More Grist To The Mill – The Trip to Birmingham TradFest

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How it’s New York: Kevin Crawford is headlining with Long Acre, his first band, at the Trip to Birmingham Noreen Cullen - falling?TradFest. Kevin must be an honorary New Yorker by now, no?
How it’s Irish: Diddley. One of a series on the traditional Irish music scene in Birmingham

The Trip to Birmingham TradFest is a brand new festival happening the last weekend in November – I was asked to an article for the program showcasing the Anne and Pat Molloy Summer School. I include below:

What is inspiration? It is tough to pin down – hard to bottle and label.

The best kind is not usually loud and noisy, but works on you stealthily and silently so you are not always aware of it. 2014 marked three years since Pat Molloy’s death but his inspiration to the Birmingham Irish music community grows stronger every year.

In a fiddle class this July at the 3rd Annual Anne and Pat Molloy Summer School Noreen Cullen recalled a particular occasion when Pat had inspired her. Pat had entered a fiddle competition in his later years. He might be expected to play it safe. Not a bit of it! He decided to play Carolan’s Concerto. This is a tune written by harper Turloch O’Carolan in the eighteenth century, inspired by the Italian baroque music of the time. It is a tricky tune, beloved of classical crossover musicians, but that is not the reason most traditional players avoid it; it is because it is difficult to “make your own”. As Noreen explained, not only did Pat make it his own, but he stood proud, two feet square on the ground, and laced into it, swinging and variating – playing “in the pocket” as the jazz boys say, but still on the high wire. The message was clear, not least because Noreen also spelt it out –

“don’t be afraid of falling on your arse”.

Noreen Cullen - falling?

Noreen Cullen – falling?

Pat was the master of Irish music teaching in the city and one of life’s teachers in the widest sense of the word. My lessons with him were not what you would call conventional – there would be deep explorations lasting well into the night – not just of fiddle music and style but also philosophical discussions which left my mind in the dust, math questions, card tricks, checking into firebrand George Galloway’s show on the radio or cricket test matches broadcast from Australia at 1 a.m. (small bets on cricket and smelling tobacco burning were Pat’s token vices).

At regular points in the proceedings his beloved wife Anne would come in with a pot of tea and some wonderful soda bread with a jaunty “I’m not hearing much music” as we were gassing away. Magical stuff, and through it all there would always be Pat’s smile and that swing he could put into the fiddle.

The 2014 summer school gently pushed at the boundaries while still keeping the easygoing, fun, caring, and well, Birmingham approach in the spirit of Anne and Pat. The space and facilities of the South and City Birmingham College were fully utilized this year and, when combined with the thoughtful and convenient catering and the endless tea and biscuits provided by the cheerful volunteer army of friends and family, it provided a warm and cohesive home.

The most notable innovation and musical success though was the Saturday night concert in the professional-grade college theatre (see Paul Cunningham’s compilation video). The line-up featured many of those from the glory days of Birmingham Trad in the 80s and 90s including Joe Molloy, Noreen Cullen, Adrian Burns, Ivan Miletitch (with Diskan), but also reached out to friends beyond the People’s Republic of Digbeth such as Des Hurley and Chris O’Malley from Leeds and Karen Ryan from London. Karen of course has a crew – the magnificent London Lasses who brought the concert to a close with a spectacular, tight set that can only come from years of playing together (and these are not haughty lasses by the way – they happily charged off to the session in their fancy frocks after the gig).

Which all brings us to the Trip to Birmingham TradFest, now taking the traditional concert format to a new level in Birmingham. At the risk of telling tales out of school, Pat did confide in me his two favourite fiddle players (after Michael Coleman of course), and suffice it to say one of them was Frankie Gavin, who headlines on Saturday 29th November. The following afternoon we also get to welcome back our old friend and now trad superstar Kevin Crawford in the highly anticipated reunion of Long Acre (I don’t know how long it’s been but to give you a clue they are the reason I can’t throw out my cassette deck). All of this would have made Pat so happy, but the icing on the cake for him would have been that amongst all the star names the young musicians of Lampa and “Palandri, McGonigle & Healy” are also in the spotlight.

“Long Acre” by Catharine Kingcome.  Ivan Milititch, Bernadette Davis, Kevin Crawford, Mick Conneely, Brendan Boyle and Joe Molloy in the Big Bull’s Head, Digbeth, Birmingham in 1998

“Long Acre” by Catharine Kingcome. Ivan Milititch, Bernadette Davis, Kevin Crawford, Mick Conneely, Brendan Boyle and Joe Molloy in the Big Bull’s Head, Digbeth, Birmingham in 1998

To conclude my rambling account of last year’s summer school, there came a point on Sunday where the rambunctious session of the previous night (squeezed into possibly the smallest snug bar in Birmingham) left a few of us feeling rather tired and emotional – you might say in need of a little inspiration and aspirin. It came in the form of one of the “turns”, the informal group performances that traditionally liven up the school’s Sunday afternoons.

The sean-nos dancing turn was more informal than most, and it was here that Noreen’s prophecy came true. There was one young woman in the group who was truly throwing herself into her performance. From my vantage point I could see Noreen from the corner of my eye, and I could see her stiffen in attention like a startled cat when the solo started.

For each extravagant kick of the dancer, Noreen’s smile would widen; for every fling of the arm, Noreen would shift to the seat edge, entranced. One enthusiastic kick too high, and the inevitable “fall on the arse”. Noreen leaped out of her chair, fist-pumping in triumph. I could swear she shouted “Yes” when the dancer got straight up again, wearing the biggest smile of the weekend.

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