Lovely Irish Music House Concert

Kevin Crawford (left) and Cillian Vallely were in Tucson tonight for a small, intimate house concert; they are both very well known and well respected Irish musicians.  Really great tunes. Kevin is famous for his ability to recollect Irish  tunes and tune names and all kinds of Irish music esoterica. This is some of the most lovely live acoustic Irish music I’ve heard in Tucson in a while.  Great selection of tunes, with many recent compositions played. Fantastic.

Another Fantastic Asheville Trip

I just got back yesterday from my trip to Asheville where I hung out for 5 days with my absolutely fabulous fiddle pal Beanie Odell.

My first day there was warm and we headed out of town to a lovely trail along the French Broad river, where we hiked to a perfect swimming hole. Really. River swimming isn’t something I really get to do in Tucson; floating a bit with the current while watching the fish below in the very clear water was sublime.

Here’s a heron I saw on the way back:

We played a fair amount of tunes, and talked about tunes, and listened to tunes.  And there was lots of Boggle, the nerdy and addictive word game for those of us who don’t have the patience or brains for Scrabble. Beanie, as it turns out, is a Boggle champ and the best I could do was come within a ten point margin of her consistently super-high scores.

But a big chunk of time we spent listening to tunes while painting Beanie’s coffee table– she’d found a discarded antique pine table, and re-planed and sanded it, and drew (freehand!!) a symetrical paisely design on top. Beanie started to paint it before I arrived, and wasn’t happy with the colors she’d picked out. Here’s the table as we started to “audition” different color combinations to improve her design:

And here you can see the “new” red and green on the right (they are darker) versus the old colors, which are lighter:

Here’s Beanie doing the brown outline on the big paisley shapes; what a pro! Painting this thing, and mixing up the colors just right, took hours.  Good thing there was a nearly complete Irish fiddle digital archive in the house!

Working at a task while listening to tunes is a great way to get them in your head. We both managed to learn the 5 part jig Helvic Head as played by Fisherstreet on their 1991 recording Out in the Night.

Here’s the finished tabletop…

…and here we both are with our painting handiwork.

All it needs is a coat of shellac, and it will be ready for a circle of musicians and some good craic!

I’m already looking forward to my next trip to Asheville. I already miss having someone around who really gets the spirit of Irish music.

Irish Music in Tucson: Aris Plays at Prince Pizza


I met up with my music pals Richard and Margy at a local pizza restaurant–Prince Pizza–where we had a gig the other night: our little trio is called Aris. We have lots of material, but still have to decide what to play. It was fun; we’ve got a gig on November 17th at the same place. Nice to have a little extra cash!

Fiddle Tune Up For Newfoundland Trip

I’m getting ready for the Port Kirwan Come Home Year in Newfoundland, which starts on August 5th; that means getting my fiddle in shape, as I hope to share some tunes at the reunion, as well as attend some Irish sessions in St. John’s: there seem to be quite a few each week, no surprise there!

I put new Prim strings on my fiddle, except for the E string, which is a Pirastro Gold E; these aren’t fancy strings, they’re just good value and durable. I finally replaced the worn rubber bits on my Wolf SuperFlexible shoulder rest–above, you can see the new rubber bits on the left and the cruddy ones on the right that are yellow and hard with age. I’ve had that shoulder rest for almost 15 years and LOVE it. No other shoulder rest works for me. And as for the strings…I like the Prims, they’re predictable, stay in tune and don’t give me any grief; and, they sound good and have good response.

I hope to have some good tunes up in Newfoundland; Arizona is a real desert when it comes to Irish music, the one huge drawback of living here.

One day I’ll live somewhere with a fantastic local Irish music community!!

My Button Box Odyssey

I’ve had this button box for almost 2 years. For ages I wanted to play the button accordion, but never thought it was a practical idea as the fiddle is hard enough to play and requires enough commitment…..and why bother with 2 impossible instruments when 1 is enough. That’s at least how I used to think. But then I decided life is too short; and while this trite thought would send most people to book the Carnival cruise of their dreams, or finance that fancy sports car, my life-is-too-short thought process led to the button box.

