March 6, 2012
Hoary clichés and bad jokes just seem inevitable where the Boston-based traditional Irish band The Ivy Leaf is concerned: You could say, for instance, that The Ivy Leaf is blossoming, has deep roots in the Irish tradition, is branching out, and some day will be raking it in.
But horticultural-themed wisecracks should not obscure the fact that this quartet of young musicians—all in their early or almost-mid 20s—really is getting ready to bloom.
As its members—Dan Accardi, Armand Aromin, Caroline O’Shea, and Lindsay Straw—have individually done due diligence in learning the music, they have collectively worked to develop a sound suited to their skills as well as their interests. Their resume includes Boston-area gigs at Club Passim, City Feed and Supply, the Lansdowne Pub, and an upcoming performance at The Beehive (they’ve also done gigs in various subsets of the group). The experience last year of recording a CD, which they expect to release this spring, proved to be a formative one for the band and strengthened their personal and musical bond with one another.
So, at a time of changing seasons, The Ivy Leaf seems on the cusp of a transition themselves. They are plainly delighted at their progress thus far, happy with the relationship they have forged, and optimistic about what opportunities may lie ahead. You might say, in fact, that their hopes and expectations are in full flower.
“It’s really interesting to listen to the album now,” says Accardi, a Warren, RI, native who is in his final semester at Boston College. “I think of it as a recording of us finding our voice as The Ivy Leaf. We had been playing together for a while, obviously, and we knew a bunch of tunes and songs, but being in that studio really helped us to focus on how we wanted to sound.”
Adds Straw, the band’s bouzouki and guitar player: “Doing the CD represented an opportunity we just couldn’t pass up. The conventional wisdom is that you don’t do a recording until you’ve reached the stage as a band where you’ve figured everything out. But a friend told us, ‘Don’t wait until you’re ready. You get better from the process.’ And recording the CD really helped us to get better.”
A sampling of tracks from the CD bears out the observations of Accardi and Straw. Accardi’s fiddle and concertina, Aromin’s fiddle and whistle, and O’Shea’s flute and whistle carry the melodies with assurance, Straw’s bouzouki providing an accompaniment that is at once rhythmic and melodic. Sets such as “Humours of Glynn/Jackie Small’s/Rolling Wave” and “Kennedy’s/Return to Camden Town/The Ragged Hank of Yarn” are vibrant and sure-footed, and tailored to fully reveal each tune’s character and personality. The band also shows itself willing, and quite able, to change things up a bit: in the “Lumpy Custard” medley, for example, where they shift between mazurka, hop jig and reel; or, in another set where they put the polka “Four Shoves” on the back end of two hornpipes. Nor does The Ivy Leaf shirk the song tradition, as evidenced by Straw’s quiet, winsome version of “The Month of January,” with twin fiddles and whistle creating a suitably spare, sobering backdrop for this lament of false love.
The CD also is the band’s heartfelt thank-you to numerous musicians with whom they’ve played at sessions throughout Boston, as well as Providence, and the influences they’ve picked up through these and other associations. Jimmy Devine, Seamus Connolly, Andrea Mori, and Shannon Heaton are among those who have served as mentors in the members’ musical education.
Another important source of inspiration, Straw says, came from Detroit concertina player Asher Perkins. “Asher has been part of a family band, and when he visited with us he described how they would spend time arranging sets and songs. We had been more ‘session-style’ before, but listening to Asher inspired us to think more about how we approached our material.”
“We didn’t want the music to feel too robotic or mechanical, so we experimented in terms of, say, changing rhythms or tempos in a set, or dropping instruments in and out,” says Aromin, who adds that despite the band’s greater emphasis on planning arrangements, “some of our best stuff comes under the ‘three-hours-before-a-gig’ category.”
“That may be true,” puts in Accardi, “but even if what we end up doing hasn’t been planned in advance, we’re getting good enough—on our own and with each other—that we can work things out."
