A year ago, the Mickey Finns were entering into the last few weeks of the year on top of the world. Their latest album, "Prayers and Idle Chatter," was a huge hit, topping the best-of lists on both sides of the Atlantic (it won Album of the Year in these pages).
Then the unthinkable happened. Ray Kelly, the beloved raspy lead singer, died suddenly in a construction accident.
In my 17 years covering the Irish American music scene I never saw such raw emotion and profound sadness over a musician’s passing. The family was hardest hit, of course, as was Brian Tracey, the Mickey Finns' drummer and Ray’s best friend of almost 20 years.
I interviewed Tracey right after it happened. I’m blurry on the detail of it all because we were both in deep shock at the time.
The wake and memorials followed, and I would check in on my friend Brian from time to time and noticed on his Facebook posts that he was slowly venturing out to jam with the likes of Jameson’s Revenge and Lost Tribes of Donegal, the Brooklyn trad group led by Chris Byrne and Andrew Harkin, Tracey’s old pal from his time in the Prodigals.
“Jameson’s Revenge are killer musicians,” Tracey says. “Sitting in on those Irish sessions brought me back to a very simple acoustic-based style.
“I’m back with Andrew Harkin again for the first time since the Prodigals. You play with Andrew Harkin, I don’t care who you are, you’re going to be a sharper musician. I’ve also been sitting in on trad sessions at Paddy Reilly’s which have been fantastic and has gotten me deeper into my trad roots.”
A friend raved to him about Brian Gormley, a 27-year-old singer-songwriter from Longford and a self-described Dylan and Springsteen freak. The pair hit it off and an invitation was put out there to sit in with The Mickey Finns to see how it goes?
“I was ready to can the Mickey Finns thing but when I met Brian Gormley I enjoyed his voice and personality,” Tracey says.
“It was strange at first and I had to force myself to go through it. Even though I wrote most of the songs, they are just so identified with Ray. They were difficult for me personally, but not because it was not gelling with the band.
“Right off the bat, Brian has been fantastic. He brings a great sense of humor to things, and of course, Ray always had that. It’s kind of a new band at this point, and it is going to take time to completely gel, but I like how it’s going so far.”
“The Saw Doctors would have been the only Celtic rock that I would have listened to back home,” Gormley, 27, says.
“When I first heard the Mickey Finns original tunes and the covers of the music they did and Ray’s raw voice, I just fell in love with it. They were so tight as a band and you could hear the musicianship. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to work with them.”
It’s one thing to have things in the band go well, but there comes a point when you must face the fans. Many of them are still grieving from Kelly’s loss and their emotions are still raw.
“Grown men have cried on my shoulder about Ray when we did our first live gig in Columbus, Ohio. It was incredibly emotional for everyone, the band included,” Tracey says.
The Mickey Finns will make their triumphant return to Manhattan this Friday at Paddy Reilly’s on Second Avenue.
“It is intense facing the fans where this band began,” says Gormley. “The first gig was in Columbus, Ohio. I didn’t know anybody and I was in the midst of huge Mickey Finns fans.
“But in Paddy’s I will have friends of mine cheering me on. I will have people helping me through the nerves, and I can’t wait to bring this music to the fans.”
Beyond this Friday, Tracey is cautiously looking ahead to new music and shows in 2014.
“As time goes on we will begin to get creative with one another,” Tracey says. “But we’re feeling this one out one gig at a time right now. I already had a bunch of material written right after the last album came out.
“Since Ray passed I haven’t had any inspiration until recently. I’ve made movement in that direction over the last few weeks and I am hoping something comes of that.”
The future is looking bright – just the way Ray Kelly would have wanted it. Check out the lads this Friday and watch a phoenix rise from the ashes when the Mickey Finns hit the stage of Paddy Reilly’s (519 Second Avenue).