Colin H on Buddy Mondlock, Tommy Halferty and cunning plans
I’ve had an Interesting couple of days and, given the current clamour for long-ish new pieces of writing on the Afterword, in the wake of the Barge-gate controversy, I thought I’d tell the tale…
It all began a long, long time ago, in the morning of the world, when the trees were tall, the valleys fair and the beards less grey. In fact, 1994. Buddy Mondlock, a Chicago singer-songwriter with exquisitely crafted lyrics of gentle profundity and observation and a gossamer voice, had been signed to an Irish record label in some way associated with U2 for his debut album – which was and is a sublime set of songs, unshackled to any particular time or sound.
I reviewed the album somewhere and went to see him perform live in the upstairs room of a Belfast bar during a local festival. I seem to recall he had Guy Clark’s son on bass – a very effective two-piece. The live performance was as compelling as the record. I may even have reviewed the show somewhere as well.
Buddy has made a point of coming back to tour Ireland almost every year since then, maybe only missing a couple. I don’t think I’ve caught every year, but I’ve seen several of his shows in the intervening years and it’s always a huge delight – a respite from the world, or at least an invitation into a place of sonic sanctuary for a couple of hours.
Last summer, after a kind of house concert in a café near my home, Buddy and his touring, well, buddy, Mike Lindauer – a terrifically empathetic accompanist on fretless bass and backing vocals, and a friend of Bud’s from childhood – came back to mine for some whisky and chat, and a great time was had by all. This time around, Mike walked in on the afternoon of the Belfast gig and, after establishing first the essentials – that we’d probably be able to find golf coverage for him on our TV – said, ‘Ah, I remember this room… but not you!’ We then established that I wasn’t Simon, the support act for that evening. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves… Why were these doyens of wistful Americana at its best dropping in on Saturday afternoon? Let me explain…
Ronnie Purvis is one of the great characters of the Belfast live music scene – a man who appears to run acoustic music sessions and open mics at various venues with a big smile and no discernible profit motive.
He put on Buddy last year in Belfast, at Stuart Leitch’s popular Narnia-themed LampPost café (by coincidence, only this week reopened, under new management but theme intact, after a seven month hiatus/refurbishment). Ron was doing the needful this year as well, with Buddy and Mike due to play the upper room at the Sunflower bar in central Belfast, a regular folk music spot. Five days before the show Buddy emailed to say it had gone south, and that Ron was wondering could I put on a house concert. The chaps were booked for a show in Dublin on the Friday and a song writing workshop back in Dublin on the Sunday afternoon. The Sunflower owner had got jittery over only a few pre-sales and pulled the plug.
My immediate thought was twofold: yes, I could probably get *something* sorted out to fill the gap; but secondly, how come Ron had let the side down? Well, as Buddy later explained, it turned out that Ron’s been dealing with a serious illness in recent weeks and that immediately explained why the promotion seemed to have been minimal.
I had a couple of thoughts: ask the new owner of the LampPost (not someone I knew, but a friend of a friend) if she fancied hosting the event a couple of days after opening for business; and ask my friend Cormac ‘Wizard of Sound’ O’Kane, co-owner of Red Box Studios, whose premises has a large ground-floor room occasionally used for invited-audience music podcasts and the like.
Café owner Mary reckoned it was too early, logistically, to host an event, but Cormac was immediately up for it. Hurrah! So… a central locations but (to the gig-going punter) an obscure address – would anyone come? It transpired that they would.
A few of my friends came along, several friends of the supporting artiste Simon Murphy – a bright star in the Randallstown singer-songwriter milieu – came along, several of Ronnie P’s original punters came along and one or two who had just read about it on Facebook. It turned into a fabulous bring-your-own evening of bonhomie, banter and music.
Given the slightly confused circumstances earlier in the week, I’d asked Lonesome Chris Todd – godfather of the Ballyclare delta blues scene – if he fancied doing a couple of numbers, knowing that he was coming along as a punter anyway. Bud had already asked Simon, with whom he had co-written a song (inevitably, in Nashville), to open the show but it was all totally amicable. Simon opened with six or seven very classy-sounding compositions, in their general form and delivery, about which I can’t comment in detail (compering as well as watching the street door to admit latecomers, collecting monies, etc. meant that I wasn’t totally focused on the music at that point). I do, though, recall hearing the odd couplet or theme and thinking there was definitely something there, and his guitar work was quality – unshowy, but very effective and with the odd interesting movement. He seems to be back and forth to Nashville and doing all that co-writing networking that they all seem to do, so I’m sure he’ll have a good chance at getting to where he wants to be. Certainly, I’d enjoy hearing him in performance again when I could give it my full attention.
