The appearance of Christy Moore, Liam O’Flynn, Andy Irvine and Dónal Lunny as the band Planxty in January 2004 re-opened the case on what has to be one of Irish music’s richest legacies.
When some 12,000 people poured into Vicar St in Dublin and the Glór Irish Music Centre in Ennis, County Clare for Planxty’s first live dates in well over twenty years, it became apparent that these concerts were being celebrated not just by an audience of veteran folk music aficionados, but equally by a whole new generation of younger fans who previously could only dream of how Planxty sounded in the flesh. How beautiful it was to watch sons and daughters with mothers and fathers joined in mutual appreciation of these four musicians and their very unique musical chemistry. In fact, even Planxty’s own children got to see them perform together for the first time.
Planxty remain an important band for so many reasons. Revitalizing the Irish music scene at the lip of the 70s with a set of folk and traditional songs and tunes performed with an unusual line-up of instruments that included bouzouki, mandolin and guitars with uileann pipes, bodhrán and tin whistle, they brought ensemble playing to new and exciting heights, and traditional music to a whole new audience. At a time when the zeitgeist pointed towards rock music and folkies were turning electric, Planxty proved there was even more exhilarating music to be culled from acoustic sounds.
The band first came together for Christy Moore’s groundbreaking Prosperous album in 1970. Christy was a Kildare singer who spent much of the late-60s touring the British folk circuit. Disappointed with the lack of empathy the English session musicians had for the Irish songs on his debut album Paddy On The Road, Christy convinced producer Bill Leader to bring his mobile recording unit to Prosperous, Co. Kildare to record his second album with a band of Irish musicians of Christy’s choice. They set up in the basement of his sister Anne’s house (the front of which famously adorns the cover of the album) with a core band featuring Dónal Lunny, Andy Irvine and Liam O'Flynn.
Lunny was an old school pal of Christy’s who had been a member of a number of groups and had scored some success with the dashing folk-pop trio Emmet Spiceland. Andy Irvine was a London born child actor turned Woody Guthrie inspired troubadour who moved to Dublin in the 60s and became engrossed in the folk set that centred around O’Donoghues Pub on Baggot Street. He collected songs from the old books of the National Library and from Ciarán MacMathúna’s radio programmes and formed the hugely influential Sweeney’s Men, of whom Christy Moore was a big fan. By this time Liam O’Flynn was already one of Ireland’s most renowned pipers, a student and disciple of such giants as Leo Rowsome, Seamus Ennis and Willie Clancy. Another Kildare man, he had first been encountered by Christy and Dónal playing at sessions in Dowlings Pub in Prosperous many years previous.
The musical synthesis these players generated was so strong that the following year they formed a band that literally revolutionised Irish folk music. Their style was influenced by Irvine’s obsession with Eastern European musics, O’Flynn’s repertoire of traditional dance tunes and 17th century Carolan music, as well as the singing of the great John Reilly and the scoured pages of the PW Joyce Collection. They had many great musical attributes from Christy’s soulful voice and the mighty thump of his bodhrán to Dónal and Andy’s celebrated bouzouki-mandolin interplay, and Liam’s ability to lift the music into the stratosphere with his virtuoso piping.
Planxty first came into contact with the Irish public when they opened for Donovan on his Irish tour of 1971. With audiences going absolutely bananas for them night after night, Planxty had officially landed.
Planxty’s first album was self-titled, although commonly referred to as “The Black Album,” and remains a landmark recording in Irish music. Tunes such as Merrily Kissed the Quaker and Sí Bheag Sí Mhor were perfect examples of the Planxty sound and energy. Raggle Taggle Gypsy segued into the 17th century harp tune Tabhair Dom Do Lámh was a classic show stopper. And Andy Irvine’s own West Coast of Clare was one of the most lucid and melancholic love songs of its time. Planxty made two more great albums in their first period, The Well Below the Valley and Cold Blow & the Rainy Night, the latter featuring Andy’s old Sweeney’s Men comrade Johnny Moynihan replacing Dónal Lunny. Paul Brady also joined the band soon after, and Christy departed in 1975. Eventually their enthusiasm began to wane and they disbanded that same year.
During the interim Christy picked up the pieces of his solo career, Dónal formed another legendary group called The Bothy Band and concentrated on production. Liam O’Flynn collaborated with many great musicians. And Andy Irvine formed a duo with Paul Brady and made their famous self-titled 1976 album with Dónal producing.
By 1979 it seemed the Planxty players were ready to pick up where they left off. They reformed with the original line-up, with the addition of the Bothy Band’s Matt Molloy on flute (who went to join The Chieftains after one album). They recorded their fourth album After the Break and toured Europe extensively. The album features the rousing Bulgarian dance tune, Smeceno Horo, a big hit in the live set.
During this period of Planxty the musicians were careful not to neglect their individual careers. The recordings and tours were subsequently more sporadic. The music, however, was intricate and beautiful and on the following two albums, The Woman I Loved So Well and Words & Music, they surpassed themselves again. Additional musicians such as Noel Hill and Tony Linnane, Bill Whelan, James Kelly and Nollaig Casey contributed to various songs and performances over this period.
By 1982 the writing was on the wall for Planxty. Christy and Dónal had become more engrossed with the band Moving Hearts and not long after the release of Words & Music in 1983 the band fizzled out.
The screening of a documentary on Planxty as part of the No Disco music series on RTE in March 2003 revealed a whole new generation of musicians involved in many different realms of music with plenty to say about the influence and inspiration of Planxty’s music.
The documentary itself served as an inspiration to Planxty, and on October 11 2003 Christy, Dónal, Andy and Liam performed to some 200 lucky people at the Royal Spa Hotel in Lisdoonvarna, Co. Clare where they had been rehearsing that week. Buoyed by the reception they received, they decided they were ready for live performance again.
Following their official concerts in Vicar St and Glór in January and February 2004 Planxty released a live album culled from these performances, produced by Dónal, titled Planxty Live 2004. This recording documents the timeless magic of Planxty, the incredible durability of their music and the love that people have for these four musicians.
Here Planxty sound better than ever, which is not surprising since all four members have continued to play music. Listen to Christy sing Little Musgrave. Listen to his voice and diction. It’s the sound of a man still at the top of his game. Hear Liam O’Flynn bend the notes of An Buchaill Caol Dubh into a sorrowful tapestry and then raise the roof as he enters the fray An Tabhair Dom Do Lámh as the audience cheers him on. And listen to Andy and Dónal weaving in and out of each other with the greatest finesse.
Some thought it would never happen. Now it has it seems as though it was always inevitable that these players would be drawn back to each other. Who knows what will happen next?
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