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SPREADING THAT SYNCOPATED SOUND by Paul Dromey Issue 35 November/December '99


Paul Dromey traces the development and rising popularity of Irish traditional sextet, North Cregg.

It may prove necessary to slap a Public Health Warning on the music of North Cregg! It's contagious, highly infectious, spreading like wildfire and, if unchecked, may well reach epidemic proportions. "Exhilarating and effervescent," said the Cork Evening Echo. They "stole the show" at the 1997 Cork Folk Festival, according to the Cork Examiner. "North Cregg hit the bulls-eye every time, sending delirious crowds home exceedingly happy." {John O'Regan for Irish Music Magazine}. And Alex Monaghan, writing in this magazine, and evidently a Trekkie at heart, described their sound as: "super-charged polkas and Munster reels with a Cape Breton punch: "it's box and fiddle music, but not as we know it Seamus!"

The North Cregg story has its origins in Cork city's thriving informal traditional session scene. Established Cork combination, The Four Star Trio had a regular Tuesday night session in the Gables Bar on Douglas Street and they asked singer/guitarist John Neville to substitute when members of the trio were absent. Soon, John was asked to start a regular session night of his own, a weekly Thursday night engagement still going strong four years on.

At 41, John Neville is the elder statesman of North Cregg. As a respected traditional guitar accompanist and singer, his formative influences had been the Bothy Band and Paul Brady and he was a central figure in Cork music circles. "I asked Christy Leahy to join me, play a few tunes and provide melody lines and runs behind my singing" John explains. "He was a natural and it seemed to work really well from the start". Neville's song repertoire at that time featured "Roseville Fair," (which he had learned from a recording of Chris Wood & Andy Cutting and which, in due course, would provide the inspiration for the title of North Cregg's first album) as well as the work of Nic Jones, Paul Brady, Martin Carthy and Steve Tilston. His guitar style was also much inspired by Carthy, Jones and Brady. Neville's own songwriting skills were yet to emerge.

From Carrignavar, outside Cork city, Christy Leahy was something of a late starter in music. "I only took up the button accordion in my early teens. My first teacher was the great Bobby Gardiner, who travelled to the city from his home in Tipperary each week to give the classes. I was the only kid in the class, the others were all adults. The classes ceased after about six months so I went to Noreen Murphy from Macroom, learning waltzes, marches, polkas and Scottish music. Playing in pubs and for local dances with my father and brother, my interest in real traditional music was sparked through listening to Sharon Shannon and from going to weekly Ceilis at An Sraidbhaile in the centre of the city.

There, I was exposed to the box playing of Derek Hickey, Seamus Begley, Donal Murphy and Pat Sullivan. For someone who already had the rudiments of the instrument, I couldn't have asked for a better start. I began playing sessions with Derek Hickey who really encouraged me and remains my favourite box player."

Christy's eagerness and enthusiasm for playing and absorbing the music was obvious. He was a ubiquitous figure at sessions in bars like the Gables and the Lobby in Cork. The Gables sessions had expanded during the summer of '96 to take in Sunday afternoons. Caoimhin Vallely and Ciaran Coughlan were regulars and the nucleus of the North Cregg sound was beginning to evolve. "It was a really enjoyable time," remembers Leahy. "The bar was relatively quiet on Sundays and we had the time and scope to develop together".

Caoimhin Vallely had arrived to study at the Music Department of University College Cork. From Armagh, he had been playing traditional fiddle and classical piano from an early age. His parents ran the Armagh Pipers Club and elder brothers Niall and Killian played concertina and uilleann pipes respectively. Niall preceded his younger brother to Cork and, as a member of the College Traditional Music Society, was a leading light in

organising Eigse na Laoi, an annual celebration of Irish and international traditional music in the city. He also founded and still leads the traditional quintet Nomos.

The Music Department of University College Cork has an enlightened attitude to traditional and World music, drawing many of Ireland's finest traditional exponents to study there. Since the late eighties, when then Lecturer Dr Micheal O'Suilleabhain proposed this new approach, the College has drawn the cream of traditional music exponents to it's campus. Current Lecturers there include bódhran player and World Music percussionist Mel Mercier and fiddle player Liz Doherty from the group Bumblebees. The knock-on effect has been to give a huge boost to traditional music in the city and a consequent launching pad for groups like Nomos and North Cregg.

"When I first arrived in Cork, it was paradise for a traditional musician like me," Caoimhin Vallely remembers. "I was out playing sessions seven nights a week. The music was strong in Armagh but nothing like this. I played at all the College sessions, with my brother Niall and other Nomos members in the Lobby, with Seamus Creagh and Aidan Coffey at An Spailpin Fanach and with Christy, John and Ciaran in The Gables."

