Paul Brady: An Irish Bard

Paul Brady was 67 this month. Here’s a tribute.

Bard: A tribal poet – singer skilled gifted in composing and reciting verses of satire and eulogy on heroes and their deeds.

‘Craftsmanship names an enduring, basic human impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake’. (Richard Sennett)

‘Some guys got it down …. Paul Brady …. Secret heroes’. (Bob Dylan)

Paul Brady harbours and husbands extraordinary talents. He is a great singer of traditional ballads in the Irish and American traditions able to breathe life into ‘set texts’ through his exquisite instrumental and vocal control and his natural discretion.

These craft skills allow him to reveal the often buried wit, vigour, romance, tragedy and flat out strange power of those remarkable works composed by the great ‘Anon’.

He is also an accomplished guitarist with the quiet unflashy discipline of the skilled accompanist who can anchor a tune setting a virtuoso fiddler like Andy McGan free to fly. He also has driving rock ‘n’ roll chops learned through ingesting whole the riffs and rhythms of the Shadows and Chuck Berry as a youth.

As far as traditional ballad performance goes Paul Brady’s version of Arthur McBride is rightly regarded as an enduring triumph. It was wholly appropriate that he performed it at the recent Dublin memorial evening for the late keeper of the Irish word hoard, Seamus Heaney.

Heaney would have understood how the seeming ease of Paul Brady’s performance of Arthur McBride was based on a deep understanding of the ballad form and hard hours spent honing his instrumental and vocal craft. It takes a great artist to make the artful seem artless.

The song is an Irish tall tale featuring protagonists Arthur and the unnamed narrator encountering a military recruiting party led by a bumptious sergeant as they take the early morning air one Christmas day.

The Sergeants blandishments and promises of glory, riches and female favours are satirically shown to be counterfeit coin by Arthur who though he chooses not to join the army would clearly have been a first class barrack room lawyer had he chosen to enlist.

Arthur and his friend turn the tables on the sergeant and the unfortunate little drummer boy leaving them bloody backed on the beach and the boys then merrily continue their seasonal stroll.

The drummer boys instrument, his ‘rowdeydowdow’ having been made a playful football bobs uselessly in the tide. The song represents a victory for the native over the coloniser, of hedge school wit and satire over the prepared script. Brains beats bullshit.

Paul Brady’s performance of the ballad as shown here is peerless. Nothing is pushed too hard, the song virtually seems to sing itself with Brady as the pilot who knows every ripple of the tide and currents as he steers the song home.

Now he allows a little drift, now he touches the tiller, now he adjusts the tempo and volume to bring out the full salty tang of the song. His guitar playing throughout is astonishingly deft and alert to every nuance of feeling. Arthur McBride is a big song filled with lovely sly dramatic touches which Paul Brady inhabits with unshowy assurance.

Listening to the song you naturally follow the arc of the narrative and feel yourself drawn in to the world it presents. In traditional song Paul Brady wears the bards cloak teasing out the shape and character of the song sure in its proven potency to cast a spell over its audience.

As a contemporary songwriter he has at least two hatfuls of wonderful songs and he is the author of two certifiable classics; the euphoric ‘Crazy Dreams’ and the heart rending ‘The Island’.

He has also found himself in demand as a supplier of quality material for artists of the calibre of Tina Turner (Steel Claw, Paradise Is Here) and Bonnie Raitt (Luck Of The Draw, Not The Only One).

Paul Brady’s songs are imbued with deep feeling set within satisfyingly well carpentered structures. They are the product of inspiration shaped by a craft won through a thorough musical education. Paul Brady’s songs are built to last and last they will.

This is not a matter of tricks or sleight of hand but of a deep understanding in his mind, in his heart, in his hands and fingers and in his voice that real songs truly speak to and of the lives we lead both above and below the public surface.

To produce these songs he draws upon traditional practice and the craft techniques of which he is a master. He is then free to follow his inspiration wherever it leads and to choose the right tools for the task at hand.

