Trad/Roots: Traditional grooves as the olllam return with Irish gigs and new material

the olllam are playing five dates in Ireland next month, including Belfast on June 19
Robert McMillen

ONE of the main things that can keep a band on the go for over a decade has to be the amount of fun they have playing together.

That's certainly the case of the olllam, a band featuring piper John McSherry, his former pupil Tyler Duncan, stunning bass player Joe Dart, drummer Mike McShimmin, guitarist Sean O'Meara and Joe Hettinga on Fender Rhodes.

It is true to say that the sextet have taken Irish trad down the road less travelled, a journey in which it bumps into jazz, has a chat with rock, dances with trad and everyone else is invited along on the way. Formed in 2012, the band were originally to be a one-album project.

"Yes, back then, we had no idea where it was going to go," John told me this week.

"But when we started touring and playing live gigs with the first album, we enjoyed playing the music so much and the audiences loved it, after that, there was such a buzz, we just didn't want to stop so the band has taken a life of its own and here we still are," he smiles.

Even later on, the band were considering packing it in.

"It's four years since the olllam did a tour but that adventure also cemented us together against expectations," says John.

"Before we started the tour of Ireland in 2018 we thought maybe that we wouldn't do another album and that this would be our swan song but, again, the rest of the guys loved it so much that Tyler wanted to return to Ireland after the tour to start writing new material.

"So he flew over in November of 2018 and he stayed at my house and we spent four or five days just writing all the tunes," recalls John, although big, bad Covid got in the way of its release.

Another idea of what binds people together is absence making the heart go fonder and as the olllam live on two different continents – America and Europe – the band members were free to follow their own creative paths only to meet up for this joint project.

However, this being the 21st century, technology has allowed them to exchange tune ideas via phone or laptop.

"The way I operate is, if I get an idea, I record it on a wee tape recorder I have," explains John.

"It wouldn't be a full tune, but I'd have a few experiments and Tyler would have his ideas and we'd expand on them together.

"Other tunes however, would just come out of the blue so it can be fairly spontaneous too, or we've just learned a natural way of doing things, we just let it happen.

"Then Joe Dart on bass would beef them up and Sean and Mike on drums would join in and add their input."

That's what the Irish-American supergroup wanted to achieve with the first album but since then they've developed a sound they're really happy with, expanded on it and delved deeper into it as well.

So happily, last week saw the second olllam album, elllegy, finally released, each track a journey through an ever-changing landscape that takes us through rock, jazz, traditional music and the proverbial je ne sais quoi.

John himself describes the olllam's music as Radiohead meets Planxty meets Nick Drake.

A key element you don't hear about in traditional music is "groove." What the hell is it?

"Groove is a great word," laughs John. "Groove is something that gets you moving. A deep groove would getting really swinging and it would rock your soul. That's what a groove as I think," he says.

And there is a lot of groove on elllegy. And tunes in traditional reel time signatures. And guitar solos. And drum solos.

In fact, each track – some over eight minutes long – can have you movin' to the groovin' or boogying like a rock star until you veer off into something completely different like trip-hop and it really keeps you listening.

In traditional music, you can have three or four tunes played in different combinations, as John explains.

"On this album, we would have tracks with five, six, or seven different sections," he says.

"Hopefully the changes in tempo and style and rhythm and melody will bring a different mood and different emotions to the listener."

But those of John's fans who have ears only for the uilleann pipes, fear not, John is still playing the pipes - usually along with Francis McPeake so that's one to look out for - but John also teamed up with flute-player Brendan Mulholland for a new teaching website - - where you can learn from these two masters of traditional music via a set of videos and personal tuition as well.

However, the upcoming olllam tour is what John is focusing on at the minute and as a bonus, John says that, in between the gigs, the band are going to take three or four days off to record new material.

"So that's the first time we'll be recording live together rather than stuff going to and from between Ireland and the US.

"We're all going to be in the same room together so we are really excited about that," says John enthusiastically.

The band is playing at the Doolin Folk Festival in Saturday June 11; at Cyprus Avenue in Cork on Thursday June 16; in Galway's Town Hall Theatre on Friday June 17; in the National Concert Hall in Dublin on Saturday June 18 and finishing up in John's hometown city of Belfast at The Limelight on Sunday June 19.

::elllegy by the olllam is now available on all platforms.

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