It was March 12, 1978 (or possibly 1979), and I was headed down with some friends to the Springfield (MA) Civic Center, to hear the Chieftains. I was excited because it was my birthday, and I could think of no finer celebration than seeing this world-famous band – the consummate purveyors of Irish music. Little could I have known that ten years later, on my birthday, I would be playing the piano on stage with the Chieftains in Portland, ME. The story of how this came about has little to do with my own musical endeavors; rather it is the story of the power of the Nelson Town Hall and the contra dance community.
A few years went by. I had been involved with the Monadnock Folklore Society in producing concerts (mostly of Celtic flavor) throughout the region. One evening I got a call from a Paul Gillespie, a lawyer who was very involved in the Boston Irish music and culture scene. He was organizing a tour for students from a traditional music school in Ireland (the name, like many other pieces of this story, is gone from my memory). There were perhaps half a dozen students, accompanied by two well-established teachers, one of whom was the flute/whistle player Seán Potts, who had formerly played with the Chieftains. Potts was enough of an icon in Irish music that his name helped to fill the Nelson Town Hall, and we had a lovely evening in which the students all presented their musical skills quite respectably.
Several months went by, and late one afternoon I got a call from Paddy Moloney, the piper and leader of the Chieftains. At first I didn’t make the connection, as I was struggling just to understand the heavy Irish accent that was coming over the phone. He said that his friend Seán Potts had told him about this wonderful little hall in a small rustic village, and he wanted to come and play there. We could not use the name “Chieftains” in our promotion, as it as not the full band, but of course it was not a problem to fill the house. Seán Potts was with them, as well as active Chieftain Seán Keane. It goes without saying that the music was wonderful, but it was what happened later in the evening that set the stage, as it were, for subsequent events. Once the concert was “over” no one wanted to leave, so we decided that we should do some dancing. Mary DesRosiers got up to call, and we instructed the musicians to play some reels. I don’t recall exactly how long this went on, but Paddy and the gang had never seen contra dancing, and they were quite taken with it. Eventually we retired to the house across the street, then owned by Betsy Taylor (and now owned by Sarah and Andy Wilson). There was a room in the back of the house where we gathered – several local musicians, including myself on piano, and commenced to play tunes and down various libations. The Irish lawyer, Gillespie, and his wife were part of the entourage, as was Seán Potts’ wife. They had a two-hour drive ahead to where they were going to be staying that night (or morning, as it was getting to be), and they were getting a bit anxious. But Paddy had a little trick up his sleeve. He would say “just two more tunes,” but after the first of those two, then he’d say again, “just two more tunes,” and so it went on for quite a while. As it turned out, this was also the birthday of Seán Keane, who would later say “I’ll never forget my fortieth birthday party – I wish I could remember it!”
We all thought this was a grand time, but also figured it was our one brush with the Irish musical nobility. Then, in late January 1988, I once again answered the phone to find Paddy on the other end of the line. He had been quite taken with the contra dancing, and was wondering if I could organize a group of dancers to perform with them during their upcoming annual March tour. The venues were Symphony Hall in Boston; The Zeiterion Theatre in New Bedford, MA; City Hall in Portland ME; and finally, Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center in New York City. We would do one dance number in each half of the program.
A couple of years before, The Monadnock Folklore Society had organized a small performance group called “Elegance and Simplicity” which had done a couple of public dance performances. So such a thing was not without precedent, but it was on such a totally different scale that in some ways it would be very foolish to say “yes.” But being no stranger to impulsivity, I said we would do it, and before the transatlantic signal had even started to cool, I was on the phone with Mary. We quickly assembled a somewhat hand-picked group of dancers who we thought were up for an intense rehearsal schedule, and set to work.
I have never been much of a dancer, so there was no question that my role in this whole affair would be the organizer. I watched experienced dancers struggle with learning how to do contra dancing as a performance, and one which would not have the benefit of much rehearsal with the band, and I was grateful that I had an alternative task.
As I continued various communications with Paddy (all by phone, as email had not been established yet), I realized that he was quite a savvy business person as well. Though the band had a well-established agency representing them, he had a handle on all the logistics. The economics of the tour did not allow for paying us, but we were offered remuneration for renting a van to get to the venues, and also were provided with hotel rooms for the New York performance.
Paddy’s romantic perception of Nelson had contributed to a decision made early in the process – the group became the Nelson Village Dancers – something that was quaint enough to appeal to the audience.
Finally the big night arrived. We arrived at Symphony Hall late afternoon on March 11. The Chieftains were rehearsing on stage, so we entered quietly and stood off to the side. It didn’t take us long to notice something we had never anticipated: the floor of the stage at Symphony Hall is slightly sloped towards the audience. No doubt this was to better display the musicians, and it is not something that one would notice from the hall, but we realized that it the dancers would need to compensate for the downward slope. Finally the Chieftains were ready for us. We had prepared two dances (which were, as I recall, a sort of composite, and not a specific dance). One set would be done to reels, and the other to jigs, and of course we had no idea what the Chieftains would play. The dancers ran through the numbers, and things were more or less under control. We planned that at a certain point, Paddy would talk to the audience about having come up to Nelson and discovering the dancers. That was the cue, and then the dancers would assemble in front of them on the stage. The music would start, they would dance, and after x times through the tune it would be finished.
