The new album from Ronnie Drew and Eleanor Shanley A Couple More Years is doing nicely thank you, not only is it getting good airplay in Ireland it is selling well too. Seán Laffey met the duo before their gig in the recently opened Excel Theatre in Tipperary.
It was a balmy Saturday afternoon; the sun was shining, picking out the mountains that add such a dramatic backdrop to Tipperary Town. Ronnie Drew and Eleanor Shanley had travelled separately to the gig and were staying at the Royal Hotel where I met them. It was only a matter of hours before the gig, their third on a nationwide tour and despite technical difficulties (more of which later) the pair were in very relaxed form.
Perhaps as much as three decades separates the duo in terms of age, but songs are a common currency that break down any age barriers, and the combination of Ronnieís trade mark gravel growl and Eleanor sweet lyricism is proving a hit on the concert circuit. "We played Sligo and Longford so far on this tour" Ronnie tells me, "and both gigs were sold out and we had genuine encores at each one." The tour is fairly low key taking in twenty venues over the months of May and June, it gives the musicians time to enjoy the travelling and to unwind before the gigs; "unless we have to do media interviews" says Ronnie with a mischievous grin.
The duo are baked by Mike Harahan and Steve Shanley on guitars, and Mike and Ronnie had driven down that morning from Dubline. The pair had taken a few hours out to unwind with nine holes of golf. "We played a round at Ballykisteen, itís a great old house and the setting is magnificent with the Galtee Mountains behind it, and itís an old stud farm." Ronnie warms to the task, being an enthusiast for the horses. "They even let me play the course in my jeans, although I did get a bit of a look from one of the regulars when we were leaving, Ďsure they are letting the plebs in nowí he must have been thinking."
The golf must be a great stress buster, because pre-gig nerves aside Ronnie had a problem with his guitar. A nylon strung Takamine, with an extra wide neck, itís playing fine, but in his own words "the electrics are bollixed". That will put a leash on his playing style, heís what the French would call a Chanteur Engagé, having an in-built pick-up allows him to walk around the stage and interact with the audience, free from the solidifying tyranny of the microphone stand. Mike Hanrahan had found a guitar in a local shop, but they werenít prepared to lend it out, Ďbecause itís newí. We make a phone call to Noel McQuaid in Nenagh to see if he can help, yes he has nylon-strung guitars but none have a pick up. Thatís the problem of living in rural Ireland, music shops are about an hours driving distance away and itís now getting too late to try Limerick, Tipperary will be treated to a less pedagogic night from Ronnie.
Eleanor and Ronnie have been singing on an off for the past twelve years, but it is only in the last two years that the act has coalesced into the full package of the Tour, CD and Video. Eleanor tells me about their first collaboration. "Some twelve yearís ago DeDannan were booked for a gig at St Stephenís Green in Dublin and we thought it would be a good Idea to have a local singer join us on stage. Ronnie Drew was the obvious choice, as he was then the lead singer with the Dubliners. Later the Dubliners brought out their Thirty Years a Greying album and they invited me to join them on it. If I have no other claim to fame, I can say that I am the only female singer ever to have recorded with them."
Ronnie brings the story up to the minute, "About two years ago, we were at the Tonder festival in Denmark, Elaeanor and me and the Dubliners were all booked separately, then one night we all got together and sang Bob Dylanís Boots of Spanish Leather. The old magic from that first DeDannan collaboration was still there, so we decided that when we came back home we'd work at bringing a show on the road. Our first booking was the 2000 Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow and later that spring we toured the show around Ireland. "
It was at the Vicar Street gig that the show was filmed for television and a DAT tape taken of the live performance. The show aired at Christmas on RTE and the result us a commercial CD and Video. Both Ronnie and Eleanor admit they would rather be out singing than managing an own label production, so they are happy that Kirsten Jake has shouldered the financial and distribution burden of the product relaesed on the German Pinnarek label. They are very surprised at the reaction it is getting from Irish Radio. I question this reminding them both that they are "big names" in the Irish pantheon of singers.
"Maybe says Ronnie in a disarming way, "the truth is Iíve just been around so long, itís not that I am really famous our anything". Modesty is one thing but looking back on his years how has the business changed?
"Well thirty years ago, I wouldnít have been bothered about the electrics in my guitar, we wouldnít have been doing sound checks and weíd have probably spent the entire afternoon in the bar downing pints. Life now is less frenetic, less hale and hearty, back then it was fast and furious living, all parties and drinking and shouting. In our hotel last night for example, there was a lad locked asleep on one of the couches in the corridor, and I thought to myself ĎAh Yes I too have lived in Arcadyí and you know I donít miss any of that carry on".
Time has mellowed him and the business too with better venues for audiences and performers. Eleanor is quick to point out the benefits of the emerging theatre circuit in Ireland " =At long last there are decent places to play, with listening audiences, we get good dressing rooms and the days of Ďyour dressing room is over there where we stack the chairs is long past. But yiu still canít get a meal in rural Ireland at 5PM."
Itís not all cosy in the new Irealnd, however, and Ronnie is perceptive about how the music business has changed over the coursed of his career. "Iíve been listening to music now for fifty years, and Iíve been able to make my own choices about what I like and care to listen to. And itís not all one sort of music either, I like Irish, traditional, jazz, classical and opera and so on. I was lucky to have grown up when you could be exposed to all those sports of music. But things are different now, firstly Rock and Roll has changed from its roots in youth rebellion, its just part of the establishment these days, and along with that comes real lack of listening choice. Much of what we hear these days is foistered on us, because someone with a money making agenda is determined to shape the music market to their own ends."
He sees an in built cynical hypocrisy with the new elites in Irish pop music, "Suppose a local, lad here in Tipperary starts singing old songs from the 60ís and 70ís you can bet heíll be dismissed for aping someoneís style. But take a bunch of good looking kids, package them, pour enough marketing money behind them and give them the same old material and theyíll be hailed as wonderful artists. Then once they make huge money, the media court them with questions youíd hesitate to ask Plato. Wealth becomes equated with some form of spurious wisdom and the need to create trends in the music actually does nothing for the intrinsic qualities of the songs or the culture."
Like those boy bands, Ronnie and Eleanor, have a CD and Video Package, they have a stage show to back it up (OK maybe Ronnie doesnít do much by the way of a shuffle); but more they have miles of credibility behind them. They arenít your typical boy and girl band, and Irish music is so much the healthier because there are a few folk singers that are still willing to engage audiences with the real McCoy.
Itís living music lads; fair play to you for keeping it that way.
Photo Credit: CD Cover; Ronnie Drew photo courtesy of Ronnie Drew Website; Eleanor Shanley Photo by The Mollis
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