Devri, a band? Don’t tell them that – they’re too busy having a good time.
OK, yes, Devri is in fact a band, for all practical purposes. But Devri also defies the conventional idea of the “Irish band from Boston” in a few ways:
Start with the band’s name: Contrary to expectations, “Devri” is not an obscure Celtic deity, or some long-lost hamlet out on the Aran Islands, or a Gaelic word referring to food, drink, or sport (or all of the above). And what’s more, the band members didn’t even choose the name themselves – it was thought up practically on the spot by a photographer covering one of their gigs, based on the initials of those members who happened to be playing at the time.
That’s another thing. While Devri has gradually developed a core quartet, its members happily invite guests to sit in with them for various gigs, and so the roster will expand or contract as needed.
But none of this seems a particularly big deal to the Devri regulars, who are Declan Houton, Chuck Parrish, Larry Flint, and Steve O’Callaghan. They simply go about their business of playing at local pubs, festivals, and, especially, charity events, bringing with them an easy-going stage presence and a repertoire that includes traditional Irish songs and ballads, covers of popular contemporary material (most of it Irish-related), and even a few originals, not to mention the occasional set of Irish jigs, reels, hornpipes, or polkas. Their instrumentation is built around acoustic and electric guitars, mandolin, banjo, bouzouki, electric bass and drums, and supplemented at times by keyboards, flute, whistles and sax – and even by the pipes and drums of the Boston Police Gaelic Column.
They are, as they put it, “a band for all occasions,” as capable of rocking out the house as they are speeding through a Kerry polka – sometimes doing those things simultaneously – or following up a Johnny Cash number with, say, an old sentimental favorite like “Lovely Irish Rose” and then a hard-charging Pogues song.
Most of all, though, Devri seems to be a near-perfect blend of personalities and temperaments, where there’s always somebody who can say the right thing to deflate anyone’s bout of over-seriousness. Simply put, they’re four quite experienced musicians who like playing together.
“I’ve been in loads of bands, but this one is special,” says Houton, a north Donegal native who’s been in the US for 12 years and became a citizen last year; O’Callaghan, from Kerry, is the band’s other native Irishman; Parrish hails from Grove City, Pa., and Flint spent the first 13 years of his life in Ventura, Calif., before moving to Arlington. “It’s not one guy with three helpers. We all have an equal share of the spotlight. And we all get along great.”
Parrish agrees: “We’re not a bunch of wild young things; we’re older guys, some of us with kids at home. This is just a way for us to play some music, have some fun – maybe help people a little – and for me, it works perfectly. I really look forward to our gigs.”
The intersection of Houton and O’Callaghan, who both grew up with Irish music, with Flint and Parrish is another unlikely but important aspect of Devri. Flint was part of the groundbreaking band John Lincoln Wright & The Sour Mash Boys, which was part of the trend in the late 1970s/early ’80s that saw country music find popularity in more urban settings (he calls it “the urban cowboy era”), and continued to perform and write songs in the country scene.
Parrish, meanwhile, found his métier in country rock through listening to The Byrds and Clarence White, among others, and like Flint – with whom he played as part of the Sour Mash Boys – cultivated a career as a touring and studio musician (he appeared on the highly acclaimed 1998 album “Cry Cry Cry” by Richard Shindell, Lucy Kaplansky, and Dar Williams).
Houton and Flint met through the local Irish band Inchicore, and ultimately decided to strike out on their own, pulling in other musicians – like O’Callaghan and Parrish, as well as fiddler Kevin Doherty – they had come to know over the years. Playing Irish music was perfectly natural to Houton and O’Callaghan, and Flint (who also played with Derek Warfield) and Parrish found it a smooth transition.
“American country music came out of the hills of Ireland,” says Flint, “so it felt very familiar to me.”
Adds Parrish, “I always thought Irish music was ‘toora-loora-loora,’ but when I heard them rip through those jigs and reels, it reminded me of the hillbilly sound, albeit with a few differences, that I heard long ago. It fit me just fine.”
And Devri has fit just fine at venues like the Boston pubs Mr. Dooley’s and The Black Rose, and events such as the Boston Irish Festival at the Irish Cultural Centre of New England. But the band has made a point of appearing in concerts benefiting such organizations as Lucy’s Love Bus [lucyslovebus.org], which aids children with cancer, and Cops for Kids with Cancer. One of their more memorable gigs was teaming up with Pauline Wells — the Cambridge police lieutenant known for, among other things, her stirring rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” at numerous Boston-area events – at a performance in New York City for family members of police officers killed in 9/11.
Parrish says, “If we can contribute our musical services and help someone in the process, it’s an honor.”
