February 2, 2012
Brian Conway makes no bones about it: He understands that his particular tutelage in the Irish music tradition was a profoundly rare thing, and he feels very fortunate as a result.
“I think that, in my upbringing, I definitely got the music pure,” says Conway, who will bring his widely admired fiddle-playing talents to the Boston area later this month.
“I was exposed to the fiddle music of Sligo in a very concentrated form, through people like Martin Wynne and Andy McGann, who were schooled in that tradition. This is an experience most people even in Ireland -- probably more than 90 percent -- haven’t had. It’s been a major part of my life, and I’m thrilled with it.”
Conway, with his mastery of the Sligo style, would seem to be a throwback in an age when regional variations in Irish music tend to be less in evidence, especially on concert stages or professional recordings. And like many of the musicians he regarded as mentors, Conway approaches music as a dearly loved avocation, not a full-time occupation, having fashioned a successful career in criminal justice. But the New York City native is unmistakably a man of his time, able to view his Irish music experience in a wider context and amid changes that, for better or worse, have influenced the tradition over the past few decades.
On Feb. 17, Conway will perform along with another celebrated practitioner of a regional style, Cape Breton fiddler Kimberley Fraser, and guitarist Mark Simos, at the Unity Somerville Church near Davis Square in Somerville. The event is sponsored by the Notlob Concert Series [sites.google.com/site/notlobmusic]. Fraser, who moved to the Boston area several years ago, is widely acknowledged as one of the most talented young musicians to emerge from Cape Breton, and has appeared at festivals and concerts around the world. Simos, a songwriter whose compositions have been recorded by Alison Kraus and Union Station, among others, is an equally brilliant musician on guitar, piano and fiddle.
“I’m really looking forward to playing with Kimberley,” says Conway, who first met Fraser at the Swannoa Gathering, an annual festival of traditional music in North Carolina. “It’s going to be a split format: She and Mark will play a set, I’ll play a set with Mark, and then we’ll all collaborate on a few things.
“It will be interesting to see what we work out -- she’s better at Irish than I am at Cape Breton,” he adds, with a laugh. “But you always relish the opportunity to play with such excellent musicians like Kimberley and Mark. It enlarges your world.
“And, of course, I’m happy to be going back to Boston, which is one of the epicenters of Irish traditional music along with New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. I don’t play in the pubs or at ceilis much anymore, so I don’t get up there as often as I used to. But I certainly am aware of how special a place it is for Irish music.”
New York, of course, is a pretty special place for Irish music, and it was there, through the city’s Irish population, that Conway came into his own. After an initial introduction from his musician father, Jim, and Limerick-born fiddler Martin Mulvihill, Conway entered under the guidance of Wynne and McGann, who showed him the highly ornamental, triplet-rich style they played back in Sligo -- including McGann’s teacher, a gent named Michael Coleman whose more than six dozen 78 recordings were highly influential in 20th century Irish music.
Regional styles like those of Sligo, or Clare, or Donegal, are by no means lost to posterity, says Conway, but in the past couple of decades he has seen what he describes as a general “homogenization” of Irish music. Some of this may be due to societal factors and trends beyond the scope of musical tastes, but Conway also feels that the evolution of Irish music into a performance art -- enhanced by “the ubiquitous tape recorder” -- since the 1960s has had an impact.
“You see a lot of young players who imitate the sound of a popular musician,” he explains. “They will mimic the most conspicuous aspects of that musician’s playing, rather than explore comprehensively the style he or she represents. And they’ll find and emulate aspects of other musicians they become interested in, and instead of one distinctive musical style, they develop an assortment.
“I’m not saying it’s bad or good, but this is definitely something that differentiates a lot of the Irish music you hear today from how it sounded in the past.”
After earning junior and senior All-Ireland titles, Conway went on to record “The Apple in Winter” with another eminent New York City fiddler, Tony DeMarco, as well as an album in tribute to McGann with Joe Burke and Felix Dolan, and eventually release two of his own CDs, “First Through the Gate” and, in 2008, “Consider the Source.” He has performed from one end of the US to the other, and made warmly received visits to Ireland and elsewhere in Europe.
