Originally published in the Irish Echo, 12-12-12.
Is there a better name for a US-based trad band than the “Murphy Beds?” Comprised of Eamon O’Leary and Jefferson Hamer (each a singer and multi-instrumentalist; guitar, bouzouki, mandolin, what have you), this duo has just released their eponymous first album of traditional songs and it is a stunner – absolutely one of the finest and most satisfying albums I’ve had the pleasure to hear in a long time.
Fans of trad music will certainly be familiar with O’Leary’s music. A Dubliner living in New York since the early 1990s, he’s a widely respected backer (a short list of those he’s played with include John Doyle, Paddy Keenan, Martin Hayes, James Keane, Kevin Burke, Susan McKeown, Tony Demarco and Mick Moloney) and session leader (among others, he runs the popular Sunday session at the Brass Monkey on Little West 12th St in NYC; for more than ten years, he ran the legendary session at Mona’s with Patrick Ourceau in NYC’s East Village, out of which the seminal “Live at Mona’s” album came).
Brooklyn-based Hamer’s name would be less familiar to fans of trad music, but it’s one well-steeped in the American folk and country scenes, through groups like the Single Malt Band and Great American Taxi, and with artists including Reed Foehl, Anais Mitchell and Laura Cortese.
O’Leary and Hamer have developed a special musical rapport over the last couple of years, largely at O’Leary’s Brass Monkey session, where Hamer is a regular visitor. I chatted recently with O’Leary about how the music on this album developed, and he explained that not only was the album’s repertory agreed upon at the bar, but there, the duo’s approach to their repertory evolved over time (sometimes with the help of friends like fiddler Cleek Schrey and singer Ryan McGiver).
This process continued in the studio where they refined the subtleties of their arrangements even further. It’s this organic, long term approach that makes this album sound so well-steeped and complete.
Many tracks are noteworthy. The album’s opener, “Rise Up My Darling,” a beautiful song of love and longing better known in its original Irish as “Eirigh Suas a Stoirin,” is here presented in an adaptation of Julie Henagan’s English translation. It is given an lilting, intoxicating arrangement that draws the ear. Other tracks, like “Sweet Bann Water,” “Young Emily” and “Navvy Boy” are given a similarly high quality treatment. The track that stand out the most, though, is “Lovely Willie,” a song O’Leary learned from Fermanagh’s Paddy Tunney. It’s haunting tale of love and murder that ticks along in waltz time, in an arrangement that envelops the listener in the essence of song’s story.
While O’Leary took repertory from a variety of oral and printed sources (including a couple from Sam Henry’s book, “Songs of the People”), Hamer brought several of the album’s songs from his own musical background, including “The Old Churchyard” (a song from Arkansas on which Hamer takes lead vocals), “Her Bright Smile Haunts Me Still” (a long British ballad done here in fragments that again featuring Hamer on vocal) and “Come In (The False True Love)” (a song they learned from a recording of Shirley Collins). Each of these tracks is great and spotlights Hamer’s prodigious musicality.
Folks interested the duet work of Irvine and Brady will love this album. Like their predecessors, O’Leary and Hamer’s voices harmonize brilliantly. But the Murphy Beds departs from that earlier model in that they both (especially Hamer) bring flashes of an old time/bluegrass “brother harmony” sensibility to bear on the traditional Irish element. It’s an original and outstanding mixture that will have broad appeal.
This is a dangerously good album and I think one of the best albums out there at the moment. If you’re in New York, the group is having a release party at the Brass Monkey on December 19 at 9:00. To learn more and to buy the album (which is a great idea), visit www.murphybedsmusic.com.
In closing, let me congratulate the great Joanie Madden on receiving a USA Fellowships from United States Artists. A fantastic honor, Joanie is only one of seven musicians (out of 54) to receive this prestigious aware and is the first Irish traditional musical artist to do so. Go Joanie!
Copyright 2012 New York Irish Arts