The Bothy Band – 1977

Where do we turn next? That’s the question I imagine many new breed neo-folk musicians were asking themselves then. The rise of Punk, Metal, and New Wave groups, coupled with the further fragmentation of Rhythm away from Blues had many musicians searching for a way to go forward. Take a view at the reel and jigs played by the magnificent Bothy Band. This Irish band led by former Planxty member and bouzouki player Dónal Lunny, rounded up young neo-traditional players and let them have an outlet to experiment with more strident interpretations of Celtic folk songs. Wasn’t there something for someone like them to offer us in this new world?

Before Riverdance, Celtic Thunder, and other truly dire groups sullied the reputation of large Irish folk groups, there existed a time when Dónal and the rest of the Bothies were looking across the pond a bit (in England and Eastern Europe) for other ways to play their own traditionals. Named by guitarist Michael O’Domhnaill after seeing the inscript of an old 1890’s photo of a group of tattered musicians living in stone huts called bothies, they saw themselves as symbolically representing a band who had no qualms with living in the present. Their sound might not live much afterward but their influence would be inculcated somehow.

In dress and demeanor, matching more the style of indie musicians, they got on with it. Signed and releasing albums on an Irish independent record label, they were free from label heads encroaching their vision of Celtic music. Heated performances and equally fiery living allowed them inject much needed life into hundreds of traditionals that they had in their arsenal. They knew they were damn good musicians and weren’t afraid to pick up the pace of a typically slow ballad, transmogrify known traditionals, or create dense sonics that rocked without actually “rocking”.

Old Hag You Have Killed Me album cover.

When you hear master cuts from 1976’s brilliantly titled Old Hag You Have Killed Me like the twisting acapella Gaelic throat-music of “Fionnguala”, or the intricate dueling bouzouki and guitar of “Sixteen Come Next Sunday”, you can recognize there is something special there that could tickle your fancy, even though its nice bits are stuck in a time/sound we might not always care to revisit. What keeps them solvent is that they keep transforming what constitutes the worth of Irish music, and in doing so, hit you somewhere you didn’t know you had a mark.

You hear this when you run across just jaw-dropping worldly music like “The Ballintore Fancy” a fiddler and hurdy gurdy fantasia from lord knows what era, the throbbing astral-round of “The Laurel Tree”, a proto-New Age “Calum Sgaire” featuring the familial singing of the O’Domhnaills, or the joyous bodhran melody of the opener “Music in the Glen”. Its wonderful, unique music that has something that it could offer to more “contemporary” music, if modern musicians/listeners chose to listen. Sadly, American audiences didn’t get a chance to until the mid 80’s. However now, its something that if you can, you can hear perfectly in their own future work in tracks like “The Maids of Mitchelstown” or “The Piper on the Hob/The Hag at the Churn” from Out of the Wind into the Sun from their next and last album released in 1977. These musicians, and others like them, would swiftly lose their overground influence…but new upstarts will allow their playing to breathe new life yonder, from under ground. Let’s hope that we can see and listen to how this happens shortly…

Listen to:

Old Hag You Have Killed Me (1976)
Out of the Wind Into the Sun (1977)

at Grooveshark.

Bonus image, how influential were the three releases that the Bothies released in the late ’70s before they disbanded? More than enough to get included on a series of Irish postal stamps commemorating some of their best and brightest: