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Trad/Roots: Down the musical rabbit hole with John Doyle and Mick McAuley

Mick McAuley and John Doyle are firmly on the road to becoming a legendary folk and trad duo
Mick McAuley and John Doyle are firmly on the road to becoming a legendary folk and trad duo Mick McAuley and John Doyle are firmly on the road to becoming a legendary folk and trad duo

There is something special about trad duets. You can pair one instrument with another but the magic comes out of two musical hearts beating as one – although sometimes in different keys.

There have been some legendary duos in folk and trad down the years – Tony Mac Mahon and Noel Hill, Andy Irvine and Paul Brady, Begley and Cooney, Martin Hayes and the late Dennis Cahill – but galloping up on the outside lane with a claim to duo renown are two guys who have known each other for over 30 years: Kilkenny's finest, Mick McAuley on box and guitarist John Doyle.

Fans of one of the greatest ever Irish-American bands, Solas, will already know of the pair but each has done stellar work with other musicians, notably Mick who was asked by Sting, no less, to play in his biographical musical, The Last Ship, which ran in New York and toured Britain.

Mick first met John on the Irish-American music scene before they were part of Solas as Mick explained to me this week.

"I played with John a few times before we joined Solas and when he was passing through Ireland with the Eileen Ivers band we would have played together then," he recalls.

There obviously needs to be some deep connection in the playing of two people that would want them to commit to spending hours together doing all the spadework – touring, making albums, getting gigs and so on – before they even started creating music together, so I asked Mick what was it about John's guitar playing that struck a chord with him (pun intended).

"Well, firstly, it was because he was so different to everybody else and different to anything I'd ever heard, to be honest," says Mick.

"I think he had looked at different ways of tackling the chord progressions and stuff, which hadn't really been done before.

"He was after developing this approach where, for the faster, more driven sets he was virtually an engine. It was all about the drive.

"Every time a tune came around, he was able to put different colours on it entirely. So that the third time around any given tune came up, it was an entirely different animal than the first time around. And that fascinated me and fascinated everybody else as far as I can see."

Mick McAuley and John Doyle are firmly on the road to becoming a legendary folk and trad duo
Mick McAuley and John Doyle are firmly on the road to becoming a legendary folk and trad duo Mick McAuley and John Doyle are firmly on the road to becoming a legendary folk and trad duo

Of course, it takes two to slip-jig and what was it about his own box playing that made it a match made in trad heaven.

"I've a lot of friends who play jazz at a high level and we talk about what are the primary difference between jazz and Irish trad – and of course there are many – but in Irish music, the melody can remain pretty constant while the chordal information is open to interpretation," he explains.

"This isn't like jazz, where the chordal information is more set. It's the melody in jazz that is open for a huge improvisation whereas in Irish music, that's not the case, chords can move around the melody.

"So when I'm playing with John, it allows me to almost anticipate what he's going to do and try and get there set myself up before he gets there so that I'm ready to take that rabbit hole with him.

"And he does the same with me. Now, he knows when I'm going to go somewhere else and he's almost trying to guess where it is I'm going to go. And hopefully, we both end up going down the same rabbit hole."

This is true with well-established tunes and the tunes that the pair have written individually as you can hear on their eponymous new album, a sometimes gorgeous, sometimes rousing collection of tunes and songs.

When he is teaching, Mick likes to start with the first part of a set and ask the students to compose the second bit.

"During the lockdown, we were looking at this process of writing tunes and it was always fun where I'd present the first part and they would try and raise a second part. It was fun and interesting and wacky to explore the results of that but that's often the case," he says.

"I consider writing an original tune to be like a journey. I can take the listener to this part. But I need to get them back to the beginning of the story again, at some point. And that's the beauty of Irish music in that, even in the most traditional tunes, what happens is that it brings you on a little journey and you end up back where you started.

"I think that's another reason that so many people from so many cultures around the world are able to identify with Irish music."

Surely that is true of the United States which has been home, on and off for not only McAuley and Doyle but for thousands of other Irish musicians for well over a century.

How important has the USA been important, and how important is it still for Irish traditional musicians?

"Well, speaking personally, it's been very important to me," says McAuley. "I first landed over in America when I was 17 and I've been going back there since.

"If you look at the size of the Diaspora over there, it means that the sheer amount of gigs and concerts and festivals that are available to be done speaks for itself.

"There's work there, firstly, but it's also about a lot of the music that I listened to growing up because a lot of the first recorded Irish traditional music happened in America because so many Irish musicians moved there.

"And their descendants to this day have had an influence, I feel, in a reverse sense, on Irish music here.

"While there is a progressive element to what is being played now, I've also found that some of the purest Irish music will be found in places like New York and Chicago and while it's developing here in Ireland alongside the progression of Irish music in in America, lots of fine people like Andy McGann are and they make a conscious effort to preserve that traditional way of approaching things and they'll dedicate themselves to that.

"I always like that juxtaposition there. It means to me that the tradition is saved. Yes, it's developing because without that development, I don't think you can survive."

And both he and John Doyle are adding massively to that continued development.

You can get the album from bit.ly/3G0YWqF or from either mickmcauley.com or from johndoylemusic.com