In addition, Conway is a member of The Pride of New York, which could be described as a tribute band for the “New York style” of Irish music: Its other members – accordionist Billy McComiskey, pianist Brendan Dolan, and flute and whistle player Joanie Madden of Cherish the Ladies – are, like Conway, embodiments of distinct styles and legacies within Irish tradition.
“We only play a few times a year, but I enjoy every minute we spend together,” says Conway. “They are a great bunch of musicians who all respect the generations before, and who value the connection to the tradition. Although we tend to come from different styles, we mesh very well.”
But through it all Conway has stayed true to his primary – not “other” -- career in criminal justice, which has seen him amass a distinguished record of service in the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office, where he pursued action on economic crimes, narcotics cases, and the rackets with various district attorney bureaus. He is now deputy chief of the office’s Public Integrity Bureau, which prosecutes public officials or others affiliated with the legal system who commit crimes ranging from excessive force to fraud, as well as attorneys who are charged with misconduct.
For him, there was never a question of making a living doing something other than music. “My parents instilled in me the need to have a profession,” he says. “My musical role models all had full-time jobs, like Martin Wynne, who worked for the post office. However much I may love it, I didn’t want music to be my livelihood. I really felt that would compromise my art form, and just take the enjoyment of it away from me.”
Fortunately for Conway, he happens to love his job. “What I like about working for the DA is, we’re on the right side ethically. We’re helping victims, redressing wrongs, and doing things that play to one’s natural sense of fairness.”
He doesn’t see an overlap between these two areas of life, except perhaps for one thing: “I think I’ve actually become better in the courtroom since I released my CDs, because that got me used to performing in public.”
Conway’s primary outlet for his music is through sessions or other informal get-togethers with friends and family members, notably his sister Rose Conway Flanagan -- a founding member of Cherish the Ladies -- and Rose’s daughters Maeve and Bernadette, who play with the all-female band Girsa. Much like Boston, according to Conway, the greater New York City area has proved to be a wellspring of young Irish musicians, particularly to the north in the community of Pearl River (the birthplace of Girsa), which seems to send several representatives to the All-Irelands almost every year.
“It’s interesting to see what’s happened with the music here,” says Conway. “For a while, the scene spread out from the city, to the suburbs and surrounding areas. But now I think it’s come back around: The five boroughs all have sessions going on, and there are concert series, multiple branches of Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann, and lots of people who make things happen.”
Conway has done his part to uphold the tradition in another, perhaps even more vital way: as a teacher and mentor who has aided plenty of aspiring fiddlers. And, thanks to Skype, he’s extended his teaching beyond the New York City area – all the way to Alaska, in fact.
“We all seek that balance between work and pleasure in our lives,” he says. “I feel lucky in that I have a career that I love and believe in, as well as family and friends who mean the world to me. And on top of that, every so often, I get to go to a place like Boston and play music. I mean, to me that’s like getting paid to eat ice cream.”
The Feb. 17 concert with Brian Conway, Kimberley Fraser, and Mark Simos begins at 8 p.m. (doors open 7:30 p.m.). There is a suggested donation of $15 ($12 with advance reservation), $10 for students. For reservations, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Notlob Concerts will hold two other upcoming events that feature local Celtic musicians: Andy Reiner and Julie Metcalf on February 4, and Katie McNally and Eric McDonald on March 2. Both concerts take place at the Loring-Greenough House, 12 South Street, Jamaica Plain.
Reiner (fiddle, mandolin), raised in a musical family that embraced a variety of folk music traditions, is known for his work with Blue Moose and the Unbuttoned Zippers, a unique quartet that combines Celtic, Appalachian and Scandinavian styles with wholly original material. Metcalf (fiddle, viola), a founding member of the classical-folk crossover Folk Arts Quartet, has become a regular on the New England contra dance circuit.
McNally and McDonald, who played at the ninth annual Boston’s Celtic Music Fest last month, are two highly active members of the area Celtic scene who play powerful arrangements of music culled from the Scottish and Cape Breton traditions. McNally, a New England Scottish fiddle champion, has performed as part of the ensemble Childsplay; McDonald has displayed his guitar and mandolin talents in a number of bands across the folk/acoustic music spectrum, notably the Celtic/contra dance trio Matching Orange.
For information on these and other Notlob events, see sites.google.com/site/notlobmusic.