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- by Alan McIntosh Brown -
Issue 42 March/April '01


Providence are a band with a mission - to play traditional music. Alan McIntosh Brown investigates.

An album released last year, which received fulsome praise from critics and public alike, marked the recording debut of the six-piece band Providence.  Based in Dublin, they make no secret of the fact that they are very much a traditional band and you’ll search the album credits in vain for any genetically modified sounds.  What you will find is a fine blend of songs and tunes which has enabled this talented group of musicians and singers to win the respect of their fellow musicians as well as establishing a faithful and enthusiastic fan-base around Ireland and, now, further afield.  The success of their debut album has led to the release of the follow-up "A Fig for a Kiss", but first allow me to introduce the members of Providence.

Joan McDermott is the group’s singer.  Now resident in Dublin, she’s originally from County Wexford.  She sang formerly with the acappella group The Fallen Angels with whom she toured extensively.  She has also performed with Kieran Goss, Steve Cooney, Manus Lunny, Kieran Halpin and Macalla among others.  As we’ll find out later, Joan’s daytime employment with the Irish Traditional Music Archive in Dublin’s Merrion Square helps provide the band with plenty of song options should the creative well threaten to run dry!

Micheal O Raghallaigh comes from a musical family in County Meath and has played accordion and concertina from an early age.  As well as performing, he has taught at instrumental workshops and toured Europe and the USA.  He is also a member of the All-Ireland winning Tain Ceili Band.

John Wynne is Providence’s flute and whistle player.  Coming from Roscommon, he was immersed in the North Connacht flute tradition and played with such eminent exponents of the art as Patsy Hanly, Tommy Guihan and Peter Horan among others.  John has won numerous All-Ireland titles at various age groups for whistle and flute and released his own debut solo album "With Every Breath" at the end of last year. He regularly adjudicates at fleadhanna ceoil around Ireland.

Clodagh Boylan comes from a musical family from Glenullin, Co Derry and has played with members of her family in the Gleann an Iolair Ceili Band.  She has toured extensively with Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann in the USA, Australia and the UK and toured Italy as a member of All Set.  She joined the band after the release of the first album so "A Fig for a Kiss" will be her first recording with Providence.

Dubliner Paul Doyle is the band’s bouzouki/guitar player.  He was formerly a member of Arcady and the Sean Keane Band and has performed with Martin Hayes.  Touring gigs include Poland, Finland, Germany and Sweden with the Maire Bhreathnach Band.  Over the years he has recorded with many of Ireland’s most respected musicians including Matt Molloy, Paul O’Shaughnessy, Paul McGrattan, Gay McKeon and Arty McGlynn.

Of course a talented bunch of singers and musicians does not necessarily a cohesive unit make, as someone quite clever once said.  In this case, however, there’s no doubting the quality of the sound.

The point about second albums is that the singer/musician/band has a lifetime to prepare the debut one and - if lucky – a year to prepare the follow up.  I asked Joan McDermott how this album differed from the first.  "Songwise, this album is different in that all the songs are traditional and they’re also more up-tempo," she says. "There are two slow songs – "Will You Go to Flanders?" and "‘Sé Fáth Mo Bhuartha" – but no unaccompanied songs, although "‘Sé Fáth Mo Bhuartha" is probably the equivalent of the unaccompanied song in that it’s just voice and guitar."

I told you earlier of Joan’s day job with the Irish Traditional Music Archive.  On the surface this would appear to be a great help in the choice of songs but is there perhaps too wide a choice?  She smiles. "We chose these songs in order to have a change from the last album.  There’s a song about cross-border smuggling called "Smuggling the Tin", which I learned from Liam Weldon, a favourite singer of mine who died a few years ago.  "Will You Go to Flanders?" is an anti-war song which I got from my friend Alistair Russell, who used to play with the Battlefield Band.  "The Jolly Young Ploughboy" is the only song I learned specially for the album, a song recorded a few years ago by Frank Harte."

Never one to desert the native tongue, Joan sings two Irish language songs. "`Sé Fáth Mo Bhuartha" is a love song that most people would have learned in school," she says. "It’s commonly played as a slow air but seems not to be sung very much these days."  The second Irish language song is "Muiris Ó Coinnleáin", again a love song but more light-hearted than the other.  "I came across this song last year in the course of my work for the Archive and I liked it so much that I learned it immediately," she says. "I discovered later that Nóirín Ní Riain had recorded it previously."

But traditional or not, just because a tune is written down in a certain way doesn’t mean Providence have to stick slavishly to that arrangement.  "One tune is unusual in that when we heard it first it was played as a waltz and we’ve slowed it down to a slow air," says Joan.  "We haven’t been able to find out yet where it comes from but it’s reputed to be a Carolan air."  And there’s also a Scottish input, for the final track was recorded at Dougie MacLean’s Taybank Bar in Dunkeld during a very brief visit to Perthshire last year when Providence played at the Callander Festival.  You’ll also find a great and varied selection of barn dances, jigs, slip jigs and hornpipes and the band is bowing to popular demand by including the Providence Reel, which is one of the sources of their name.

The first album had very favourable reaction with good reviews from the papers that matter, and received a lot of airplay in Ireland on RTÉ 1 and on Raidió na Gaeltachta.  Joan’s overseas contacts tell her that it’s had airplay, too, in Australia, the United States and – perhaps surprisingly - in Slovenia.

She leaves no one in doubt about the band’s mission.  "Those who don’t like the first album seem to think that we’re not innovative enough; that we’re old-fashioned.  We deliberately set out to play old-fashioned music - music that is melody based with its own inherent rhythm, not music based solely on percussive elements.  The difference between the first album and the new one is that when we recorded the first album we hadn’t gigged together and we only had a notion about how we should sound as a band."

 This time, too, the album is self-produced.  "We wanted to be sure to put our own stamp on the music and not somebody else’s," says Joan. "Now we’ve gigged together as a cohesive unit for over a year. We’re well used to one another and our new fiddle player, Clodagh Boylan fits in like a dream.  Now we don’t have to think about how we want to sound," she adds, "because we’ve developed that from gigging."

Such is their determination to be successful that Providence now have a full time manager in Ian Robinson.  "We asked Ian on board to help us with the administrative side of things," says Joan, "because having been involved with other touring bands we knew how difficult it is to tour, rehearse and record without having to organise everything else.  Ian is an experienced salesman and he has a great grá for the music as well as being a very talented bodhrán player, so he was the ideal candidate to manage us."  After the launch of the new CD and a short tour of Ireland as well as TV and radio appearances, there are plans to come to Scotland later this year as well as to England, Austria, Germany, Norway, Italy, Holland, and the USA.

And, finally, how about this traditional style band as the instigators of a new form of audience participation – the drive-by gig?  Well it happened at the Mary of Dungloe Festival in Donegal last summer.  Joan takes up the story.  "We were on the gig rig on one side of the street and the audience was on the other and there was a constant stream of two-way traffic between us and the audience.  The really amusing aspect of it all was that most of the traffic comprised coaches full of blue-rinse Daniel O’Donnell fans on their way home from his tea party!  There were about five thousand in all and we saw each and every one of them!" she laughs.

Drive-by or not, this is a band worth taking a detour for.  Check out the new album then go and see them live.  It doesn’t take a clairvoyant to predict that Providence are going to be big.

Alan McIntosh Brown

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