So, 2 years ago when I decided to take the button box plunge, I was confronted with one sad truth: button accordions are very expensive; the good ones are made in Italy and Ireland, and the strong Euro made them simply unaffordable to me. So I did some research and contacted an accordion maker and repair guy in Florida, Michael Usui of Irish Dancemaster Accordions and asked for his suggestions. He makes a very affordable Irish button accordion, which sounds just as good as  fancy Italian boxes at 1/3 the price; but he said if I could find an old Hohner on Ebay, he could swap out the reeds and set me up with a good starter box for even less.

So with some effort I found a Hohner Pokerwork (the photo above) that was actually made in Germany (not China, like some Hohners are these days): everyone who sees it says it looks “old” but it’s probably only 25 years old. I got it for $400 on Ebay (a pretty good deal) and then shipped it to Michael, who for $360 I believe installed the reeds and did the equivalent of an accordion “detail” job, adjusting the fingerboard, filing sharp parts down, installing a shoulder strap hook. He did such a fantastic job.

I took my box to the Swannanoa Gathering in 2008, where I took Martin Quinn’s accordion class, and he said my accordion sounded fantastic. I don’t think this was just plamas either. I went to Martin’s class again in 2009, and slowly began to understand how to play the instrument; he’s a wonderful teacher.

And then…just as I was starting to hit my accordion stride… I got tendonitis in my right shoulder. I stopped playing; I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. What made it more confusing is that when I worked for Child Protective Services, I injured my right shoulder due to the repetitive strain of mouse-clicking (that job is more about data entry than children), and as a result I never mouse-click with my right hand anymore, it’s too painful. I thought maybe I’d never be able to play the button accordion, because maybe the right hand action was like mouse-clicking. Then I thought it was the shoulder strap, which seemed to put too much pressure on my shoulder, not matter how ergonomically I tried to play. I thought I was doomed. I tried different shoulder straps. I tried using 2 shoulder straps. Nothing worked. So, until recently, my button box sat sadly unused.

Last month, though, I had a huge button-box-epiphany. I can’t tell you how exciting this was. Really. Laugh–go ahead; there are so many jokes about accordions among Irish musicians and I can take it.

I don’t know how it all clicked. I was up at 2AM with a migraine one night and I was looking through my books and pulled a copy of Damien Connolly’s  The Irish Accordion Tutor off the shelf and read what he had to say about the button box….and I realized at that ridiculous hour that I was letting the left side of the accordion sag too much when I was holding it, which pulled on my right shoulder; he described how to avoid doing this. When I was feeling better I tried it out, and, presto, my was problem solved!

I’m back to playing (like a snail) the button accordion, and working on my tunes. It’s a lot of fun. The button accordion sounds very happy and upbeat. And unlike the fiddle, it’s a tempered instrument. The buttons are all very predictable.

I can’t recommend Damien Connelly’s book enough; it’s fantastic.

Irish Music at O’Mally’s in Tucson: an Aris Debut

Happy St. Paddy’s Day! I should be out celebrating, but I have to be at work in the morning; so it’s been an early evening, limited to just a couple pints of (too cold) Guinness.

Here’s a photo of our 2 hour gig at O’Malley’s; it seems like anyone who plays–or claims to play–Irish music in Tucson was at O’Malley’s tonight, even the Scottish 7 Pipers Pipe Band marched through the huge bar a few times (after our gig, thankfully). I played with Anton (guitar), Margy (vocals/bodhran) and Don (flute/whistle); Margy had the idea to call our ensemble Aris (pronounced airish), which I think in Irish means “again”. Here’s Don, me and Margy; I’m in my favorite crushed velvet:

And, not to leave Anton out…’s a shot w/Anton on guitar:

The guy who mixed sound did great; I think we sounded pretty good. Thanks to O’Malley’s for hiring us. It was lots of fun; thanks to Margy, Don and Anton for making it possible to play great tunes together!

