Vagabonds of the Western World – Recording in Cong, Ireland by way of South London
Last Thursday I set out for Alicante, spending the night in a nearby hotel in order to feel remotely human when I caught the 7.30am flight to Stansted, England. This however, was not my final destination, but any further headway would be denied to me until gone 5 o’clock that afternoon. Faced with a mind-numbing day in this most soul-destroying of airports, I had sought alternative possibilities, and given that Witch Cross had been invited to participate with a track for a new German release tribute album, I jumped on the train down to South London, where our guitarist Mike Koch has his studio. “I can give you two hours” I said, and we set to work laying down as much vocal as I could manage. Things went so smoothly, he even had time to make me a ham and cheese bagel, so, a good result there!
Speeding back to Stansted I cast off my cloak of metal and surrendered to the folk music demos that my old friend Steve Bonham had furnished me with. As I escaped the hubbub of the city for the countryside, greenery flashing by, it seemed that my environment was mirroring this musical transition. I’d lived with this collection of Steve’s songs for a week or so, and had spent time in my studio firstly playing along, then expanding and weaving my own bass ideas around the well-crafted songs and lyrics. The last time Steve and I had collaborated musically seemed like, and in fact was, a lifetime ago. There was still an Iron Curtain, a Yugoslavia, and a Shah of Iran. The Beatles were all alive, and perhaps even more scarily, had only broken up a mere 3 years or so previously. We were young lads, stumbling over our instruments in the confines of our various parents’ garages, and it was a lot of fun. We didn’t play by the rules, because we didn’t have the slightest idea what they were. As I think I’ve mentioned before, it is a source of immense pride to me that our little village and surrounding environs on the outskirts of Derby has produced so many musicians and songwriters. Adrian Foster and I went on to perform in 80’s band Tubeless Hearts, and we still play together in ‘Yellow River’ hitmakers Christie to this day. Steve, and another couple of friends from those days, Tim Gadsby and Paul Bunting, went down the Folk route, culminating in a successful band with a number of album releases under their belt – Firkin the Fox. Enlisting the services of Fairport Convention/Jethro Tull stalwart Dave Pegg to their cause certainly did them no harm at all, and boosted their credentials. Steve and I may generally follow different musical paths, but scratch the surface and the similarities are surprising. there is a mutually deep respect for the written word, the importance of a lyric, the unwavering conviction that the ‘story is king’. It’s something I like a lot in Steve’s lyrics. They evoke emotion, create imagery, as all good songwriters strive to do. It was a deep pleasure to be asked to perform on this collection of songs, closing a musical circle that’s been left open for some forty-odd years.
As the plane came into land at the fantastically remote Knock airport, I surrendered to the moment, and embraced this land of myths and legends, of tall tales and romantic visions, of relentless green and rushing rivers. From the moment ‘Matt the Taxi’ greeted me, I was among friends, some old, some new.
Mountain View studios awaited…but not before a meal in Ryan’s Hotel on the Friday night, when we ate, drank and were indeed merry!
So good to see dear Tim Gadsby again, who had generously lent me his basses for the session. Robbed of his ability to play the bass as he did so well due to the effects of Ataxia, I was honoured to have him by my side casting a watchful eye over proceedings as I laid my parts down. More than anything, I needed him to be satisfied with what I’d done.
I connected wonderfully with Tom Leary, a superb guitarist and fiddle player, who tours with the likes of Lindisfarne and Clem Clempson. We swapped stories, songs and generally had a great time. I was stunned by the talents of Pat Coyne, who, in between making sure everything was recorded correctly, would randomly pick up a banjo or guitar and play like he was hard-wired to heaven. Similar moments that had me scraping my jaw off the floor were the arrivals of Stephen Doherty….a likeable lad who wandered in and played the flute with such feeling and grace that I began to believe in the supernatural.
This train of thought was further strengthened when Jimmy Higgins arrived and raced through his percussive bag of tricks, layering a Celtic groove rich with the sounds of brushes, snare, bodhran and shakers that alternately caressed and drove the songs in equal measure. To say he was ‘on the money’ would be an understatement.
The atmosphere in the sessions was relaxed, though workmanlike, as there was a lot of stuff to get through, not least of which a new song that Steve dropped on us upon arrival! Chris Lydon, a.k.a. ‘The Bishop’ provided a steady hand along with Pat marshalling the sessions to maximum effect and getting the very best out of everyone for the good of each composition.
On the Sunday morning, I stole a moment after breakfast to explore the village of Cong, where Mountain view studios is situated. Despite a grey veil of drizzle and the intent of the lakes and rivers to take over the roads, I found it a charming place, boasting a beautiful old Chapel, and a myriad of brightly coloured cottages that seemed to be only outnumbered by the local hostelries! There was a statue near the church, of a smiling man holding a laughing woman in his arms.
The face seemed familiar, as did the name of one of the pubs I had just passed – ‘The Quiet Man’. The penny dropped. The statue was none other than John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, who had starred in the film of that name, which was filmed in this very village. Matt the Taxi told me, as he drove me back to the airport after three wonderful days, that he’d had a call some years ago, enquiring if it would be possible to book a room at his Bed & Breakfast for a lady. He’d asked the name as he took the booking and, upon hearing it, refrained from making any humorous comment, which turned out to be a wise decision, because the lady in question turned out to be Maureen O’ Hara herself, revisiting the site of what she refers to as “….my personal favourite of all the pictures I have made. It is the one I am most proud of…”
Matt himself was most impressed that she would want to stay in a B&B , and not one of the fancy hotels nearby, and indeed he describes her as a lovely down-to-earth lady. As I write she is still with us, aged 93, and I wish her good health. I understand why she would want to come back here. I do.