A discussion with Andy Irvine: Life on the road, soloing, composing

First of two parts

For most of his adult life, Andy Irvine has been true to the advice he set down in one of his best-loved songs: Never tire of the road.

Irvine’s ongoing odyssey – which this month brings him to Boston, where he’ll perform on Oct. 6 at Four Green Fields – these last four decades have taken him not only through Europe, the US, and plenty of other places, but also across the length and breadth of the modern Irish music revival as well.

He has been a part of seminal bands like Sweeney’s Men, Planxty, and Patrick Street, and in the mid-1970s paired up with Paul Brady to make a landmark album that has had lasting influence and appeal. His visits to Eastern Europe in the 1960s led him to explore that region’s musical traditions, which he incorporated into his playing of Irish music; in particular, the presence of the bouzouki in Irish, and other Celtic, music owes in no small part to Irvine.

Nor has Irvine been content to rest on his achievements: Several years ago, he helped form the innovative Irish-Appalachian-Balkan ensemble Mozaik while continuing to play occasional reunion tours with his earlier bands. And through all this he has cultivated a highly successful solo career and developed a reputation as a skillful, eloquent writer of songs, many built around historical figures and events as well as social concerns a la Woody Guthrie – all sung with a voice possessed of a warm, utterly natural quality. His most recent CD, last year’s “Abocurragh,” featured collaborations with many of his longtime associates, including Donal Lunny and Liam O’Flynn from Planxty.

A newly remarried Irvine spoke with the BIR about his demanding schedule, his biographical-style songwriting, and the prospects for another Planxty reunion, among other topics.

Q. Andy, a glance at your calendar for the next few months indicates that as usual, you are one busy man. Before you head out on your US tour, you’re going to be reuniting with Patrick Street for a bunch of gigs. What’s the status of the band these days?
A. The current line-up is Kevin Burke, John Carty, Arty McGlynn, and myself. We haven’t been together that regularly, but we played at a few festivals in Ireland this past summer. Since Ged Foley left several years back, I guess you could say it’s been a consistently occasional band.

Although Patrick Street doesn’t rehearse that often – we’re going to take some time a couple of days before we go out on tour – we have a large body of old work to fall back on, and people seem to be quite happy hearing it.

Q. And then, a few weeks after you’re done with the US tour, you’re doing a concert with Paul Brady?

A. Yes, two dates in November at Vicar Street in Dublin. We played three years ago at the Celtic Connections festival in Scotland, and it’s very enjoyable to be able to get together after such a relatively short time.

Q. Has it surprised you how much of an impact the Brady-Irvine album has had over the years? So many of the songs -- “Plains of Kildare,” “Mary and the Soldier,” The Jolly Soldier,” “Arthur McBride” -- as well as the arrangements and styles of playing you used, have practically become standards in Irish folk music.

A. Looking back, that period of 1976-77 was simply the right window, the right time. Who could’ve known that what we were doing was so much in the public eye – it didn’t stay that way. You just pick your opportunities and see how it goes. We’re certainly very proud of the way it worked out. I’ve half-jokingly suggested to Paul that we should do another album!

Q. An obvious question: What are the chances that Planxty will get back together for a tour?

A. Well, what with all the various projects we’re involved with, Planxty has become occasional to the point of being non-occasional. It’s sad to say, but a reunion probably won’t happen again.

Q. Do you have any special memories of, or associations with, Boston?

A. The gigs Patrick Street did in Somerville Theater stand out in my memory. I love that theater; it’s a wonderful living piece of history. I also loved being at the Gaelic Roots festival at Boston College [in 2002]; I thought that was a marvelous event. And I always enjoy being in whatever public house Tommy McCarthy [owner of Boston-area pubs The Burren and The Skellig] owns and operates.

Q. When you’re on solo tours, like the one you’ll be doing in the US, do you tend to have a pre-arranged repertoire, or do you change it to suit the venue and/or the audience?

A. The repertoire usually changes from gig to gig, but it has things that just can’t be left out. “Reynardine” is essential at this point in time, for example. Of course, you’ll get someone coming up to you afterwards and asking, “Why didn’t you play this or that song?” People might yell out for me to sing “West Coast of Clare,” say, and I’ll do it right at the end; I’m more likely to do a request if it’s a song I’m not playing every night.

Q. “Abocurragh” was your first solo CD in a decade. How did that come together? Did you just say, “OK, I’m going to block off time and focus on doing this album?”

A. During the years after I had released “Way Out Yonder” [in 1999], it was often the case that I was producing material for a band, so this tended to dilute the material I might otherwise put on a solo album. And you know, I’m just on the road so much, and I don’t organize my life as well as I could. As it was, it took me 18 months to record the album, in several different places.

Q. Right, and you were even able to manage reunions with your Planxty and Mozaik colleagues on a few tracks. But the collaborations with the Norwegian hardanger fiddle and nyckelharpa player Annebjorg Lien were very intriguing.

A. I have a good friend in Norway, and it was through him that I met Annebjorg. I really love hardanger fiddle, and she is an outstanding player. The hardanger plays in keys that are not the easiest for an Irish fiddler to work with, so it was ideal for the two tracks on which she appears. I was in Norway this summer and got to perform with Annebjorg, so I was glad to keep that connection going.

Q. That decade between “Way Out Yonder” and “Abocurragh” was a very eventful one, of course, what with 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the economic problems in Ireland and throughout the world, and so on. As someone who takes a great interest in social and political issues, did all that play a role in the songs you wrote or arranged for the album?

A. I really don’t write on current political happenings. Whatever is political on that album, or the others, is from a historical viewpoint – something that’s done and dusted. It’s easier to write when you have all, or most all, of the facts. Today, you are never quite completely sure what’s going on, so being able to step back and write about an event or a situation can be very difficult.
Of course, even the past is not necessarily a sure thing. I’d written a song in the late 1980s about Raoul Wallenberg, who saved thousands of Jews in Budapest from the Nazis in World War II, only to get imprisoned by the Soviet Union. While the Soviets had claimed for years that Wallenberg was dead, at the time I wrote the song there were some people certain he was still alive, and so I reflected that in the song [released on Irvine’s 1991album “Rude Awakening”]. But then the Berlin Wall came down, and then all these facts that had long been secret started to come out, and the Russians said, “No, he really did die.” So now, uh oh, the song is not historically accurate.

NEXT: Irvine and his musical biographies.