“When someone comes to us for a charity function, we will do it if we possibly can,” says Houton. “We don’t boast about it; we’re not trying to be white knights or anything. We just do what we can. And the thing is, when you take part in these kinds of benefits, you learn so much about what families have to go through. Then you realize how lucky you are.”
Devri has now captured its sound on its debut CD, “Broad Street,” the title referring to the location of Mr. Dooley’s, one of their regular gigs. And, as elsewhere, the genesis of the recording project was somewhat unorthodox.
“It was more out of shame and embarrassment,” quips Houton. “When I do bookings, of course, the venues will always ask, ‘Do you have a CD I can listen to?’ But even more importantly, it was people at our gigs: We went on a music cruise last year with about a thousand on board, and it seemed like everyone said to us, ‘I want to buy your CD!’ And we didn’t have one to sell. So we just said, ‘I guess we have to record one.’”
So they did, booking a couple of days at Belltower Studios in Stoneham and recording 20 tracks, 12 of which wound up in the final mix, that “represent a good cross-section of what we do,” says Houton. The Irish tradition is represented by “The Lakes of Pontchatrain,” “Lovely Irish Rose,” “Tell Me Ma” and an instrumental set that concludes the album, as well as Percy French’s “Mountains of Mourne,” while Dominic Behan’s “Black and Tans” recalls the ballad/rebel song era. Barry Moore’s “City of Chicago,” Liam Reilly’s “Flight of Earls,” and Jimmy McCarthy’s “Ride On” characterize the more contemporary end of the Devri repertoire.
Joining the four at various points are flute and whistle player Caroline O’Shea (part of the dynamic trad-band The Ivy Leaf) and keyboardist Martin McPhillimy. Wells teams up with Houton on “Ride On,” arguably the album’s most compelling track.
“Broad Street” also has a few special features. For starters, literally, is the opening track, Bruce Springsteen’s “American Land,” which Devri doesn’t actually play in concert, says Houton: “We just wanted to make a statement about being Americans, though we’re from different places. I know that Steve and I, as much as we love Ireland, are proud of the US and are glad that we’re here.”
In a similar vein is the next track, Houton’s original “Leaving Ireland,” which he says is his first real attempt at songwriting.
“I didn’t even think about having a song of mine on the album,” he says, “but as we were playing with the Boston Police Gaelic Column, we needed something in B-flat, that would go with the pipes. So Larry — who’s always good with the advice — just said, ‘Why don’t you write one?’ And I have to say, it came pretty quickly.”
“Leaving Ireland” is a modern-day take on the Irish legacy of immigration to America, and Boston in particular, with an intercontinental jet plane and boarding pass standing in for the packet ship of old. Houton evokes the conflicting emotion common to many Irish ex-pats (and immigrants from other countries, for that matter), relishing life in America but still feeling ties to the homeland, especially through music and dance.
In one verse, Houton remarks on another timeless, yet no less poignant and sometimes difficult, facet of immigrant life:
While our kids don’t have our accents, they dance our jigs and reels
America is in their tongues, Ireland’s in their heels
“My own kids sometimes get on me about my accent — though not in a cruel way — so that came from the heart,” says Houton.
The last verse pulls together the past and present, and various threads of the Irish-American experience, and segues into the Boston Police Gaelic Column’s rendition of a classic Irish song:
Now I’m a mason, I’m a lawyer, I’m a doctor, I’m a nurse
I’m a waitress, I’m a nanny, I’m a bollix, I’m a curse
A Sunday morning front seat, a Monday morning thief
A picture in Paddy Barry’s, a union labor chief
And I’m a heart that beats with so much pride and a tear that fills an eye
When in March I stand on Broadway and watch the parade pass by
I’m a piper in the police force, Boston’s finest band
And when the pipes and drums play ‘The Minstrel Boy,’ I miss old Ireland
“When I heard what Declan came up with,” says Parrish, “I told him, ‘Man, you had enough for four songs, not just one.’”
Flint, meanwhile, contributed a song of his own to the album, on which he sings lead. With echoes of Ralph McTell’s “Streets of London,” “Junior” speaks to the all-too-frequent propensity to find amusement in, or to simply ignore, those who seem eccentric or “different” – without any thought as to how they may have gotten that way:
As he sings to himself in the shadows
And argues with things that he hears
Better next time you cry for a loved one who’s gone
Remember that Junior’s still here
“It’s self-explanatory,” says Flint. “It’s a very personal song – a very Irish song, if you think about some of what the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem used to do. I had recorded it on an album on my own a few years ago, and hadn’t really thought about doing it with Devri, but Declan insisted we put it on the CD.”
Houton feels pretty fortunate for having made the acquaintance of so many friends through Devri and other musical activities.
“My father used to say, ‘The people you meet through music are usually some of the best people you’ll know.’ He was right.”
Devri the band: a fetching blend of personalities and temperaments