Buddy and Mike were on next, cool as cucumbers – like a last-minute scramble for a gig was just another walk in the park ¬– with no set list but an easy camaraderie in its place. They started off with two new songs, which were delightful to my ears, destined for a new album that Bud will be starting a Kickstarter campaign towards in due course. Two or three other new songs peppered their two sets, along with several audience requests and several requests from Mike – perhaps because Bud just wasn’t getting his thoughts on what the next number should be in quickly enough. Yes, it was a relaxed evening. Buddy revealed that he’d first met Mike in the headmaster’s office at school – Buddy for dawdling, Mike for throwing snowballs. That sort of sums up their personalities to this day, as far as I can see: a dreamer and a street-fighter, albeit one with velvet gloves, impeccable manners and a golf club membership.
I’d said to them earlier, sitting around in my garden on a sunny late afternoon with Lonesome Chris and regional radio personality Liz Kennedy – just prior to a pre-show onslaught of Mrs H’s finest chilli – that neither of them struck me as ‘typical’ Chicagoans. This meant, of course, that I was making absurd generalisations on the basis of knowing absolutely nothing about Chicago beyond half-remembered gangster films and Chuck Berry records. But codswallop is what I do best, and I persisted in digging the hole, suggesting that Buddy was more of a soft-focus literary aesthete and Mike a regular guy (or something like that).
‘But Colin, how many regular guys do you know?’ said Bud, keenly aware of what the answer was likely to be.
I looked around the table, like a man looking for a pie in the sky, a needle in a haystack, or a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, knowing it just wasn’t there and that, even if it were, he didn’t know the way. Looking back at me were a mild-mannered bluesman from mid-Ulster, a pink-haired personality from local radio, and two touring US troubadours, neither of whom drank coffee. The only ‘regular guy’ was Heather, and she had that passport confiscated when she married me. It was a regular-guy-free zone.
Back at the show, after a 10 minute break to let people get some air, stretch their legs or find the two toilets that Mrs H kept telling me to mention – hollering from stage right, in the middle of my carefully unscripted compering performances – Lonesome Chris brought his blues to the masses. Most often to be heard as the frontman with exhilarating electric trio the Hardchargers, Lonesome Chris has been developing an exciting parallel path recently as a 12-string solo performer, wrestling compellingly with an unwieldy instrument tuned down at least a tone, and often open-tuned to G or C after that. Tonight he was playing exclusively in standard tuning, having yet to figure out how to change the tuning on a 12-string guitar mid set without annoying people.
I forget what his first number was (a Hardchargers item, certainly) but the second was a sensational version of ‘Red Lion Yard’, his first composition designed solely for solo rather than band performance, inspired by a car parking situation in Dorset. Lonesome Chris had been homeless for a few nights earlier this year during a period in England, and for those nights he ran the gauntlet of the Red Lion pub in Blandford to secure a discrete overnight spot for his van. Chris’ delivery is akin to a man field-hollering in the Deep South in the 1920s. It is both disconcerting yet electrifying to hear a heartfelt blues involving sleeping bags and public houses sung like you’re hearing it straight from a Paramount 78 in Joe Bussard’s collection. Truly, you don’t need a crossroads to have known the blues (though, thinking about it, I haven’t yet asked Chris if the Blandford Red Lion was located at a junction).
A blistering instrumental closed the Lonesome Chris Todd set. Going straight back to Buddy’s mellow vibe straight after would have been madness – akin to inviting Brian Blessed on to a talk show with Whispering Bob Harris – but luckily Simon Murphy was to hand. Some of the Simon Murphy Appreciation Society had arrived late so, happily, Simon was able to play another couple of his songs. Again, there was something about them that suggested a writer/performer with something to say – a quietly commanding performer. After that, it was down to Buddy and Mike to see the night out – and they did so majestically.
I can’t recall all the songs they played, though I was thrilled to hear a couple I’d requested, ‘Cats of the Colosseum’ from his first album, a hazy summer sun postcard from Rome, and ‘The Mud’, a co-write with the late Guy Clark. Clark was one of Buddy’s early influences, and hugely important in championing him in pre-professional days and making contacts for him in the biz. There was a nice touch in this set when Buddy played a couple of passing notes between chords in one song, at a mellow tempo, and said, ‘Take that, Lonesome Chris!’ Chuckles all round – even from Lonesome Chris.
I had a feeling Buddy would know exactly when to bring the evening to a close, and he did. Just as I thought, ‘Okay, he should probably say the next one will be the last one…’ he did. An encore was demanded but better a second was demanded after that. Standing off to one side, I had noticed that studio owner Cormac O’Kane seemed to be enjoying the music increasingly during the second half, and surely only part of that can be down to the bottle of wine that was diminishing in direct correlation to the rise of his bliss. There had been no time to organise any of the multi-camera filming that the space is more or less set up for, but maybe next time. There was a lovely bit of karma when, on the way out, one punter asked me about Cormac’s mastering skills – about which I was able to speak effusively. If a CD mastering job comes his way, it will be a nice bit of karma – the fellow gave up his Saturday night, provided and manned a PA and opened up his premises for no reward at all, and also bought 20 extra chairs at Ikea.
