De Dannan, along with The Bothy Band, Planxty and The Chieftains, is one of the seminal super-group Irish traditional bands that started up in the heady days of the 1970s and have powered along in various incarnations to this day. Hailing from Spiddal, Co. Galway, and originally made up of Frankie Gavin on fiddle, Alec Finn on bouzouki, Johnny “Ringo” McDonagh on bodhrán and Charlie Piggott on banjo, the band recruited powerhouse singer Dolores Keane for their debut album Dé Danann (No, I haven’t got my n’s the wrong way round; they transposed them later). The band was celebrated for its innovative approach to performing dance tunes, with Alec Finn’s complex 6-string bouzouki (as opposed to the usual 8-string Irish version) providing a counterpoint in harmony and percussion to Frankie Gavin’s virtuosic fiddle. As Frankie describes it, “The band highlights tightly percussive melody lines set against a flowing, contrapuntal background.” Since those early days band members have included, variously, Jackie Daly, Johnny Moynihan, Artie McGlynn, Tommy Fleming and a who’s who of Ireland’s finest female vocalists including Maura O’Connell, Mary Black and Eleanor Shanley.
A string of stellar De Dannan albums from 1976 onward, through the 80s and 90s, has secured the band’s reputation as one of the handful of all-time great Irish traditional bands. The earlier works, such as Star-Spangled Molly, hewed close to the traditional format, but as the band grew more adventurous, How the West was Won included a hit version of “Hey Jude,” and there’s the stunning rendering of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” retitled “Hibernian Rhapsody,” on the album of the same name – try listening to that one without a smile! Through it all, the anchor of the band, Frankie Gavin, also pursued his own eclectic path, playing with the likes of The Rolling Stones, Elvis Costello and Stéfan Grappelli, a classic duo album with De Dannan co-founder Alec Finn, and solo albums such as Fierce Traditional in 2001, which was partly in response to a suggestion that he had strayed a bit far from his traditional roots with the likes of Frankie Goes to Hollywood and, yes, Hibernian Rhapsody.
Frankie began playing the fiddle somewhat reluctantly (“Doesn’t it make a lot of squeaks when you’re learning?”) at the age of ten, urged on by his older brother Sean, and by the age of 17, in 1973, had won the All-Ireland championships in both fiddle and flute. He formed De Dannan with friend Alec Finn the following year. Remarking on his influences at the time of the Fierce Traditional album, he said, “A lot of the music is firmly based in the 1920s playing of James Morrison, my all-time favorite fiddle player; another hero is
the late Tommy Potts – his musical brain was extraordinary.”
I caught up with Frankie Gavin via e-mail at the end of June.
Where do you call home these days?
I’m back home in Ireland in Oughterard, County Galway; however, I did live in Austin, Texas, Charlottesville and Peachtree City, Georgia for a while. I met and know amazing people in the U.S., especially in Virginia and Georgia, and a few real decent friends in Louisiana too.
What have you been up to of late? Tell us about your current band, Hibernian Rhapsody.
I’ve been working with Hibernian Rhapsody for about four years and it has been very enjoyable and exciting too. We did a U.S. tour recently with The Women of Ireland and The Dublin Philharmonic Orchestra. Three months on the road and it was a great success. We were working with Columbia Artists Management and played an array of beautiful halls and performing arts centers, and had a ball. The Women of Ireland, I should mention, are nominated in the Ireland’s Music Awards this year; the ceremony is in Castlebar County Mayo this August.
You yourself have been nominated in two categories.
Yes, one nomination is in the “Best Crossover Act” category for my work with Hibernian Rhapsody. We’re in there with The Chieftains and Sharon Shannon and some other greats. The other nomination is in the “Best Duo” category, which I share with my good friend Maírtín O’Connor, the accordion player.
[If you would like to vote, go to: www.irelandsmusicawards.com. Even if you don’t vote, check out the phenomenal list of nominees — there’s some fierce competition!]
De Dannan disbanded in 2003, do you have plans for a revival?
In actual fact, I’ve started an all-new Frankie Gavin & De Dannan, and we will be doing a major concert in Castlebar at The World Fleadh on August 5. Mary Black, Dolores Keane and Maírtín O’Connor will make guest appearances on the night, and possibly a rock n’roll star and lifelong friend of mine! [I’m guessing Ronnie Wood.]
The new De Dannan lineup consists of Mike Galvin on guitars and bouzouki, Michelle Lally, vocals, Eric Cunningham, percussion, and Damien Mullane, accordion, and of course Frankie, on fiddle and viola.
Over the years, De Dannan have had the finest of Irish singers: Dolores Keane, Maura O’Connell, and Mary Black. What are a few of your favorite recollections of these ladies?
Well, where could I begin to answer that one! They are all fabulous in every way. They are brilliant singers and it’s a joy and honor to work with them. And as I said, Mary and Dolores will be on stage with us at the Castlebar concert; check out the website: www.worldfleadh.com. The band, in the past, has been responsible for launching the careers of many of Ireland’s best-known traditional performers, and I believe it’s time now to write a new chapter in the De Dannan story — a band for the 21st century! We’ve nearly finished the new album and it’s really cookin’!
Who are some of your other favorite performers or influences?
Jimmy McCarthy and Mick Hanly, two of Ireland’s finest songwriters, would be at the top of my list, and recently I did an album with Rick Epping on blues harmonica called Jiggin the Blues. We started on that when I was living in Charlottesville. I’ve also just finished recording some tracks with Tom Byrne, the Larry Adler of Irish music.
There seems to be a mixed view of the value of All-Ireland Championships; some love it, others find it totally nerve-racking. Did you enjoy it? Did it open doors for you?
Well, competitive work can be good and very bad, especially when it comes to music, I suppose. I never found it made any difference to me in the long run and I never made any money from anything I “won,” or anything else you care to mention! However, Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Eireann (CCE) has done great work in its nurturing of Irish music for a long time now and I suppose without CCE, it may not have survived as well as it has.
Having said that, Sean Ó Riada in my view would have been the real savior of Irish music. He restored its dignity and swept it forwards onto the “performance stage” where it truly belongs.
[Ó Riada, an influential leader in the renaissance of traditional music, was the leader of a group called Ceoltóirí Chualann in the 1960s and went on to compose great classical works such as Mise Eire that combined traditional music with orchestral arrangements.]
Has the recent economic downturn in Ireland affected the music at all in terms of getting it out there, or are you still having a ton of fun?
I am happier now playing music than ever before. I’m thinking positively about everything and life’s too short for the other stuff!
Amen to that. Thanks, Frankie. Good luck with the new De Dannan!