From Roscrea in Co Tipperary, Ciaran Coughlan had completed a B.A. in Music at U.C.C. in 1991. "After I graduated, I was playing keyboards and bouzouki in sessions, as well as playing in Country & Western and cover bands." Coughlan's distinctive syncopated accompaniment approach is rooted in ragtime, rock 'n' roll, similar to the Cape Breton accompaniment style. "It's not something I've worked on particularly, it's a style that seems to come easily to me," he remarks. "Eigse na Laoi '93 was devoted to Cape Breton music and I was very impressed by what I heard over that amazing weekend".

The summer sessions at the Gables lasted for just two months during 1996. In that short time, the groundwork was laid for a fresh, new sound. Caoimhin Vallely already had a rich store of Northern and Scottish music in his repertoire, while Christy Leahy's tunes came primarily from the Cork/Kerry tradition. Both were avidly listening to and absorbing tunes, old and new. "For someone not originally rooted in the music, it was like a whole new world opening for me", Christy explains. That enthusiasm and sense of excitement was a tangible thing, transmitting itself directly from quartet to their audiences. People were beginning to talk about this new energy-charged group.

The foursome now had a weekly late night Wednesday residency at The Half Moon Theatre (after midnight Club at the Cork Opera House) and were offered a slot at the Cork Folk Festival '96. The day before the Festival Programme went to press, they had to come up with a name for the group - and fast. John, who took the call, was told, 'if you don't give us a name now, you don't go on the poster'. He plumped for North Cregg, a small area near Fermoy in Co. Cork and the title of a tune composed by their friend, uilleann piper Jimmy Morrison.

Within months, North Cregg were one of the most popular traditional combinations in Cork, playing regular slots at the Lobby's concert venue and the Everyman Palace Theatre Bar in the city. Fate took a hand when Peter Pandula, well known promoter of Celtic music in Germany, walked into the Lobby and heard them. Peter already knew Caoimhin Vallely from Vallely's days in the Northern group Upstairs In A Tent and he promptly offered them a March '98 tour, "That worked really well," Christy Leahy comments. "One of the main thrusts driving the band was the unique combination of syncopated piano and DADGAD guitar." Ciaran Coughlan agrees. "John and I were both confident and assured in our individual approaches and we quickly found common ground without much compromise for either of us. For that German tour, Christy's brother Martin Leahy, an experienced young rock drummer, joined them on snare drum, emphasising and accentuating the syncopated North Cregg engine room. And now they were five!

North Cregg put a lot of emphasis on the tightness of that rhythm section, believing that it is vital to providing a solid foundation for the spontaneity of interplay between fiddle and box. It was almost inevitable that a third front player would be added to balance off the sound. Virtuoso banjo player Paul Meehan, born in Manchester but Armagh based and an old friend of Caoimhin's, duly moved to Cork to complete the line-up. His effervescent, almost ragtime approach to playing traditional music slotted into the sound perfectly - as if he had always been there.

Somewhere along the line, John Neville began to emerge as an accomplished songwriter in his own right. "Back in '82, I had written a song called "Pressgang Paddy" and we were including it in our sets. The lads encouraged, no pushed me into song writing, which was just as well. I wouldn't have done anything without that extra push." The group's debut album was released earlier this year. "And They Danced All Night" features four of Neville's compositions, including the poignant and extraordinarily powerful "The Wobbling Man" inspired by John's late father's alcoholism and remarkable for its searing honesty. "It was risky to write it, risky to record it at all and risky to put it first on the album," he says. "But the response has been amazing and wonderful for my own confidence as a writer."

"We don't rest on our laurels," Christy Leahy explains. "We are constantly adding new sets to the repertoire and it seems to pay off." John Neville has really got into his stride as a songwriter and the North Cregg contagion has spread northward from Cork, at the extreme southern tip of Ireland, to Northern Ireland. They will undertake their third German tour in March of next year, something they really relish because of the mix of theatre, club and pub concerts. They headlined the Saturday night Festival Club at the recent Cork Folk Festival and are turning up on an increasing list of Festivals all over Ireland.

Touring opportunities are limited, as some of the members have full-time jobs but they hope to make short tours of Scotland and England next year. "We seem to get a happy response wherever we play," John Neville remarks. "We're well rehearsed and confident on stage so we can relax and really enjoy ourselves. The North Cregg sound has reached a stage where it can develop organically and naturally and the sense of fun is a constant throughout their concerts. The fun is also captured on "And They Danced All Night," produced by Niall Vallely and Frank Torpey of Nomos and released on Peter Pandula's Magnetic Records.

At a recent concert in Lurgan Co. Armagh, John Neville was surprised and moved to find members of the audience singing along with "The Wobbling Man." A remark made to him later by one of the singers succinctly sums up the secret of North Cregg's success. "you all seem to be having such a great time up there that you make us want to enjoy ourselves as well."

Paul Dromey

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