Brian O'Donovan: An Appreciation

The tributes have been constant and numerous since Brian O’Donovan died in October, as well they should be. He did so much to make Boston a fertile environment for folk and acoustic music, Irish/Celtic in particular, through his WGBH “Celtic Sojourn” radio show – and the stage productions it inspired – as well as the various festivals and concerts he organized or co-organized over the years.

Appropriately, the slate of high-quality, well-loved and equally well-attended slate of concerts that he put together and emceed for so many years at the Burren Backroom will now live on as the Brian O’Donovan Legacy Series.

Brian’s resume need not be cited here. Suffice it to say, he was one of the more ubiquitous figures in the city’s arts and culture scene, and in our collective mind’s eye we will always see him holding forth on a stage, somewhere, looking dapper in a tasteful blazer or a comfy, festive sweater, as was the case for “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn.”

But I also see Brian in a Sullivan Stadium windbreaker with matching utility belt and walkie-talkie.

I was fortunate enough not just to know Brian but to experience him in a variety of milieus. He was a friend, a neighbor, a fellow school community parent. We sang together. I interviewed him, he interviewed me. I worked with him, and worked for him, formally and informally. In fact, once I even drove two of his family members through a nasty ice storm – with only one working windshield wiper – from the Boston Theater District to Newton. If that’s not love, I don’t know what is.

My relationship with Brian was hardly unique. Many people got to see these different sides to him, and there were ample opportunities to do so, because that’s who he was. Yes, he had a private life, a family life, but he was constantly willing to widen the circle to include others.

I may have run into Brian during my initial sojourn in Boston (I arrived in 1981, about a year after him), but I honestly don’t remember. Instead, my first impression came – as it did for a lot of us – via the airwaves, after I’d moved to Worcester for what would be a two-year stint at my first job. His show on WERS was a must-listen event, broadening and enriching my familiarity with Celtic music and helping inspire my own musical activities, which led to my first encounter with Brian.

In 1984, Brian booked my trio to play at the first of three annual festivals he ran at Sullivan Stadium. We understood that we were not a “featured” act, which was fine with us. We were perfectly happy just getting the gig, and being part of an event that included The Chieftains, the Tannahill Weavers, Stockton’s Wing, and Seamus Connolly, among many others. So, early on the appointed day, we trekked to Foxborough, made our way into the stadium and found Brian’s command post, where he warmly greeted us (I vaguely remember thinking “Gee, he’s not as tall as I imagined, but he looks my age”).

Brian spelled out what he wanted us to do: Move around to different areas of the festival, away from the main stages, find a good spot where people are going by, hang out and play for a while, take a little break, then find someplace else. And after we kept it up for a few hours, we were welcome to stay and take in the rest of the performances (nota bene, we also got paid). It was a pretty hot day, but we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

This “strolling minstrels” concept was a staple of many of the festivals and large-scale events Brian was involved with and, I feel, goes to a key facet of his philosophy as a promoter and organizer. Putting performers on a stage was all very well and good, but Brian also wanted the audience to experience the music and dance intimately, spontaneously, with as little distance or implied barriers as possible. And it was equally an invitation to the musicians and dancers to engage with the audience in a direct, up-close-and-personal manner.

Similarly, Brian could wax enthusiastically about modern, even avant-garde explorations of Celtic music – those blending rock, jazz or classical, for instance, or music of other ethnic cultures – but he was steadfast in his admiration for the immediacy of “pure-drop trad,” played on a solo instrument or sung unaccompanied as it had been for generations. And then he could turn around and channel the more sentimental, even schmaltzy side of Irish music, bursting into “A Mother’s Love Is a Blessing” without any hint of irony or scorn.   

He loved it all.

Seven years after that festival, during which time I had gotten married and had kids, my family and I moved to Newton, and were pleased to discover the O’Donovans lived a few blocks away from us. Now, for me, Brian was not simply a fellow Celtic music enthusiast but also a fellow parent and local resident. Our conversations weren’t just about music anymore, but what we liked (or didn’t) about our children’s school, as well as the local playgrounds and parks and other features of our neighborhood.

One of the highlights of this period was when Brian emceed a benefit concert I co-organized to help send my older daughter’s high school-age folk dance group to a festival in England. Besides my daughter, Brian knew a lot of the kids through Revels and other local folk music and dance activities, so he was for all intents and purposes a member of the group’s extended family. Of course he was the perfect choice to emcee, and of course he was at his best: giving the audience an orientation in the particular style of dance with brief overviews and an on-stage interview or two, and delivering his trademark introductions – he described one of the group’s performance teams as “the New England Patriots of rapper-sword dance” (which, yes, was a compliment back then).

For a few years, I had the chance to do some behind-the-scenes work with Brian on what would eventually be called the ICONS Festival. Here, again, was another window on Brian, as the head of an enormous enterprise that involved several dozen people across multiple areas of administration, planning and operations.