The dance routine was well received in the first set, and during intermission the dancers and the band were just hanging out. At this point something happened that, until now, I have shared only with a few people, but I think it is time for the story to be known. Paddy said something to the effect of “I remember when we were in Nelson, there was a piano player – is he here – perhaps he would like to come and play with us for the second dance number.” I was trying to figure out a tactful way to point out that I had been the piano player, when someone said, “Oh, that was probably Bob McQuillen – he’s here in the audience.” I knew this was an opportunity to do something for someone who had been (and remains) so important in my life, and I also didn’t see how I could gracefully correct the information, so I said, “Let’s page him – I’m sure he’d love to play with you. “ In a few minutes Bob showed up back stage, with that ultra serious look that he can sometimes have, and he’s totally mystified what he’s doing there, but he talks to Paddy, who says they’ll be playing some jigs in whatever key; all the piano player needs to know. The set goes off without a hitch, and of course Bob is thrilled. The evening is a success!
The next gig was in Portland, and when we converged, Paddy came up to me and says “I’m so sorry – I realized, when I didn’t recognize the piano player, that it was you that played with us in Nelson.” I explained that what happened was actually one of those quirks of fate that really worked out for the best, and that it had been a great thrill for Bob to play for them – and that he was the venerable patriarch of contra dance piano players. In any case, Paddy extended the invitation for me to play with them during the dance numbers for that evening. In expressing my appreciation, I told him that 10 years earlier I had gone to see them on my birthday, and I was so honored to be playing with them especially this night because it was once again my birthday. As it turned out, when the dancers came out, he introduced me as well, and led the entire hall in singing Happy Birthday to me. Talk about feeling elated!
We then went to New Bedford, and while everything went fine, it was less exciting. The hall was run down, and the audience, less than a full house, was only moderately enthusiastic.
Until now, the Chieftains had been very easy-going and totally relaxed about their performances. Tonight was different: this was New York, the most important music city in the country. It was St. Patrick’s Day. Expectations were enormous. Although I was thrilled, I was somehow feeling relaxed about the fact that I would be joining the Chieftains on the stage again that night (indeed there was not much cause for worry, since I was modestly chording behind the tunes and my musical role was not significant). Then, shortly before curtain, I looked over and saw Paddy, the confident and consummate showman, kneeling on the floor and praying. I was humbled.
In addition to the sets with the Nelson Village Dancers, the tour also included a young woman step-dancer, Anne-Marie Doyle, from the old country. Like us, she also came out and did a dance number in each set. Here in New York, our dance set seemed well received, but at intermission, we received some disappointing news. Paddy, reading the audience, felt that he needed to give them more step-dancing – they had responded to that most enthusiastically. As there was not room to stretch the program; our second set would be cut. It was my job to convey this news to the dancers, and while it was hard to do, there was something in the way that Paddy had handled it with me that made it okay – he was able to apologize, but also made it clear that their job as a band was to serve the audience, and they knew this is what needed to happen. That was a great lesson for me which I have tried to apply to many aspects of my life – not just music: there are times when your instincts just tell you what needs to happen (or not).
I don’t think there were any hard feelings from this in spite of the fact that we had all driven to New York to do about 6 minutes of dancing. After the show there was a bit of a party, and then we turned in for a few hours of sleep before heading back to New Hampshire. At some point in the evening Paddy slipped me a couple of hundred dollars, targeted to whatever incidental expenses we might have had.
Had the story ended then, it would still be a good tale, but there came to be a couple more chapters. Sure enough, the next January the Irishman’s voice comes over the phone line: they were still so enamored of Nelson that they had arranged to play at the nearby Colonial Theatre in Keene. Would the dancers be able to come and perform with them? At that time, the Colonial was a run-down relic, and though it was gradually being restored, I knew that there was no usable stage behind the proscenium – all performances took place on a narrow area in front of the curtain. There was no way that the dances could perform, but I suggested that we do a grand finale featuring local musicians at the end of the show. It was not hard to get a rather large ensemble. I don’t recall what we played, though I expect we must have at least determined the tune earlier in the day . I’m pretty sure, however, that there was no rehearsal. Of course it sounded fine, and it was quite fun and exhilarating.
Then the next year, the call came that they would be doing two nights at the Colonial. I don’t remember why, but there were no plans made for participants. However I got some comp tickets and we were invited to a party after the first night. On this tour, the Chieftains were traveling with the singer Maura O’Connell, who even at the time was pretty famous. She did one or two numbers in each set with them.
At this time I had a part time job as the music teacher in the Nelson Elementary School. Knowing that the Chieftains would be around the next day, since they had a second show, I asked if any of them would be willing to come to the Nelson School to play some music for the kids. Sure enough, Seán Keane, Kevin Conneff, and Maura O’Connell said they would. I picked them up the next morning, with my son Spencer (then a toddler) in tow. I got the impression that Maura had never been awake at 9:00 a.m. before, but once we got to the school, she and the others were all very gracious, and they did a fine job of entertaining a cluster of about 50 school children. I then brought the entourage back to my house – Seán was quite thrilled to see Nelson again – where we had a nice lunch, and then I returned them to their hotel.
I don’t recall whether I went to their second show that night. It’s hard to know in retrospect, but I think I knew that we had come to the end of the run. Paddy and I exchanged a few letters, but nothing of substance, and no call came the next January. The Chieftains started incorporating musicians like Roger Daltry, Nancy Griffith, the Rolling Stones, and other rock and roll stars into their acts.
But the connection with the Chieftains didn’t happen because anybody around here was a famous musician. It came about because Seán Potts had experienced the magic of the Nelson Town Hall. He conveyed this to Paddy Maloney, whose natural curiosity and interest in exploring new things inspired him want to visit and experience this for himself. When Paddy saw contra dancing, it was not like anything he had seen before, but it possessed a spirit that resonated with his Celtic consciousness. He experienced a sense of community that the Chieftains never felt in places like Symphony Hall or Avery Fisher or Carnegie Hall, where they had played year after year. He knocked on the door and we welcomed him in, and then he reciprocated and opened a door for us. It was a fun time.