The bar scene in Dublin has produced a number of bright folk stars, but there are so many wannabe balladeers trying to cross the pond through my mailbag that this reviewer sometimes feels like he’s swimming in the poop to find the pony.
Yet every once in a while a young Irish singer makes it all worthwhile.
From the first note George Murphy sings on The Ballads of Archie Thompson, there is an instant connection to Liam Clancy, Luke Kelly and the best balladeers of our culture.
It’s the ragged, desolate quality in his voice on the traditional ditty “Peggy Gordon” that tells you you’re onto something truly special. He puts a lump in your throat and a knot in your rib cage as he sings, “I'm so in love I can't deny it/My heart lies smothered in my breast/It's not for you to let the world know it/A troubled mind can know no rest,” and digs himself out of “the lonesome valley.”
You probably heard that same emotional hoarseness in Damien Dempsey’s voice, yet Murphy is a good deal younger. He was just out of secondary school when he burst onto the Irish music scene after his show stealing performances on the Irish equivalent to American Idol, You're a Star.
He landed a record deal and a number one triple platinum album followed, leading to extensive tours of the country and collaborations with the greats of Irish music including the Dubliners, Phil Coulter, the Fureys, Aslan and Paddy Casey.
Murphy, who hails from the Dublin suburb of Beaumont, had never performed as a singer before his audition and subsequent rise to fame. His voice has been described as a cross between Luke Kelly and Bruce Springsteen in the Irish press, with Hot Press raving, “For a 17-year-old to possess such a wildly evocative Dublin howl is extraordinary to the point of being unbelievable.”
“George is the most exciting vocal find in Ireland,” raved legendary producer and arranger Phil Coulter, while none other than Ronnie Drew himself said, “George has a voice beyond his years.” High praise indeed!
Now Murphy is releasing his first CD in the U.S. and the boy from Beaumont, still young at 24, has created a new collection of songs, some new, some old, that showcase a fresh voice steeped in our rich culture.
Tracks on the new album include “The Foggy Dew” featuring John Sheahan and Barney McKenna of the Dubliners, and a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Sara” featuring Christy Dignam of Aslan.
If you don’t get goose bumps hearing Murphy sing “The Auld Triangle” unaccompanied, you should check your pulse.
To explain the title and song selection on the album Murphy says, “Archie Thompson is a fictional character, a well-bearded, big bellied man who exists in almost every Irish bar...his stories and songs would consist of his experiences as a young man and how he lived his life…these stories are his legacy.”
The album is a collaboration with the musicians known as the Black Donnellys, named after the immigrant Irish gang in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. The band has played and toured with many renowned performers and were the backing band for Ronnie Drew and Terry Woods of the Pogues.
Dave Browne (mandolin, guitar), Dave Hughes (bass, whistles), Stephen Browne (drums), Sharon Hussey (fiddles, whistles), Dave Rooney (guitar, vocal), and Gavin Carpenter (banjo, vocal) create a traditional tapestry that adds to Murphy’s gifts without getting in the way.
Thank Hughes and Browne, producers of this masterpiece, for knowing what to add and what to subtract in the arrangement.
The album’s closer is a rowdy read of “No Night Out in the Jail,” with Murphy’s bandmates whooping and hollering behind him. It’s a master stroke to end a masterful album.
I have it on good authority that the king makers of the New York Irish music scene are readying to crown the young lad. Look for a regular residency at Paddy Reilly’s and a lot more from Murphy and the Black Donnellys. You heard it here first!
Murphy will play Paddy Reilly's on Thursday February 24, at 8 p.m.; $10 at the door. The venue is located at 519 Second Avenue at 29th Street.