The Voice Squad Hits All the Right Notes

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One of the country’s most respected and best known traditional singing groups performed at Wexford’s National Opera House on Saturday night last.

The Voice Squad are Gerry Cullen, Phil Callery and Fran McPhail. Formed back in 1985, they have taken the unaccompanied singing of traditional and folk songs, in harmony, to new levels.

The recently formed Wexford traditional music 5-piece, Kitty’s Wedding, opened the evening with a short set of jigs, reels, slow airs and songs. Featuring Elaine Stafford and Tanya Murphy on fiddles, Darina Gleeson on accordion/vocals, Ned Wall on pipes and Fergal O’Hanlon on guitar/vocals their playing was effortless and sweet to the ear. Elaine and Fergal’s rendition of “What Will You Do Love” was particularly well received.
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Time then for the evening’s special guest Mick Hanly. At one time a regular visitor to these parts Hanly expressed his delight at performing in this august space for the very first time. With at least 14 albums under his belt he devoted his short set to songs from the forthcoming album “Homeland”. Showing that he has not last any of his skills as a song-writer and a story-teller his song “Endgame” told of how we have become so technologically adept that we can drop an excavator onto Mars but we cannot stop the Colorado bees from dying in California:

“Man you’ve come a long way,
You’ve a long way to go.”

His stories from his time working in a Breton fishing port were hilarious and led to his writing the song “Attention Sous”. Hanly finished his set with the crowd-pleasing You’re A Big Girl Now.
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And then, dressed all in black, the three amigos known as The Voice Squad ambled onto the stage, arranged themselves and launched straight into “Now Westlin Winds” by the Scottish poet Robbie Burns. The song, a favourite of Dick Gaughan and Len Graham, is summed up by Phil Callery as being about “guns and girls”.

Next up was the love song “Willie Taylor”, albeit one with rather sad consequences for the aforementioned Willie. When he is sent to sea “his youthful lover” dresses herself up as a sailor and follows him. When she finds him “walking along with his lady gay” she lets him have it with “a brace of pistols”. She then gets promoted for showing such spirited decisiveness!

“The Brown and Yellow Ale” also concerns itself with affairs of the heart. The VS picked it up from the late singer and song-collector Frank Harte. It gets a regular airing by traditional singer Karan Casey.

“I waited by the ford for an hour and a quarter

Oh the brown and the yellow ale

And when she came to me,
’twas without shame I saw her

Oh love of my heart

She told me her story, I lay down and I died …”

Another version, Cuach Mo Lon Dubh Buí, was recorded by Altan. The original poem was a favourite of the writer James Joyce.

The setlist took a spiritual turn next with “What Wondrous Love Is This”. This hauntingly beautiful 19th century deep-south American hymn, to a much older English ballad melody, comes from The Sacred Harp tradition of sacred choral music. The VS performed it with the late American folk singer Jean Ritchie.

The ‘love’ theme continued with the much loved Lough Erne’s Shore which many may know from the ground-breaking 1976 album of Paul Brady and Andy Irvine.

“Her hair it resembled gold tresses;
her skin was as white as the snow.
And her lips were as red as the roses
that bloom around Lough Erne shore.”
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The next song “High Road to Rome” came to The VS via the singing of Cavan man Paddy Moynihan. Both tuneful and witty it looks at the different outcomes for a rich man and a poor man arriving at St Peter’s gates. Probably the best received song of the evening.

Back to Robbie Burns then for “Ae Fond Kiss”, a song we last heard in these parts from the lips of Eddi Reader.

This was followed by the love-to-the point-of-desolation “I Am Stretched On Your Grave”. A Frank O’Connor translation of the 17th century “Táim sínte ar do thuma”, the poem was put to music by Philip King and was a favourite in the set of the band Scullion. Sinead O’Connor subsequently delivered her own both-barrels, emotion-filled rendition.

We head north again to Lough Erne and the story of “The Rambling Irishman”.

This is followed by Luke Kelly’s “The Night Visiting Song (I Must Away Now), a signal that the evening is drawing to a close.

Because this is Wexford the band sing the old crowd-pleaser, “Little Jimmy Murphy”, with its music-hall jauntiness. It’s 1798 and …

“We’re far from the last rout
From the East to Downpatrick
Where lies poor little Jimmy Murphy
On the sweet green mossy banks
Skinnymalink killymajoe whisky frisky tooraloo
Rank a diddle dido ding dural i doe!”

As for little Jimmy Murphy …

“Now Jimmy Murphy wasn’t hanged for sheepstealing
But for courting a pretty maid and her name was Kate Whelan.”

If there is one thing we have learned from this gig it’s that love is nothing other than a big pile of trouble!

The VS welcome special guest Mick Hanley back on stage and they harmonise with him on the eponymously named single from his new album “Homeland”.

Nothing more to do then but raise “The Parting Glass” and send us on our way into the night.
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Pix by Seán Rowe.

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