has a solo CD, “The Blue Dress.”
For more details on the show, which begins at 7:30 p.m., see burren.com.
A column of news and updates of the Boston Celtic Music Fest (BCMFest), which celebrates the Boston area’s rich heritage of Irish, Scottish, Cape Breton music and dance with a grassroots, musician-run winter music festival and other events during the year.
School spirit: Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann Boston Music School faculty members and friends — who happen to be among the finest Irish music performers in the Greater Boston area — will give a concert on June 11 as part of the monthly BCMFest Celtic Music Monday series at Club Passim.
Among those appearing will be Flynn Cohen (guitar), Patrick Hutchinson (Uilleann pipes), Danny Noveck (fiddle, guitar), Tommy Sheridan (accordion), and Bridget Fitzgerald (vocals), as well as the duos of Matt Heaton (guitar) and Shannon Heaton (flute, whistle), Tina Lech (fiddle) and Ted Davis (guitar), and John Coyne (bouzouki) and Josie Coyne (fiddle).
Organizers say the event is a celebration of the school and the music tradition it represents, and a means to help support both: Part of the concert proceeds will benefit the CCE Boston Music School, which holds classes at the St. Columbkille Partnership School in Brighton. But just as importantly, organizers add, the concert is a show of appreciation for one of the most important figures in the school’s history, CCE Boston Chairman Larry Reynolds.
Since immigrating from Galway to Boston in 1953 at the height of the city’s renowned Dudley Street dance hall era, Reynolds has been a mainstay in the local Irish music scene, leading such famous sessions as The Green Briar and Canadian-American Club and serving as a teacher and mentor to countless musicians. In 1975, he co-founded the Hanafin-Cooley Boston CCE branch, one of the largest and most active chapters in the world. A member of the Comhaltas Hall of Fame, Reynolds also has been honored by Harvard University’s Celtic Languages and Literatures Department, the Irish Cultural Centre of New England, and, in 2006, by Irish America Magazine, which included him in its Top 100 Irish-Americans list.
“The Boston Comhaltas School is committed to helping preserve and pass along the great Irish music tradition, and we’re grateful for the school’s very talented and dedicated faculty members who enable us to fulfill that mission,” says the school’s executive director, John Kearney. “It wouldn’t have been possible without Larry Reynolds and the Comhaltas officers who started the school 15 years ago.
“Now, with the help of the area music community, we look to continue teaching these great tunes and songs to the next generation of young players.”
The Boston Comhaltas School offers instruction in fiddle, flute, whistle, anglo concertina, button accordion, Uilleann pipes, harp, guitar, tenor banjo, mandolin, singing and bodhran. In addition, the school has started a ceili band class and holds open sessions for students.
Comhaltas School faculty members are some of the city’s most distinguished Irish musicians, including full-time performers as well as highly active, in-demand session players.
“BCMFest’s central mission is to promote and honor excellent players who advance traditional music,” says BCMFest co-founder and committee member Shannon Heaton, herself a Boston Comhaltas School faculty member. “Boston is one of the best places in the world for Irish music, thanks in large part to the incredible work and support that Larry Reynolds, John Kearney and the rest of the Comhaltas gang offer to our trad music community.”
Adds Kearney, “We are very pleased to have this opportunity to showcase the talents of our faculty, and hope people will come out to enjoy an evening of fine music—and to show support for the Boston Comhaltas School.”
Admission to the concert, which begins at 7:30 p.m., is $12, $6 for members of Passim, WGBH and WUMB. More details at passim.org.
Clock’s ticking: There is still time left for musicians, singers, dancers and others interested in performing at the 10th BCMFest (January 11-12, 2013) to apply. Go to cmfest.com/performers.html to download an application. Deadline for submissions is July 10.