This article originally appeared in: Acoustic Guitar Magazine, May 2003
by Danny Carnahan
Paul Brady might seem an odd choice for a 6-part Irish television series on his musical career. After all, he never achieved the stadium fame of Van Morrison or the prickly notoriety of Sinéad O’Connor. But with immense and stubborn talent, this singer/guitarist has carved out a 35-year career that’s really three careers, changing the face of both Irish traditional and popular music on his way. The fact that he’s accomplished all this while still operating under much of pop culture’s radar screen makes him even more interesting.
In November 2002, RTE Irish Television began airing “The Paul Brady Songbook,” six 30-minute explorations of Brady’s life and music, filmed a few months earlier in a spacious Dublin manor house. The concept was simple. Set Brady up with a hot band and a few guest stars in the vaulted parlor, and let the cameras roll until 36 crackling new live takes were in the can. Then sit down for a long, easy chat about Brady’s life, his creativity, and his songs to be intercut between the concert numbers. They got more than enough to work with.
These programs have just been released by Compass Records as a 3-plus-hour DVD including all the songs aired in the RTE series plus five bonus numbers, and a companion 13-track enhanced CD. On the DVD Brady briefly revisits his first success as member of the seminal 60s folk-revival band The Johnstons. He’s a little more comprehensive in talking about the fame he earned during his Irish traditional period in the 70s. For this session he gathered Donal Lunny, Liam O’Flynn, and Andy Irvine, his bandmates from the super-group Planxty, to play several of their hits in what amounts to an Irish Beatles reunion. And finally we’re introduced to Brady the pop songwriter with four songs from his breakaway 1981 album, “Hard Station,” scattered among two dozen songs collected from the albums which followed over the next two decades.
Those who crave historical detail might get a little frustrated by the way the program is laid out, since the timeline of Brady’s development as a songwriter is blurred. The songs are performed in scrambled chronological order and no dates are provided, either on disc or the printed packages. But perhaps that’s best, as we let Brady tell his own story in his own non-linear fashion, and let each song set its own emotional framework.
Most of the performances feature Brady, armed with a Lowden guitar and flanked by keyboards, bass, and drums. A fair number feature added horns, too, a texture for which Brady repeatedly expresses fondness. This contemporary full-band sound contrasts nicely with the many-stringed Planxty arrangements, which seem infused with a different kind of joy.
The Paul Brady we get to know through the interview segments seems to be a happy man, chatty and generous with his music and insights. And though in repose Brady’s face seems almost somber, he reveals a humor that sneaks out in sweet flashes. “I suppose I have to learn to trick myself at times into just letting go and having a good time,” he says at one point. And without further ado, he breaks into a solo version of the free-wheeling rocker “Traveling Light,” a perfect showcase for his quirky, full-throttle voice.
The songs share strong, honest emotion, almost criminal catchiness, and happy disregard for genre distinctions. The opening number, “Oh What a World,” sets the tone immediately with a grinning Irish invasion of New Orleans. Further on, Celtic aficionados in particular will enjoy the requisite hits “Arthur McBride,” “Mary and the Soldier,” and “The Creel.” And somehow, with these songs still echoing in the ears, one can also hear the traditional influences resonate in Brady’s pop compositions like “I Believe in Magic” and “The Long Goodbye.” As the concert’s wrapping up we get the neo-trad song “Homes of Donegal” presented in a deliciously lazy Van Morrison-like setting with full band and Paddy Glackin’s fiddle trading off with the horns.
The stage setting is clean and unfussy, though the camera-work provides more of a quick-cut, all-inclusive style than a focus on Brady’s face and fingers. Still, there are plenty of moments for the alert guitarist to learn from Brady’s unassuming style. He’s never flashy or gratuitous. The guitar first and last serves the song without drawing undue attention to itself. The interview segments are particularly intimate—just Brady with his guitar, picking a little and chatting about tunings and the creative process.
So in the end, the invisible interviewer asks Paul Brady, “Are you contented?” Brady replies, “I don’t think so. I’m one of those people who always thinks there’s something I could still be doing or could do better. I look at the work I do as something that’s neverending.”
This restless creativity comes through loud and clear in “The Paul Brady Songbook.” After all these years, Brady still seems inclined to follow his own advice from the lyrics of “Crazy Dreams”: Tonight we’ll go and paint this town… And we’ll find some other crazy dream tomorrow.