Gerry O’Connor

Ahead of their appearance at the reopening of the iconic Roundhouse in Dagenham we talk to Gerry O’Connor of The Dublin Legends.

Now, lets start by explaining who The Dublin Legends are.

Well, the Dublin Legends are really keeping the tradition of The Dubliners alive.  Eamonn Campbell and Sean Cannon are past members of The Dubliners.   The Dubliners name was retired following the death of their famous banjo player Barney McKenna.   John Sheehan the fiddle player at the time, this is going back two or three years, John decided to retire the band as a touring outfit as he was going to retire as well.  So we came to an arrangement, rather than flog The Dubliners name it seemed to have more integrity to carry on as The Dublin Legends.  I was drafted in as a stand in for Barney when he was ill and couldn’t tour so I suppose I couldn’t be described as a bona fide Dubliner, not a member of the band from the sixties.  So we are just keeping the tradition of the Dubliners music alive.

Its quite a nice idea that, just like the way American Football players retire a player’s number.

Yes, and I suppose as people get on in life, The Dubliners name went out at the very top with the fifty year anniversary tour, getting the lifetime achievement award at the BBC2 Folk Awards and one of their last concerts in the Royal Albert Hall.  But Eamonn and Sean are real troubadours and they weren’t ready to quit just yet,  The music hasn’t really changed, we keep good quality control on the songs and instrumentals and I am only too delighted and thrilled to be touring with them.

You are doing a great job Gerry answering all my questions before I get a chance to ask them!

Ah, I must be Irish so, we just don’t know when to shut up!   But that is part of the thing Tony, if you were interviewing a rap artist from Los Angles or a Heavy Metaler from Australia and you mentioned that you are from Ireland, were you to ask them if they knew anything about Irish music, I guarantee you that – even though Irish music may not be mainstream – there is an awareness out there internationally that it does exist and that it lives in an idiom of its own – do you know what I mean?

Only to well, I was speaking with Anna Marit Bergheim of the Norwegian band Katzenjammer recently (a banjo player as it happens) and we ended up talking about the BBC series, The Transatlantic Sessions of which she is a huge fan.

It is amazing, it is the forerunner for the old country and old timer music that is so popular in the States, particularly in the last five years with the growth of the nationalistic fervor in America.  They are rediscovering their roots their big time.

I am a banjo player first and a fiddle player second even though all my work comes in through the fiddle and mandolin because they are more adaptable instruments.  Once you put a banjo on something it is either Irish or bluegrass.

Sure I did an album back in 1990, my first solo album on banjo and I had a track on it called Funk the Cajun Blues would you believe and I missed out by one vote for getting it as the official team music for the World Cup USA 94!

You see we are just purveyors of the tradition, we are keeping it going.  There is still a huge appetite for it.  I don’t think we appreciate it over here, the four million of us that are on this small little island, it is only when you go abroad you see that there is a huge appetite for it for it in Europe.  There is a massive appetite for it in England but that is probably because there is ten or fifteen million Irish people living in England!  When you go to Europe and you see these areas where they have lost their tradition, or it has been subsumed into the classical music of the last few hundred years, they really like it.  England is a different category, it is a real driving force for music because of the whole ethnic mixture, musicians do mix!

One of your former bands is “Four Men and a Dog“…

Oh yeah, that was a great period.  That was another… sort of bordering on the Americana with the real high powered, very fast, mostly instrumental Irish music.   It’s funny you know, when we weren’t touring as The Dubliners or The Dublin Legends – everyone still calls us The Dubliners, but The Dublin Legends when we aren’t touring – people are involved in other things.  Sean is on tour with his sons at the moment with his sons in Germany.  But in the periods that are free, we need to live obviously, but I spent the last three years with Jo Bonamassa who is a fantastic rock/blues guitar player.

Is it true then that you circled the world twice in ten months with Jo?

Yeah, two number one albums in America.  But his producer is Kevin Shirley.  Now that name may not be familiar to you but he you certainly know Aerosmith or Iron Maiden, he is their producer as well.   My case was open during rehearsals – Kevin’s parents are from Wicklow in Ireland though he grew up in Austraila – anyway, he picked up my set list and on top of it was Whiskey in the Jar, The Wild Rover, The Galway Races, The Black Velvet Band… and he flicked the piece of paper, twas like Neville Chamberlain coming back from his meeting with Hitler – you know, waving that piece of paper and Kevin is saying “Lads, guys this is my music, this is the best music in the world!  This is what I grew up with, you gotta get Gerry to play you a few of these songs.”

That really broke the ice for me because I was the Irish person amongst all these American super players and they are saying “aw god a fiddle and a banjo what’s this going to be like?”  Sometimes Iris music is a passport to get you out of difficult situations.

You are playing St Patrick’s Day at Cheltenham Festival.  You must have played St Patrick’s day around the world – do other countries make a bigger thing of it than the Irish?

Certainly the Americans do, it is almost like a national holiday in America, it is almost of the same standing as Thanksgiving, almost on a par with Christmas – it is huge.   There are unbelievable marches, everybody becomes Irish – I got Irish friends, that makes me Irish, I drink Guinness that makes me Irish.   I have been at events in Hong Kong and Singapore and even Nigeria, but maybe that has something to do with the fact that Guinness have a factory out there.   Europe I’m not so sure – but there is always something going on especially with folk events where people use it as an excuse to get some Irish music goin’.  I just reember Paddy’s day over here for being cold – if it going to rain or snow it will happen on Paddy’s Day – its the luck of the Irish.

What do you know about The Roundhouse where you’ll be playing on the 19th?

I know Ford!  My Dad had a Ford Cortina and I think that was made in Dagenham!  Personally I love going to England to play.  I have an awful lot of English friends, some of the best musicians in the world live in England.  When people come out to a concert in England, they are like the Irish in many wyas, they are coming out and they want to enjoy themselves.

You have guested on one of my favourite albums, Chris Rea‘s “Down the Stoney Road”.

Oh God yeah – that was a great time.  Now there is a musician, did you know that he did his own mixes?  Whata really capable person Chris is, forget about his piano playing which is lovely.  I was suprised, I though here we go we’ll do this, there will be engineers and sub-engineers and producers.  No.  He had one engineer and he was able to throw up a mix there in ten minutes –  a really, really gifted musician is Chris.  I really enjoyed that, it is not easy doing that, I’m from a tradition background and I hate the term one trick pony but when you get out of your comfort zone and somebody want you to play something bluesey or popy or heavy metal or whatever it does take time, you really have to shift the old brain.

And you have also played with Albert Lee – not exactly known as a folk musician.

I did, I played with him a couple of albums back.  An unbelievable player.  And all these people you mention, what strikes me is that they are very modest, they are self assured but there is a humility about them.  I think they really know where it is at, they are fortunate to be doing what they do.

OK, so your agent rings yo up one day and he says Hey Gerry “I’ve got you a gig with…” who’s name would you like to hear finishing that sentence?

Oh God you are putting me on the spot… Do you know something?  Do you know who I would really like… well, one has passed away, I always had a fascination with Bob Marley – maybe its from my youth, I always had a copy of Legend with all those great songs.   But a friend of mine Henry McCullough, a great guitar player from the north worked for a time in Wings and he said you could give Paul McCarthy two notes and he’d write a song and I was always so impressed with that – I’d love to play with somebody like that.