Every band has its back stories, of course, typically various combinations of fortuitous events and mitigating circumstances, and there are elements of all these in The Ivy Leaf. O’Shea, a senior at Providence College, followed the most conventional path to Irish music: growing up in the Irish-American hotbed of Milton with a father who ran an Irish gift shop where she listened to popular Irish ballad bands and dabbled with the tin whistle, then taking lessons at the Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann music school with Heaton and Mori—who convinced her to switch from the classical flute she’d been playing to the Irish brand—and making several trips to the All-Ireland Fleadh Cheol.
Aromin, a Rhode Island native like Accardi (they attended the same high school, but didn’t know each other then), can trace his beginnings in the music to the tai-chi lessons he took in his early teens: His instructor also taught violin and lent Aromin an instrument so he could practice on his own. When the moderator of his high school’s photography club—a student of Jimmy Devine—spied Aromin carrying around the violin, he suggested Aromin try his hand at Irish music. Another Ivy Leaf seed was planted.
If Aromin can point to tai-chi as his unlikely portal to Irish music, Accardi can cite an invitation to play video games at the house of a school friend, whose fiddle-playing father happened that day to be hosting a party and session. The music being played wasn’t strictly Irish, Accardi says, but he was intrigued enough by what he heard that his friend’s father lent him a fiddle—which came in handy shortly thereafter when Accardi’s mother saw an announcement for fiddle lessons, leading him to Devine.
Straw, the group’s geographical outlier, grew up in Wyoming with a great affection for 1960s folk guitar a la Joan Baez, Simon and Garfunkel and, eventually, Bert Jansch. Although she made attempts at playing jazz, her music teachers invariably steered her to folk—and then, attending Berklee College of Music, she came under the tutelage of John McGann, who opened her up to Celtic music. Listening to various Celtic bands like Malinky, Planxty and the Bothy Band, Straw decided to expand her talents to the bouzouki.
The concise Ivy Leaf origin goes something like this: Aromin met O’Shea – then a high school senior—at a Mid-Atlantic Fleadh in New York. Then Straw met Aromin at Berklee, and the two became roommates, a boon to Straw’s immersion in Irish music. O’Shea, and eventually Accardi, entered the fold through various sessions with Aromin and Straw in Boston as well as Providence.
However strong their desire to desire to play together as a band, logistics and other factors presented an obstacle: O’Shea was in Providence most of the time, and on the occasions she was back in Massachusetts, Accardi or Aromin often might be visiting Rhode Island; additionally, Aromin, O’Shea and Accardi all have spent significant periods studying in Ireland. But their schedules matched up enough to make it workable, especially over the past year.
All the while, the Ivy Leaf members have all cultivated their own musical interests. Accardi, for example, studied East Clare fiddle with Connolly at BC, and concertina with Niall Vallely, while developing a fondness for Sliabh Luchra and West Clare styles. Aromin, who, in addition to Devine, counts Rhode Island-based piper Patrick Hutchinson as well as traditional musicians Bobby Casey, Lucy Farr and Tommy Reck among his major influences, is studying violin-making and repair at Boston’s North Bennet Street School. O’Shea considers her six-month sojourn in Galway last year a major step in her understanding and appreciation of the tradition. And Straw has been making her way through the landmark “Voice of the People” series of recordings of traditional singers from Ireland and the UK, transcribing and researching songs.
“Playing with these guys, I learn to appreciate the older, ‘roots’ musicians,” says O’Shea. “I tend to remember the feeling of a tune, and where I heard it, more than the names or other details. Dan is a great fount of information that way.”
Says Accardi, “It’s just fascinating to me how, on such a little island, even in a single county, there can be so many aspects of the music. I can learn a tune, play it a certain way, and then I’ll hear somebody do essentially the same tune, but with enough variations that it sounds significantly different. I like to examine how the musicians made the musical decisions they did because of what they heard around them, or the style they learned. That’s what I like about Irish music: You discover what’s hidden under history.”
Information about The Ivy Leaf, including the band’s CD, is available at their website, ivyleafmusic.com