04 February 2019
Michael McGoldrick: A Beginner's Guide
By Dave McNally
The Mancunian Irish flute and whistles player’s output is as prolific as it is varied. Dave McNally considers the career of this unstoppable musician
(photo by John Mackinnon)
When Fatoumata Diawara stepped onto the stage at the Celtic Connections Festival in Glasgow in January 2012 to join the Michael McGoldrick Band, it was by all accounts a quite magical performance. The Malian singer held the audience in the palm of her hand and the musicians switched effortlessly, following only a short rehearsal earlier in the day, from jigs and reels to being worthy of a band from Bamako. ‘Bakanoba’, recorded that night, features on McGoldrick’s latest album ARC and it exemplifies much of what his music is all about. His flute playing is defined by its energy and fluidity, while impressive versatility allows Irish wooden flute, whistles and uilleann pipes to sound just right in a wide variety of settings. McGoldrick commands huge respect from fellow musicians, who are always very willing to lend their contributions to his work and also seek his collaboration on their own projects.
McGoldrick was born to Irish parents in south Manchester in 1971. Growing up in a house with his dad and elder siblings all playing whistle, he soon joined them and listened to records by flute players Seamus Tansey and Matt Molloy, as well as The Bothy Band — all formative musical influences. Local Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann (Irish music, song and dance organisation) classes led to lifelong friendships with fiddle player Dezi Donnelly and bodhrán player John Joe Kelly. After winning a number of All-Ireland Championships McGoldrick joined Manchester Celtic rockers, Toss The Feathers, aged just 15. He recalls the band picking him up outside school on a Friday afternoon in their van and driving back from London overnight on Sunday for school on Monday morning.
1995 was a pivotal year, with the release on CD of Champions of the North, a set of mostly traditional material recorded with Dezi Donnelly, and McGoldrick’s contribution to traditional Irish band Arcady’s Many Happy Returns, winning the BBC Radio 2 Young Tradition Award and the formation of Flook.
Before the year was out McGoldrick even found time to record his well-received first solo album, titled Morning Rory after his newborn son. A chance meeting with Manus Lunny of Scottish band Capercaillie led to McGoldrick raising a large sum from family and friends to fund studio time in Glasgow with Lunny, Capercaillie’s Donald Shaw, guitarist Ed Boyd and others. The funds only covered studio time, meaning McGoldrick had to sleep “on the floor under the mixing desk.” Opening the album with two joyous, lively traditional tunes on uilleann pipes – ‘Jenny Picking Cockles/The Earl’s Chair’ – was an audacious statement of intent, and the exhilarating pace barely let up. It was a triumph for south Manchester Irish traditional music and instantly caught the attention of many who previously thought that sort of music wasn’t for them.
A highly acclaimed, mostly live, eponymous debut album from Lúnasa came next and McGoldrick also played on their second album, Otherworld, although by then he had formally left the band to pursue other projects. Capercaillie were clearly impressed with what they heard from the man sleeping on the studio floor, drafting McGoldrick in 1997 to replace the departing Fred Morrison. He still plays with them. Simultaneously, McGoldrick left Flook but not before the release of their first album Flook! Live!, showcasing some of his tunes, including the much recorded ‘Trip to Hervé’s,’ written after playing in Brittany with fiddle player Hervé Bertho.
Perfect-fit flute and whistle accompaniment featured on Kate Rusby’s sparkling 1997 debut solo Hourglass, nowhere better than on ‘Drowned Lovers’, and McGoldrick has played on most of her albums since. Countless others – including Alan Stivell, Idir, Karan Casey, Vicente Amigo, Julie Fowlis and Dirk Powell – have also secured sprinklings of the McGoldrick magic to add to their recordings. A spell with the Afro-Celt Sound System saw McGoldrick playing pipes on their Volume 2: Release in 1999.
Fused in 2000 was McGoldrick’s big leap forward, setting both a template for all his subsequent solo work and a very high standard in melding traditional and other musical styles with an overtly contemporary appeal. Among this mix and variety, he never loses sight of Irish traditional melodic form and always includes some stripped back sets of traditional tunes. ‘Watermans’ from Fused has been recorded by both Eliza Carthy and Zakir Hussain, showing the wide appeal that McGoldrick’s tunes have.
➤ This article originally appeared in Songlines #139. Find out more about subscribing to Songlines
Recognition came again with the 2001 BBC Folk Awards Instrumentalist of the Year and, in 2006, Musician of the Year. Three accomplished albums with Sharon Shannon arrived in consecutive years from 2005. An invitation to join the Transatlantic Sessions house band led fortuitously to formation of the redoubtable trio with Irish singer/guitarist John Doyle and Scottish fiddle player John McCusker, with their invariably top-class, intuitive ensemble playing. In 2015 McGoldrick co-founded Usher’s Island, bringing together two generations of the finest, most influential Irish traditional musicians.
Career synopses usually emphasise McGoldrick’s long-term membership of Mark Knopfler’s Band, including a tour with Bob Dylan, his playing with Zakir Hussain and recording alongside Youssou N’Dour, perhaps overlooking the stature that he has achieved in his own right. Once you appreciate his talents, the kind of company he keeps isn’t at all surprising but he is probably most at home, and frequently to be found, in local, informal traditional music sessions in Manchester.
The wide audience that McGoldrick’s thoroughly modern Irish traditional music can reach was evident at Celtic Connections earlier this year when he launched ARC — a sell-out gig attended by 1,500 people – with the audience, of all ages, dancing at every available opportunity. With traditional music as the thread, McGoldrick consistently gives us varied, richly rewarding and often unparalleled offerings of his playing and composing crafts.
Beautiful Wasteland (Survival Records, 1997)
Mostly recorded in Andalucía, this was a defining moment in the fusion of Scottish/Irish music with electric guitars, bass and synthesizers. Although officially only a ‘guest,’ McGoldrick’s musical fingerprints were very evident on this album, described by one critic as ‘a marriage made in heaven.’
Fused (Vertical Records, 2000)
This set the pattern for the McGoldrick sound, drawing on and very successfully integrating a wide range of musical styles: jazz, funk, African and Indian rhythms.
Michael McGoldrick & John McSherry
At First Light (Vertical Records, 2001)
McGoldrick describes traditional music as the “bedrock” of what he does and this album showcases that bedrock superbly. The playing is glorious, especially the dual low whistle playing on ‘Donald Blue/Ornette’s trip to Belfast’ and early outing for McGoldrick’s popular tune ‘Farewell to Whalley Range.’
John Doyle, John McCusker, McGoldrick The Wishing Tree
The Wishing Tree (Under One Sky Records, 2018)
The long-awaited debut studio recording by the trio, brilliantly demonstrating how comfortable they are in each other’s musical company and how well they pick up and follow each other’s musical cues, giving us a treat of mature and subtle acoustic tunes and songs, all strongly anchored in Irish and Scottish traditions. Reviewed in #136.