So much for Saturday night. So what had happened on Friday? Well…
A few days earlier Scott Flanigan, a fabulous piano man whose services I’ve procured for some of my own adventures, emailed to suggest I might be interested in a trio in which he was playing on Friday night at the basement of McHugh’s, Belfast’s oldest pub. He was right: I was interested. It was a good job, because not many others were. On the show, part of a five-date tour, Scott was playing the role of Larry Young (organ) while Dublin guitar veteran Tommy Halferty played that of John McLaughlin, with one Shane O’Donovan more than ably filling in for the regular drummer (I know not who) as Tony Williams.
Yes, this was ‘the Tommy Halferty Lifetime Group’, as I believe they were billed. I say ‘believe’ because I saw no actual billing anywhere. Maybe Tom has a Facebook page, but Scott had hired the room for a bargain price (fifty quid) and was on the door at two minutes to show time when I wandered down. Surveying the room – woody, tables and chairs, awkward pillars, small bar in the corner – I saw perhaps three or four people (the number was to swell to a seething mass of, oh, a dozen in due course).
‘A small audience,’ I said to Scott.
‘A select audience,’ he replied. ‘A jazz audience.’
I think they kicked off with ‘Extrapolation’ from 1969. The whole set was incredible – not so much fusion as really rocking, bebop-flavoured, quirky, sometimes angular yet often slinky and sinuous high-volume jazz. It went from mesmerising to visceral. I had seen Tommy last year at his 70th birthday concert in Dublin (written about elsewhere on the site) and hadn’t even thought he was influenced by McLaughlin, but clearly so.
This was a set drawn almost entirely from scattered McLaughlin recordings from the period between 1969 and ‘71. We had three or four pieces from the immortal ‘Extrapolation’ (1969) – ‘the beautiful This Is For Us To Share’, the impossible-to-get-out-of-your-head ‘Spectrum’, ‘Extrapolation’ – ‘Marbles’ from ‘Devotion (1970), ‘Glancing Backwards’ from ‘Where Fortune Smiles’ (recorded 1970, released 1971), a couple of pieces from the Tony Williams Lifetime (‘Emergency’ and a bit of ‘Vashkar’, I think), ‘You Know You Know’ from the first Mahavishnu album (1971), the whole of ‘In A Silent Way/It’s About That Time’ from the 1969 Miles Davis album ‘In a Silent Way’ and Tommy’s own ‘For Tony Williams’, a gripping flamenco style piece, full of tension and blistering. A couple of more mainstream non-McLaughlin modern jazz things made up the numbers.
This was extraordinary music. Most of it is rarely covered – unlike the Mahavishnu repertoire – and it hung together fantastically well as a set. Everyone involved played brilliantly.
I could not contemplate a world in which this set, performed by these people, remained unrecorded so I hatched a cunning plan and Tommy and Scott appeared to be up for it. That plan may involve Cormac O’Kane, his studio, and an invited audience, but I couldn’t possibly comment.
Tommy – one of the great conversationalists in Irish jazz – mentioned after the show that he had played in France one time and noticed John McLaughlin in the front row:
‘Was he there at the end?’
Tom’s pretty sure of what he’s got, though. My friend Conor ‘The Captain’ Shields, kingpin of the Northern Irish community arts scene and no slouch on drums or guitar, should the need arise (sadly, it hasn’t for far too long), had some advice for him. I explained this position to Tom:
‘Oh?’ he said, turning to Conor. ‘What is it?’
‘Add a bass guitar.’
That sorted the whole thing out. The Con man and myself went up to the ground floor and were pleasantly surprised by a trad duo featuring a top-notch guitar/vocalist playing Richard Thompson’s ‘Beeswing’ beautifully and with a great singing voice. We stuck around for a bit, quaffed whisky, and watched the fellow squeeze some actual music out of some pretty hoary old Irish trad chestnuts. No idea who he was.
After some Miles Davis, more whisky, and ‘sorting the whole thing out’ back at mine, the Captain rang a taxi (literally, this was the first time I’d ever seen anyone use a ‘Do you know who I am?’ type line to get a result where one had not hitherto been forthcoming – most impressive) and bade his farewells.
In a few hours, two breezy, relaxed, golf-loving US troubadours were going to arrive. In between, I needed to get some sleep and transcribe an interview with a man who once bought a New York loft from John McLaughlin. And that, I think, brings us back to where I started.