Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Long Time Coming

Circuitous route leads Irish musician to Nashville label

By Michael McCall

JULY 3, 2000:  Sometimes the most magical recordings arise from the most implausible circumstances. Cathal McConnell's Long Expectant This Way Comes is a perfect example. Released earlier this year on Nashville's Compass Records, it's an immensely moving album of Celtic-based music. At times, it's as staunchly traditional as Irish folk music can be, especially on the solo tunes and on the bare-boned duets featuring McConnell's flute matched with a fiddle, bodhran, or cittern. At other times, it's as contemporary as a modern film score, especially when McConnell is backed by Richard Thompson on guitar and Dave Mattacks on drums.

But what makes the recording so magical, and so implausible, is McConnell himself. Cofounder of one of Celtic music's touchstone groups, the Boys of the Lough, the fabled Irish musician has rarely recorded in the last decade or so. To hear him now is to hear a musician of pure heart and feeling. This may sound hyperbolic, but hearing McConnell on Long Expectant This Way Comes is akin to hearing Miles Davis play trumpet on Kind of Blue The richness of expression is overwhelming; there's no filter between what the musician feels and what the listener hears.

But there's a reason McConnell hasn't recorded in the last decade. Like Townes Van Zandt or Nina Simone, he's an eccentric vagabond whose impulsive manner conflicts with the formalities of recording studios and tape machines.

The album's birth goes back to December 1996. At the time, McConnell was living hand-to-mouth in Edinburgh, Scotland, renting a room in a boarding house and playing in pubs for tips. He contacted a friend, New York music teacher Bill Ochs, and asked for his help making a solo album. Ochs procured a small budget from an independent record label, but finalizing the arrangements proved difficult because McConnell didn't own a telephone. Ochs would schedule meetings with McConnell through an intermediary, but the musician often forgot or arrived hours later. Eventually, McConnell agreed to fly to Manhattan to begin recording. Ochs enlisted Ed Haber, a onetime engineer with New York public radio station WBAI, to coproduce the album.

Even McConnell's arrival had its hang-ups. When the musician's flight arrived in New York, Ochs discovered that he wasn't among the unboarding passengers. Ochs questioned an attendant and discovered that McConnell had been detained onboard. It had something to do with his dazed appearance and the bright red-and-yellow sticker on his flute case, which read, Mentally Confused and Prone to Wandering.

"New York is quite a place, isn't it?" McConnell says, speaking long-distance while standing outside an Edinburgh pub. He'd been given a cellular phone for our interview, but instead of waiting inside his apartment, he wandered down to a local pub. He'd answered my call while sitting among friends, taking a break from playing for free. But since we couldn't understand each other amid the background noise, he walked outside into the rain to talk. "You know, New York, it's a fancy town and all, but it's not like Edinburgh. There's so much music here; it's everywhere you go. Every pub has music in it. It's why I love it here."

As Ochs discovered, McConnell plays music ceaselessly--except when he gets into a recording studio, an environment antithetical to the musician's being. The evening McConnell arrived, even though he'd been traveling for 17 hours, he proceeded to play his flute for five hours. He stopped only because it was midnight and Ochs feared the neighbors might complain. At 7 a.m., Ochs awoke to hear McConnell singing unaccompanied, and he continued to sing and play until they left for lunch at noon.

The studio, however, proved so unsettling to McConnell that he froze. He couldn't perform. The producers took to running tape without telling him, capturing him during what the Irishman thought were breaks or warm-ups. "I'm not a big fan of recording studios," he says. "I don't enjoy the discipline of it. But they stuck me in there, and I had to do it. I have to say, alcohol was a good factor. And I got a bit better as we went on."

McConnell mostly recorded solo or in duets and minimal combos. The producers later fleshed out some songs using such musicians as Richard Thompson and Dave Mattacks (both former Fairport Convention members), Linda Thompson, Andy Statman, Kenny Kosek, and members of the young Irish bands Cherish the Ladies and Solas.

"Some of it's a bit out there," McConnell says, noting that he would have preferred a simpler approach on some songs. "The original versions were more subdued. But overall I'm delighted with it. There are always things you want to change. But by and large, it was a hell of a lot of work, and I'm very happy with it."

Even when the recording was finished, the trials weren't over. The label that funded the recording was taken aback once it heard the music. The company had expected a tidy album of pretty, easily digestible Celtic instrumentals; what it heard was at times too raw and at other times too experimental. It was artful and peculiar, and the label rejected it.

When several other labels also passed on the recording, it looked as if the struggle to create a Cathal McConnell album might have been for naught. But then Garry West and Alison Brown, owners of Nashville's Compass Records, heard Long Expectant This Way Comes. Realizing its intrinsic value, the pair took the challenge.

As it turns out, many leading exponents of Celtic music heralded the album's release; reviewers showered it with praise, and radio stations gave it airplay. Moreover, the album was embraced beyond the Celtic community; several rock magazines gave glowing recommendations, and McConnell was invited to perform on the National Public Radio program Prairie Home Companion. When he received a contract to play on the show, he framed it and hung it on his wall in Edinburgh; it was only after he was told that he needed to mail it to NPR that he begrudgingly took it down, signed it, and put it in the mail.

"The reaction has been so positive, I can't believe it," McConnell says. "I mean, who would have expected that?"

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