Monaghan -- Before there were the Three Tenors, High Kings or even the Priests, over 20 years ago a trio of solid and committed young men banded together as the Voice Squad in vocal harmony that ensured that the song would not be overshadowed by the performance only enhanced by it.
It was a lesson straight from the gospel of the late great song collector and singer Frank Hart as I learned firsthand at an Elkins summer school many years ago from the native Dubliner who inspired so many wonderful Irish singers, including the Voice Squad trio Of Phil Callery, Fran McPhail and Jerry Cullen, and female singers like Niamh Parsons and Karan Casey.
So when I found out that they were reuniting for a concert in Monaghan Town to help launch the opening night of the Feile Oriel on the Thursday night of the just passed May bank holiday weekend, northward from Dublin Airport I went after arrival last week.
Even though other commitments meant missing the 11 other choice featured acts of this wonderful and tastefully curated festival sparking interest in traditional music around the Monaghan region, the importance of seeing and hearing three veteran singers who delve deeply into the traditional song canon was a no-brainer for me.
A very respectable turnout at the historic Teach an Mhargaidh (Market House) on a Thursday convinced me that I wasn’t alone seeking the rare chance to hear them in an intimate venue that ensured a close connection.
Cullen and McPhail hail from Drogheda and Callery from Dublin, and their interest in the large store of traditional songs that “were the newspapers of their day” in the true folk song tradition has been a passion for a very long time.
All developed their own interest as individual performers at singing sessions like the Goilin Singers Club and others throughout Ireland wherever the clan of singing enthusiasts gathered in celebration of their common bond.
They found a special magic when they combined the tenor voices of McPhail (high) and Callery (low) with the bass baritone voice of Gerry Cullen in harmony which was still a relatively rare commodity in Irish traditional singing back in the 1980s borrowed from English folk singers like the Watersons and the Copper Family.
Under no illusions that they would rise to great fame or wealth, they kept their day jobs and were happy enough to perform occasionally and create a singular sound that would become as recognizable as voices like Christy Moore, Andy Irvine or Paul Brady to those who listen to Irish music with an acute ear.
Their repertoire at the Market House was mainly lifted from their recordings Many’s the Foolish Youth (1987) and Hollywood (1992) recorded in St. Kevin’s Church in the Wicklow Mountains and later released as Good People All (1993).
But seeing them and hearing them in person bringing out all the drama contained in the songs of romance, murder, fighting, intrigue cataloging the experiences of the Irish nation while carefully blending their voices and lead roles as the “it” person in the vocal game of tag was truly a memorable experience.
Their stagecraft is spare and their vocal clarity a testament not only to their voices, but to their focus and ability to listen to one another and move in and out of the spaces their individual voices create.
Their humor and song setup help place the emphasis on the songs and not excessive theatricality some singers impose upon their performance.
Thanks to Monaghan Feile Oriel folks for inviting the Voice Squad to come together again last week.
It was a wonderful night of music and song from three gentlemen who know their craft and the worth of the songs they sing.