Like his Irish near contemporary Van Morrison he can mesmerically summon the spirits to open up the terrestrial and mystical landscapes of Ireland. Like Van he is a canny songsmith finding the particular combinations of lyric, melody, rhythm and vocal attack needed to make a song take off on record and in performance.

A perfect example of this is, ‘Crazy Dreams’ one of the great ‘leaving my hometown’ songs where he lights out for the territory to find out if his those dreams of independence, of self realisation in a new world, can be made to come true.

The song has a thrillingly heady melody and a rhapsodic rhythm always flowing forward like waters heading for the falls. Paul Brady’s vocals achieve tremendous excitement for the listener because of the way he maintains his setting at intense simmer rather than boil.

You can feel the gathering impulse to follow the dream in every second of the performance. Ringing, dazzling guitars and shimmering keyboards surf atop drums which drive the dream forward.

He’s leaving behind the Joycean snow falling on the Liffey, the fog of familiarity that shrouds his true identity as he packs his suitcase filled with his own dreams not those of his city, his friends and his family. Now is the time for one last look back – closing the door on the hesitations of the past before turning definitively to the future.

Now is the time to drink champagne with your darling companion until you both fall down. Tomorrow the dream comes alive. This is a journey we all have to take for someone elses’s dreams get you nowhere.

The Island is a miraculous piano centred meditation on the pain and futility of civil wars yoked arfully to a deeply tender love song. In this song Paul Brady incandescently evokes a triumph of love over hate.

As an Irishman he knows the power of death fixation (the young boys dying in the ditches) yet he hymns the nurturing power of another love which finds its expression in lovemaking by the healing waters of the ocean.

His vision for his neighbours rejects a future built on slogans, tombstones and twisted wreckage. Rather, it looks to a future illuminated by the simple dreams we all have for ourselves and our families.

Our children deserve to inherit a country not mired in the hurts and traumas of the past. In so doing Paul Brady willingly takes on tne role of the holy fool opposing the zealots who are willing to sacrifice anyone and everything to achieve their utopian goals. The simple message of the song is choose love – be prepared to be a fool for love.

Paul Brady’s sublime vocal in this song is filled with bruised tenderness. Who would not want to go to the Island when the invitation is sung with such alluring enticement? Throughout the song the prayerful piano piano (by the late Kenny Craddock) invokes the redemptive balm of the love of one person for another.

If that’s a foolish faith so be it. Paul Brady’s performance of this wonderful song makes that faith affectingly real and welcoming.

Paul Brady is a great musician whose work has firmly placed him in the front rank of the the bardic company of Ireland.

An Irish Bard is something to be.

Recommended listening:

Paul Brady has never made a bad record. Here are a few of my favourites with key tracks in brackets.

Paul Brady/Andy Irvine (Mary And The Soldier)

Welcome Here Kind Stranger (The Lakes Of Pontchatrain, Paddy’s Green Shamrock Shore)

Hard Station (Crazy Dreams, Busted Loose, Nothing But The Same Old Story)

True For You (Helpless Heart)

Trick Or Treat (Nobody Knows, Trick Or Treat)

Back To The Centre (The Island, The Homes Of Donegal)

The Missing Liberty Tapes a 1978 live recording stands as a high peak of Irish acoustic based music making.

Footnote August 2014:

Thanks to the man himself for reading this post and setting up links from his twitter and Facebook accounts. This post has become the most popular to date in the history of the blog!

40 thoughts on “Paul Brady: An Irish Bard

  1. Bought ‘Trick Or Treat’ after hearing ‘Can’t Stop Wanting You’. Love the music. Believe you when you say “he’s never made a bad record”. Guys like this just put out quality material consistently. Will get around to his other stuff eventually. His live performance of ‘Crazy Dreams’ just proves how good he is. You have good taste Thom.

    Liked by 1 person

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