We would gather at regular meetings, where Brian asked representatives from various working groups to give updates; he believed it was important for us to have a holistic sense of the scale of the operation, and all the effort involved – from sanitation to promotions/marketing to food services. Brian would offer praise and encouragement so we all felt valued, while at the same time remind us of the challenges ahead. Once, Brian noted that an area media outlet was potentially interested in giving the festival some coverage, but it might be a tough sell: “What they’re looking for is young, hot and sexy.”

“Brian,” chimed a voice from the back, “it can’t always be about you, you know.”

The entire room burst into laughter, Brian included.

There are many questions I would’ve liked to ask Brian, and one is this: When did you realize you were good at this kind of thing – at organizing, directing, marshaling, nudging people to buy into an idea (maybe not every time, but certainly a lot of the time)? Did you consider this a gift or a dubious personality trait? Would you have traded it for, say, a proficiency in gauging the stock market? Somehow, I think the answer to that last question would’ve been a deadpan “Not really,” accompanied by the sly O’Donovan smile.

I also did a little volunteering for the early years of “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn,” which of his many pursuits may have been the closest to his heart, reflecting his great respect for the centrality of music, dance and the sung or spoken word to home and hearth, and the importance of tradition, ritual and ceremony in our lives. As those who saw it know, the show had a real multigenerational character to it, from elementary school-age dancers to performers well into their golden years.  And at the center was Brian, the guiding light and connective tissue.

Brian took great joy in the fact that many people considered “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn” a part of their holiday tradition. That was certainly the case for me, but there was an added dimension, a tradition within the tradition: Every year for well more than a decade, I did a “Christmas Celtic Sojourn” preview for Boston Irish Reporter/, which meant an interview with Brian, so he could talk about the featured performers and other aspects of the show (a nice bit of symmetry because I was on the organizing committee for Boston Celtic Music Fest, and some years Brian would interview me about the festival on his radio show).

So, each mid-November, I would look forward to a conversation ­­with Brian – by phone, sometimes in person – about the upcoming show. While the artists’ biographies were certainly useful in putting the story together, having Brian offer his personal insights on that musician or that singer was invaluable. And if the show involved traditions not typically associated with “Celtic” – Quebecois, Scandinavian, Sephardic – Brian was happy to explain how these fit into the show’s dynamic. Invariably, these interviews turned into conversations, not just about music but family and mutual friends and acquaintances.

Brian had shared the news of his illness publicly by the time of our “Celtic Sojourn” interview last fall. I asked him how he wanted to proceed: It seemed foolish to pretend that everything was normal, but I knew he didn’t want to make his situation the focus of the story. His response was characteristically Brian:

“We’re looking at someplace in the middle. This is our 20th anniversary; that is a big deal and something very much worth celebrating. But ‘A Christmas Celtic Sojourn’ is very much a family show, one that brings us together during a special time of year and allows us to think on our lives – the joys and pleasures, certainly, and also the challenges we face.”

He also praised the team behind “Sojourn,” saying they would “step up in whatever way is needed.”

“As for me,” he added, “I plan to be on stage similar to the way it’s always been – but with perhaps certain extra meaningfulness.”

With our interview nearing the end, I couldn’t help but wonder: Is this the last time I talk to Brian? I felt I had to say something to him that wouldn’t come off so obviously, and awkwardly, as a final farewell, yet would get across what I felt about our friendship. I was able to tell him – truthfully – that in the wake of some painful experiences of recent years, I’d been reflecting on relationships I valued and cherished, and ours was one of them. This sparked some brief reminiscences on both our parts, and shortly thereafter I said goodbye. This turned out not to be our last conversation, but I felt – and still feel – gratified to have had it.

To conclude, let me go back to Sullivan Stadium: It’s the fall of 1985, and I’m on assignment for my newspaper covering the Eastern Massachusetts high school football championships being held there. Feeling peckish, I go to the press box, where a luncheon spread for all the sportswriters awaits (one of the first things they teach you in journalism is to go where there’s free food). As I’m putting a sandwich together, I hear behind me, in a friendly Cork accent: “Hey, man! How ya doin’?”

I turn around, and there’s Brian, in the aforementioned Sullivan Stadium windbreaker with matching utility belt and walkie-talkie, and a big smile on his face.

I’m a bit surprised, and actually quite pleased, that he remembers me from the festival more than a year ago. But Brian has an astonishingly good memory for people and faces, as I will come to find out about six years later, when he becomes my neighbor.

At that moment, we’re in a different context to one another: I either didn’t know, or had forgotten, that Brian worked for event management at the stadium, and I’m not sure if Brian knew I had a day job as a newspaper reporter.

Ultimately, of course, it really doesn’t matter how and why the two of us have come to be in the Sullivan Stadium press box that day. We greet each other warmly and spend a few minutes catching up, he goes on his rounds, while I finish my sandwich, grab my notebook and pen, and head back down to the field.

That vignette set the tone for our friendship. We’d go months, even years, without seeing one another (although there might be an email exchange at least), caught up in our own personal, familial or occupational pursuits. But when we did cross paths, by accident or design, it was as if we’d only sat down for a drink and a chat just the other day.

Multiply my experience by thousands – maybe tens of thousands – and you get a sense of the impact Brian O’Donovan had, and why so many of us feel keenly his loss.