I grew up with Paul Brady. Not in person, obviously, but he was always there, part of the fabric of life in Ireland in the 70s and 80s, and a constant thread running through the backdrop of my cultural and music development.
He was already established as one of the leading lights in the folk scene when I became aware of him. Despite my rebellion against all things folk (I had denim jackets and long hair, and I was determined to be cooler than “folk”), Paul Brady was one of the few folkies that had proper credibility among the rock snobberatti.
He was a real and proper talent, and always seemed, to me at least, to be working to push the boundaries of whatever he was doing, exploring different ways to deliver the music, rather than just plodding out the same old twiddle-dee-dee in the same old way.
His renditions of standards like Arthur McBride or The Lakes of Ponchartrain are perfect examples of Brady’s ability to take a folk standard way beyond where almost anyone else could, and it was impossible not to be impressed and inspired by his easy virtuosity on guitar, and his effortless vocal.
Throughout the 80s and early 90s, as he branched out into other genres, or rather as he pulled other genres into his own sphere, he was a repeating feature in my vinyl collection. Always something of an oddity, not quite fitting in among the prog rock, the jazz fusion, the blues, the big hair production rock anthems and the New Country, but I was never ashamed to go back there, into the darkness, where John Martyn and Jackson Browne and Leonard Cohen lived, all of them speaking to my life in ways that the rest could never quite do.
In the true tradition of the singer songwriter, his songs seem personal, in such a way that they are about him, and they are about you, me, the listener. His journey is our journey, and his songs tell our stories. And when he does revisit the trad library… well, I still can’t listen to his version of “The Homes Of Donegal” without that lump in my throat!
And now, at the age of 75, seven years after his last solo recording, he has brought a new collection, titled “Unfinished Business”. The style is unmistakably Brady, this time with a tilt more towards jazz and swing than we’ve heard before. Don’t think for a moment though that this is one of those ageing-rocker-going-jazz-in-his-old-age affairs. Don’t imagine that it’ll be like that ghastly mind-melt that Rod Stewart had a few years back, or like whatever the hell Van Morrison is playing at these days!
No, indeed! “Unfinished Business” is an extremely engaging collection of nine new and two traditional songs. The voice isn’t what it used to be, certainly, but it’s more than capable of delivering without apology or excuse. The arrangements are deft and roomy, the instrumentation as competent as ever.
And the songs seem somehow even more personal than ever, tinged with the regret and frustration of age, and yet at the same time peppered with an ongoing hope and optimism that life has yet more to offer. Maybe it’s an age thing. Maybe the songs are so familiar to me because I have lived long enough that I have some of the same stories to tell.
Or maybe they are timeless and speak to life at any age. Either way, or any other way, there is much to relish and much to enjoy in this album. If you are not familiar with Brady’s back catalogue, this is a fine introduction, and I’m certain that his work can be discovered and enjoyed in any order. I strongly recommend that you make the effort, whatever genre you tend to prefer.
And so as much as things have changed – my jackets are now fleece-lined and my hair rather more sparse – it seems that some things remain constant. And if that means that Paul Brady keeps coming round again, weaving in and out of my life’s journey, then that’s just fine by me. Long may he remain unfinished!
Unfinished Business is out on Proper Records, September 8th