One of Ireland's best kept musical secrets have been honing their skills at a venue in Dublin's Northside and are now showing the rest of the country just how good they are. The excellent Blues Up Front recently played The Hogshead, gripping the packed audience with their full set of blues classics, each performed with a hefty pinch of individuality.
Each of the four members of Blues Up Front has been a part of Ireland's music scene for a long time. Outstanding lead guitarist Pat Kielty did time with Colin Wilkinson while bass player Sean Doyle spent a few years with Steely Dan tribute band, The Naked Lunch. The man that gives this band its voice is 'Jerry Garcia' lookalike Joe O'Keeffe formally of The Urge.
That just leaves the drummer. Here is a man that spent many years thrashing the skins in just about every major city on the planet. It was because of him that I went to see the band as his name is Brian Downey, former drummer with Thin Lizzy. (Did I ever mention that I was a fan of the band?) It's a far cry from those heady days with Philip Lynott and company but his playing is still as awe inspiring as ever. Its fair to say that the majority of the people there were there to see Brian but if they were coming in the hope to hear some of the Thin Lizzy back catalogue then they were in for a disappointment.
Some hours (and pints) later, Brian and I sat down to have a chat about his work these days. I have to admit though, that it is very very difficult to talk to Brian Downey without the subject of Thin Lizzy arising. After all, here is a man who played drums with a band that provided the soundtrack to my teenage years and to some extent still do, albeit somewhat diluted. He has of course aged like the rest of us but his love for his craft is as passionate as ever and the pride in the work he did with Thin Lizzy evident.
And so to the conversation....
Was this work with 'Blues Up Front' a return to basics?
It's a return to basics to the extent that I have rediscovered some of the stuff I started playing years ago, which is blues. I used to play with a band called the Sugar Shake which had a kinda minor hit in Ireland years ago called Morning Dew. We used to play in all sorts of clubs and venues and we had a great manager who was like, totally aware of the commercial scene, and he thought that if we did a version of Morning Dew it could well get into the charts and he was proved correct because it reached number sixteen in the Irish charts. Yet we wanted to keep the essence of the blues within the band which meant that Morning Dew was only a little bit of our set.
Brian is known as a drummer worldwide. Where did the love of drums come from?
I was aware of the drums as an instrument from a very early age, about six or seven because my Dad was a drummer. He used to play in a pipe band and when you have drums in your house constantly you do naturally play them as kids do. Because my Dad was a fairly serious player, he taught me the rudiments of drumming. He got me to study drums, which was nice. Every day for about an hour or two we would sit there with practice pads, no drums, just pads and play and he would teach me certain rhythms like the paradiddle and the MAMADADA ROLL (also known as The Long Roll) and other stuff like that. He wanted me to be a pipe band drummer. There was a band called Fintan Lawlor's Pipe Band in Dublin, which was the best pipe band, and they had some great musicians. He played in the Harold's Cross Pipe Band also from Dublin. They were a bit of a second rate band, not nearly as good as the Fintan Lawlor Band so his ambition was to get me into Fintan Lawlor's Band. He knew someone in the band and fixed me up with tuition. I used to practice on a large table with sixteen or seventeen others just getting the basics.
Inevitably the talk turned to Thin Lizzy....
What were the intentions of Thin Lizzy at the start?
We certainly had no intention of becoming a worldwide act! We were based in Dublin and the scene at that time was very small, ten clubs maybe and that was it. Other than those, you had the tennis clubs, dance halls, the odd showband gig that we would get to support. What I do remember was, after seeing Cream and Jimi Hendrix and bands like that, how brilliant it would be to get onto the Albert Hall or Shea Stadium after seeing the Beatles. I think it's every musician's ambition to do something like that. But there was no worldwide plan or anything like that.
When Whiskey In The Jar became a hit, what was the feeling within the band?
It came as a huge surprise! We never thought that it ever would be a hit. It was Decca's [Thin Lizzy's record label at the time] decision to release it. I mean it was an Irish folk song! We were very apprehensive about it all. It took about six to eight months to get even close.
Did the purists look down their noses at the idea of such a well-established song being treated in this way?
Oh yea we had a lot of that. And in England as well. People were expecting a folk band or an electric folk group playing traditional Irish music and of course that was not what we were about at all! Whiskey In The Jar was a one off. It was a song that we would jam to. The legacy was from Ireland of course. We were living in London at this stage and yet we were playing Irish music for a bit of a laugh or if you like, a hobby. In rehearsal, we were playing all sorts of stuff, just jamming and Whiskey was just one of those songs that came out of that. What came later was a natural progression as Phil was writing an awful lot and writing in a different vein to what he had been writing at the time of Whiskey In The Jar. We wanted to change, it was also very natural. We got into funk bands and different kind of blues. We were very exposed in London to all sorts of different sounds and that obviously influenced Phil. It influenced both me and Eric also.
What was it like every time Thin Lizzy came home to play in Ireland?
We were waiting to come back and we could hardly wait to come home. The reaction abroad was not like Ireland. It was great but not at all like the Irish audiences. People in Ireland went absolutely crazy which creates its own atmosphere. In England it took time to get that same feeling.
Does the fact that Thin Lizzy never made the big break through in America still irk you?
Well yes it does. Of course it does yea. You know, we had our chance and it was not taken 100%. We went over there with the intention of playing like we played in Britain and Ireland. Going to the States was a different situation. We had great success there but we were never fully appreciated. I still think that some parts of America were too laid back for Thin Lizzy and it went right over their heads.
Did you trust too much to other people's opinion of where you should be playing?
We were, yea. That's basically it really, you are right. We had no manager over there. There was no one to look after us. We were going with what the record company said and they were not great either. It's the old story and you are caught in a catch 22 situation and you don't know where to go really. We had the opportunity and we didn't take it. Some of the gigs there were brilliant commercially we didn't do it.
What are your feelings about the loss of Philip?
Well....Phil was Phil, you know. We had a long absence of not seeing each other after the band finished. If we did speak, they were lulled conversations and I think it was the same for the rest of the band. We just didn't have contact. Phil was doing stuff with Grand Slam. He was out on the road and playing. There was no talk of any reformation. I had a call from Grand Slam's manager, John Salter, who asked me to appear on a programme called Razzamatazz on ITV. He said 'Come over and play on this track that Phil had done called Nineteen. I decided to go over and when I went there Phil was very upbeat about the whole thing. I didn't play on the record but I did mime for the TV show. Later Phil and I spoke and Phil said 'come on lets reform Lizzy'. It was definitely talked about then. I thought about it and asked did he talk to Scott and he said that Scott was up for it and I thought 'why not?'. I got the impression that he was not totally with it and was a little out of it but...that was Phil for you. I miss him still a lot. He was a great friend as well. These things happen, I suppose [sighs]
Was he a tough boss?
He was tough but tough in the right way. If someone did make a mistake, he would stop and make it right. It never became a sloppy thing. It was always tight no matter how Phil got. He was always on top of things.
How are things with Blues Up Front?
Great! We have a long schedule ahead of us, we are constantly playing and playing places we have not played before. After all these years, I still have that urge.
The CD from Blues Up Front is called All The Way From Dublin and is available now.
Check out any news of Thin Lizzy and Philip Lynott at RoisinDubh.org.
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Last updated 19 November 2009
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