Joe O’Donnell bringing it all back home

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Joe O’Donnell is coming home. Forty years after his last gig in Ireland, which was also the year he released his landmark album, Gaodhal’s Vision, the Limerick violinist and composer will perform with Shkayla as part of this year’s Cork Folk Festival.

Born in 1948, O’Donnell picked up a violin for the first time as a child. His uncle Pat had brought the instrument home from the US. O’Donnell was transfixed. “The first time I put it under my chin, it felt as if it belonged,” he says. “Even though you’d wonder what sort of a fool would wander around all day with a violin under his chin.”

O’Donnell bounced around with different groups in Limerick and Dublin in the early days, including Granny’s Intentions and Sweet Street. Then Orange Machine asked him to jump on board their train. The band was originally a pop band with a couple of hit singles in the charts. They morphed into an improvising band playing extended solos, which was unheard of at the time around the Dublin music scene. This was the late 1960s. The Irish public was bemused.

“We were coming down Grafton St one day,” says O’Donnell. “The band had been playing in Dublin and a little down south for about six months. This young girl came up and said, ‘Hey, mister, are youse in the Orange Machine?’ We thought yes – fame at last. ‘Youse are bleedin’ wagon!’ It’s a Dublin expression for terrible.”

The gig was up. They knew they had to take off to London to find a home for their experimentalism. While London, San Francisco, and a swathe of US college campuses were in the grip of the psychedelic scene, O’Donnell says Dublin — even though it had some excellent bands around — was experiencing a far milder version of it.

“Nobody in Ireland really understood the relationship between the music and the drugs like America,” he says. “It was a lot more innocent. It was love and peace, but you were living with your mum and dad. It was the safe version of flower power. It gave me a mental outlook on how to deal with my fellow man, do unto others, Christian philosophy turned on its head a little.”

There were no mild-altering drugs though. “We’d no idea. I was a good Catholic,” he says. “I wasn’t even drinking at that point. The idea of the music, though, was that there was a chance for the instruments to explore.”

O’Donnell moved to London in 1971. He found it intoxicating. It was a burst of colour.

“I couldn’t believe it. It was like all my birthdays had arrived at once. There were clubs everywhere. Every night either down at the Marquee or the Lyceum, just off the Strand, I saw every one of the bands I wanted to see, and more: Cream had just broken up, Floyd, Spirit, the Doobie Brothers.”

Soon after settling in the city, O’Donnell got to know Rory Gallagher, who guested years later on Gaodhal’s Vision. They hooked up at the iconic Marquee Club. O’Donnell used to jam with Gallagher on stage.

“I was asked up one night to have a bit of a blues blow, and then it became a regular occurrence — every time Rory was at the Marquee, I’d get up and have a blow. He was an absolute gentleman,” he says.

Later in the mid-1970s, O’Donnell was touring in West Germany with East of Eden at the same time Gallagher was in the country on the road. East of Eden got the call to fill in as support for two gigs. O’Donnell remembers it vividly.

“We came off stage both nights and listened to him play and we thought, ‘Listen to that.’ The playing was just astonishing. He just ripped the sun of a bitch up, as they say.”

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