Advertising this gig, The Irish Times listings page noted that the group in question is 'Not to be confused with De Dannan featuring Alec Finn, who also tour this week.' What a saga this alludes to!
De Dannan, the seminal traditional group, were formed in Co. Galway in 1974 with Frankie Gavin (fiddle), Johnny ‘Ringo’ McDonagh (bodhran), Alec Finn (bouzouki), Charlie Piggott (banjo) and Dolores Keane (vocals). By the time De Dannan split in 2003 the group had seen figures such as Johnny Moynihan, Jackie Daly, Martin O’Connor and Maura O’Connell in their ranks and produced some of the most notable albums in traditional music such as De Danann and Selected Jigs Reels and Songs. Throughout the group’s career they always maintained a highly distinctive sound, with the melody line remaining prominent and Gavin’s virtuoso fiddle technique drawing on exemplars from early Irish-American musicians such as Michael Coleman, John McKenna and the Flanagan brothers. Whether live or recorded, it is highly technical playing, clean, with great swing and invention. Alec Finn plays the Greek bouzouki and guitar using a unique combination of rhythm, counter-melody and chords in what became a mainstay of De Dannan’s distinct sound.
The group finished in 2003 but in 2009 Frankie Gavin hit the road with a new group billed as ‘Frankie Gavin and De Dannan.’ In a Hot Press interview Alec Finn noted that the new group was not De Dannan and that he himself had registered the De Dannan name after the split in 2003. The row culminated in a phone-in programme on the Joe Duffy show on RTE radio in the summer of 2009 which featured former band members phoning in. Essentially the arguments revolved around to what degree the participants considered De Dannan Frankie’s band and what worth was placed on Alec Finn’s contribution as fellow mainstay throughout the years and ever-changing line ups. Things got heated when Tony McMahon, the box player and former RTE producer phoned in with his contribution. A nation trembled as McDonagh was pronounced ‘a first-rate accompanist’ and Finn ‘a second-rate accompanist’ and things deteriorated from there.
So, a few days after ‘Frankie Gavin and the New De Dannan’ play as part of the Queen’s festival, an e-mail flyer arrives my the inbox. It announces ‘De Dannan’s only Dublin gig tomorrow night’, the line up including Johnny McDonagh and Alec Finn ‘long renowned as one of the best accompanists of Irish Traditional Music in the world … [who] … creates the basic De Dannan sound with the rhythmic beat of the bouzouki. He weaves in and out with the melodic sound of the fiddle.’ Priceless.
But back to ‘Frankie Gavin and the new De Dannan.’ The ornate surroundings of the Elmwood Hall seemed appropriate to the group’s slightly baroque, music-hall style. They opened, appropriately for their Belfast gig, with a set of jigs from the late Sean Maguire before moving into the reel ‘The Wild Irishman’ at break-neck speed. This elicits the first bit of reaction from an audience all too aware they were being recorded for Radio Ulster. They then eased into a set of barndances which displayed all the effortless flamboyance of Gavin’s playing.
Whatever about the shenanigans over the name, the new group sound good. Damien Mullane, the box player with the group, has a lovely fluid style which sits nicely alongside Gavin’s playing. His playing particularly came to the fore during a set of Kerry polkas near the end of the show. When the new vocalist, Michelle Lally from Ballinasloe, Galway, arrives on stage it strikes you just how audacious Gavin’s re-formation of the group is. Lally performs ‘Summer of my Dreams’ (associated with the acknowledged Dolores Keane) flawlessly: the new De Dannan evoking the old. This group are much more than mere support players for Frankie Gavin but what is disconcerting is how well it all works. Scarily well. A De Dannan-ised arrangement of the Beatles ‘Here Comes the Sun’, is credited to Mike Galvin, the new guitarist with the group. While clearly harking back to the ‘old’ De Dannan’s versions of 'Hey Jude' and 'Eleanor Rigby', it’s hard to deny that it is any less effective than the previous versions.
In lesser hands the whole concept could seem like a form of ‘tribute band’ and it would be easy to dismiss the enterprise as such. In truth, it doesn’t come across anything like that. The vaudevillian, music-hall feel and the swing and lift of the music is something the ‘new’ De Dannan has in common with the ‘old’. The group can incorporate a myriad of styles of music seamlessly within this format – for this reviewer maybe too easily. It’s so enjoyable listening to what Frankie Gavin does with standards like ‘Hardiman the Fiddler’ that I was longing to hear a good unbroken stretch of jigs and reels. But that’s been said before now. In any case, for all that a performance by Frankie Gavin and his groups may incorporate, it always means tunes that are immaculately buoyant, both reinvigorated and joyfully true to themselves.