Paddy Carty and Paddy Fahey Recording Now a Free Download

My email fiddle-pal Jake sent me the following link to a recently uploaded out-of-print record from 1969 of Paddy Fahey and Paddy Carty, Traditional Irish Music from Galway. It’s already on my Ipod and I love it.

The link is to Ceol Alainn, a great blog with all this great old Irish traditional music; I haven’t visited the site since last fall–I’m embarrassed to admit, I’ve been so busy–when I downloaded all this great Paddy Canny stuff.

Anyone who either loves traditional Irish music, or who wants to broaden their knowledge beyond what’s easily available on CD, this is a fantastic place to hear the pure drop.

Randal Bays House Concert

A couple of nights ago Randal Bays, a talented Irish fiddler and guitarist, was in Tucson for a house concert;  about 40 people showed up. I never met him before but heard only good things about him. And what I heard was true; he not only put on a good show, he really made an effort to make sure everyone present felt welcome and included.

I asked if I could take some photos of him while he played, to post on this blog, and he was kind enough to say yes. The photos look fine, but in them you can’t see how friendly he is; most fiddlers, when you take a picture of them, are looking down or away and they look asleep or else deep in thought, though I remember one who smoked a pipe while playing, Vincent-someone, a big tall fellow, that was years ago, in New Zealand.

So please click here for a better photo than what I was able to take; Randal’s website is impressive.

It is so hard to be a traveling musician these days, dependent on patrons–either listeners or students–for an income. While listening to Randal, I found myself wishing musicians and artists like him got more support. And why not? The arts greatly improve the quality of our lives.

I was talking to my fiddle pal Beanie today–of the Red Wellies–about the  show and about my sense that it’s probably never been harder to be a musician on the road, trying to drum up interest and business. Even in this nation’s Great Depression there was funding for the arts, which supported the likes of Mark Rothko. Geez. And yet today, we have no interest–as a collective–in giving the next Rothko a leg up. You’d think I’d no longer be stunned at what we value, as a collective. But, I continue to be stunned. No doubt it’s why I spend so much time with my sewing machine and my fiddle.

Anyway, as for the house concert; it was a fantastic listening experience. A good friend of mine said later of Randal that he’s a real mensch:  I agree. Well done! As they say in Ireland (perpetually, it seems, at sessions): lovely.

Grasslands Bakery and Cafe Closing 01-31-10

My mom called me last Wednesday, January 13, to tell me that she and my dad just decided to close The Grasslands at the end of the month. My mom has some health concerns. Even though it’s very sudden, that’s just how it has to be. I think only people who’ve confronted a serious health crisis know how it becomes easy to just drop everything; there really isn’t any alternative.

My brother John was visiting from Boston when my parents made the decision to close; he’s going home in about….8 hours. John teaches music at Clark College in Worcester, MA. I went to visit him and my parents today at The Grasslands; here they are, doesn’t my mom look just crazy-happy? Probably because she has about half-a-dozen days left to wake up at 3:00AM to bake:

John’s piano teacher–Bernice Pomeroy–from his teen years came in to see John, and also because she heard The Grasslands is closing:

John and my dad played some music together, here they are playing a Lenorard Cohen tune:

And here they are playing a guitar duet, an Eagles tune:

And finally, here’s John playing guitar, accompanying me on the fiddle. Notice that the chairs have arms. DO NOT play the fiddle in a chair with arms. I should know better. Ouch.

John is a very gifted musician. It’s too bad he doens’t live around here, because I’d love to be able to play with such a great guitarist; he makes even the most mediocre playing shine! Oh well. One day I’ll live somewhere with great Irish tunes.

The mood was very happy. There weren’t a lot of customers. The Grasslands has been open for 14 years. It’s really an oasis, and my mom’s very kind, upbeat energy has always drawn people in; plus, she’s very good at creating a harmonious, beautiful environment–who wouldn’t want to eat in such a place?

I’ll post more photos in the next few weeks. Get in while you can for some danish.