It’s been said that John Doyle is the busiest man in Irish music. Given that he’s just come off a tour with Joan Baez, we’ll have to amend that description and just say he might be the busiest man in music of any kind—period.
Watch Doyle when he’s playing his guitar—even when he’s sitting down—and what you see is a man incapable of inertia, his head and shoulders rocking like a metronome needle.
Doyle rocketed to fame as one of the founders of the super group Solas, and his driving rhythms and helped give the band its signature sound.
Since Solas, Doyle has formed many artistic alliances, including his brilliant pairing with Liz Carroll. He’s much in demand as producer as well, his influence felt on Heidi Talbot’s “Distant Future,” Michael Black’s brilliant eponymous debut recording and many others. (He also produced his father Sean Doyle’s CD, “The Light and the Half Light.”) He’s become everybody’s first string.
That very busy and talented man is about to visit the Philadelphia area, performing in a special Christmas show with headliner Mick Moloney and fiddler Athena Tergis at the Shanachie Pub, 111 E. Butler Ave. in Ambler, Thursday, December 4. The show starts at 9 p.m.
When I caught up with him—or maybe he caught up with me—he was on his cell phone in an airport bookstore somewhere in America, with minutes to go before boarding. I was in my car in Center City and running late for the curly wig-a-thon that is the Mid-Atlantic Oireachtas. I pulled over on Spring Garden Street, yanked out the laptop and discovered that I had just 22 minutes left on the battery. We’d been playing phone and e-mail tag for a few days. It was now or never. With traffic whizzing by me and John occasionally stopping to chat with the bookstore clerk, we squeezed in a few questions.
Q. Tell us first about the performance. I believe it’s being recorded. How did this particular gig, and the three of you, come together?
A. Mick and I have been playing together since ‘91 or ‘92. He’s been a force [in Irish music] for years. Mick and Athena have played together for four or five years. We wanted to do a kind of small gig for a different kind of a kind of feel. These actual particular gigs are Christmas gigs—we’re doing a whole weekend of them in New York and one in Philly. Of course, well be doing some Christmas stuff, like “The Wexford Carol” and “The Holly and The Ivy.” I’ve got a few tunes I wrote. We’ll do [John McCutcheon ‘s] “Christmas in the Trenches” and “The Bushes of Jerusalem” by Tommy Sands.
But it’ll be a mix between Christmas, my songs and Mick’s—a bunch of Mick’s songs from an earlier tradition, when he was still in London—and Athena’s. It’ll include some tunes that he and I and Athena have written over the last couple of years.
Q. Why is this one being recorded?
A. We’re going to try and make a CD out of this. Were just doing it to see how it works.
Q. You’ve played with both before, including “Absolutely Irish.” On the CD, it seemed like that booming bass line was on every track. Not everyone played nearly as much. Why was that?
A. Every person on that concert and I had played with together. I knew everyone’s material. [Laughs.] So it was kind of a no-brainer at the time.
Q. Talk to me about your playing style. You seem to have found that sweet spot between the rhythmic and the melodic. How did it develop?
A. You can’t learn in a vacuum. [I was influenced by] Arty McGlynn, Daithi Sproule, Paul Brady and others. All of these great players affected me. They have a kind of half-melody half-rhythmic feel to their songs. But the rhythm is the most important thing at the end of the day.
Q. A lot of kids, if you gave them a guitar, would have wanted to be Eric Clapton. You went with Irish, Why?
A. All my family on one side or the other were involved in traditional music, it just seems like the thing to do I was drawn in that direction, my father and grandfather played accordion.
Q. I like what [the Philadelphia bass player] Chico Huff as said about you, that you never play the same thing twice through. I’m just curious as to why that is.
A. You have to make it interesting, not only for other people, but for yourself. If you don’t challenge yourself all the time, you’re going to get in a rut. [Also,] there’s a tone and a mood in tunes. If you’re playing the tunes, you want to do variations in them. And if someone does a variation, you should do a variation with them. You should emphasize emotions rather than just going with the flow.”
Q. You went the route of super groups for several years with Solas. Now, aside from your gig with Liz Carroll, it seems like you’ve accompanied everyone. What do you get out of that that you don’t being in a big group like Solas?
A. Well, I love playing with the bands and it’s really fun. I miss that sometimes. [But, when playing with others] you can be more interesting, and you can do more variations, you don’t have to be hooked up to a particular arrangement. It’s also easier to travel with.
With Liz, she’s one of the best players and writers in the world so it’s really easy to come up with stuff.
Q. And you’ve produced a lot as well. What does that do for you?
A. A lot of it is to give back to people your experience over the years; how you would do things. As a person in a band you can get bogged down in your own stuff. You need someone to weed out what’s unnecessary and to get to the core of the stuff. It’s all of that stuff together. I love it.