Mean fiddler: Brendan Gleeson hits the road with Dirk Powell
The actor is well acquainted with the fiddle, and will join Cajun and bluegrass musician Powell, with whom he worked on the film ‘Cold Mountain’, for a nationwide tour
Brendan Gleeson: ‘I’d be basic enough as a musician but Dirk is amazing. He’s completely infectious, and always brings everyone to the heart of it.’ Photograph: Barry McCall
Dirk Powell: ‘In places like Ireland, Louisiana and Cape Breton, you can tell that the music is really no more yours than it is the audience’s.’ Photograph: Con Kelleher
Call it what you will – fate, serendipity or impeccable timing – but two musicians are taking to the road shortly, thanks to a series of coincidences that drew them together.
Dirk Powell is well-known to fans of bluegrass, Cajun and American old time music. He’s an Appalachian multi-instrumentalist and singer whose accordion playing has lured many listeners towards the mountains and then the bayous. As a session musician, he has worked with everyone from Emmylou Harris and Jack White to Steve Earle. Brendan Gleeson might have been busying himself carving a career on celluloid, but in between he has become well- acquainted with the fiddle, and is a regular visitor to trad gatherings such as the Willie Clancy Summer School.
“Dirk and myself filmed Cold Mountain in Romania, and spent a lot of the downtime playing and laughing,” says Gleeson. “It followed a weird set of coincidences. A year or two before, the great fiddle player Paul O’Shaughnessy had generously given me an old time CD, a brilliant album Dirk had made with Tim O’Brien and John Herrmann called Songs from the Mountain, inspired by Charles Frazier’s book Cold Mountain. I played it all the time.
“Then I got a call to say they were making a film of the book and I had a part. It was too good to be true. Just before I headed over to Romania to start, who turns up playing a gig in Hollywood, Co Wicklow, but Dirk Powell. We had a brilliant night and took it from there. Turns out he had been signed up for the movie as well.”
Powell was more than happy to find his and Gleeson’s paths crossing in different parts of the globe.
“I’d say that we were kindred spirits right away,” he says with a wry smile. “We’ve had great times in a lot of different corners of the world, from Louisiana to Romania to Dublin. We always just seem to have a similar embracing of the moment, and of life, and that’s now translated into this tour: a chance to take that energy along with the energy of Mike [Michael McGoldrick] and Francis [Gaffney]. What I’m hoping is that this tour will be about the spirit of the moment too.”
Mike McGoldrick of Scottish folk band Capercaillie has recently been collaborating with Powell on the latter’s new album, which he is recording with Jack White, another Cold Mountain acquaintance. McGoldrick has been busy writing tunes in anticipation of this tour, as well as learning some of Powell’s repertoire. He already knows that Powell’s fiddle tunes sit well with his own flute and pipes.
“I’m hoping for some smoking Cajun tunes as well, where Dirk can let loose on his accordion,” says McGoldrick.
Powell’s Appalachian roots
Powell is now a resident of Lafayette, Louisiana, but was reared in the heart of Appalachia. He was schooled in classical piano from a young age, and he brings a compelling mix of roots and reasoning to his playing, grounded by a strong sense of identification with the music and where it comes from.
“If you embrace whatever your roots are, then you recognise somebody else for their roots, and you have a common understanding of what’s valuable,” says Powell. “There’s a timelessness to that.
“As a young teenager, I was looking for that sense of self, and ‘who am I in the world?’,” he continues.
“There was a moment I can remember when my grandfather played a very simple little tune for me on the banjo, and then he said: ‘People used to think that just that was beautiful.’ And you know the way you have these pivotal moments in your life? For me, that was one of those moments, where I realised how beautiful that music really was, and maybe that people’s definition of beauty had changed, but the essential beauty of that music hadn’t changed. And I realised I wanted to bring that beauty to people.”
The symbiotic relationship between music and dance is something that both Irish and Cajun traditions share, and it’s a facet of the music that Powell relishes when playing for dancers.
When no clapping is a good thing
“One of the great things about playing in Ireland is that you always feel like the audience knows the music in an internal way. Sometimes you play in other places, where the audience is appreciating the music, but from a distance. But in places like Ireland, Louisiana and Cape Breton, you can tell that the music is really no more yours than it is the audience’s, just because you happen to be playing it at that moment. People in Louisiana, when you’re playing a dance, don’t clap. You’re all in it together. The music has a social function that’s beyond that. I’m glad that people don’t clap because it shows that the line between the musicians and the dancers is non-existent.
“Playing in Ireland I always feel that: it’s like everybody’s inside the same experience, as opposed to the musicians projecting an experience.”
Brendan Gleeson is more than comfortable with letting Powell, McGoldrick and Gaffney hog the limelight on their forthcoming tour. Just as long as they all have fun on the road together.
“I want to play a bunch of music and share a great time!” he says. “I’d be basic enough as a musician but Dirk is amazing. He’s completely infectious, and always brings everyone to the heart of it. I’ve enjoyed a few brilliant shindigs with him, but not enough and not in a while. I’m hoping it’ll be great. I’ve been getting back to the mandolin and guitar over the year and really enjoying it. It’ll be fantastic playing with Mike McGoldrick and Francis Gaffney too. I reckon the old-time and traditional will have an interesting chat.”
Dirk Powell, Michael McGoldrick, Brendan Gleeson and Francis Gaffney tour nationally from January 7-17. See musicnetwork.ie for details
CROSSING THE DIVIDE: ACTORS TURNED MUSICIANS
Ryan Gosling His band, Dead Man’s Bones, stir up an intriguing mix of blues, bluegrass and country, even if Gosling’s voice rattles and rumbles more than a carriage on the old Lartigue railway line.
Jeff Bridges Wrote and performed much of the material on the soundtrack of Crazy Heart, his 2010 movie depicting a washed-up singer who still has a few miles left in the tank.
Steve Martin The bluegrass banjo player released his first all-music album, The Crow: New Songs For The 5-String Banjo, in 2009. In 2001 he joined Earl Scruggs for a fresh take on Scruggs’s seminal Foggy Mountain Breakdown.
Woody Allen Never leaves home without his clarinet. Has toured Europe with his New Orleans Jazz Band. He’s still partial to an irregular Monday night residency in New York’s Carlyle Hotel.
Hugh Laurie His 2011 album, Let Them Talk, saw him play piano and guitar, taking on lead vocals in the company of New Orleans legends Dr John and Irma Thomas. Reviews were mixed but he recorded a follow-up, Didn’t It Rain, last year.
Jeff Daniels Has recorded five albums with a distinctly blues hue, and his Guild D40 guitar travels with him everywhere. It is, he says, his “solace”, his “church”.
John C Reilly After meeting Jack White in 2007 on the set of spoof biopic Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Reilly went on to record two singles on White’s Third Man label. He is promising to release an Americana-tinged debut album on White’s label in the fullness of time.