In 1980, Wesleyan archivist Jody Cormack and her husband, the late musician and teacher T. Viswanathan, purchased a home on a quiet Middletown street with the idea of hosting small house concerts.
"It was partly the location," Cormack says. "I won't take you downstairs, but there's this great finished room downstairs. That was the first spot. And then there's a deck out in the back. We had outdoor concerts in the summer."
The concerts were sporadic. After Viswa's death in 2002, Cormack revisited the idea.
"We made this space," Cormack says, pointing to a tight, square area adjacent to the living room, lined with instruments, books and compact discs. "We knocked out a bedroom. Right here, there's a sweet spot, and the acoustics are really, really good. If you're performing or out here listening, the sound is terrific."
On Friday, Sept. 23, two dozen or so listeners will arrive at Cormack's house for the return of celebrated Irish musician Andy Irvine. The show is one of four concerts this fall. Upcoming performers include John Carty (Oct. 20), Jeanne Freeman (Nov. 5) and Niamh Parsons (Dec. 8).
"It's nice that the room fills up," Cormack says. "It's intimate and comfortable for both the audience and performer. That's what people like about the concerts: they're relaxed. The informality is nice."
Irvine, 74, arrived in the U.S. on Thursday, Sept. 22. He flew to Detroit, performed in Lansing on Friday, then appeared twice at the Michigan Irish Music Festival in Muskegon. We met on his day off, before concerts in Boston, Portland and here in Middletown, then down to Brooklyn for the weekend.
"I've never counted, but it's quite a lot," Irvine says, when I ask how many appearances he makes a year. "It's hard to quantify."
Irvine likes house shows. He's comfortable performing in unorthodox spaces. A founding member of the Sweeney Men and Planxty, Irvine busked around Eastern Europe in the mid-'60s.
"Me and my friend were the only Irish duo on the scene at that time," Irvine says. "I used to get to Munich for about two weeks, then move further east. I'd busk every day for two hours or so. I could more or less guarantee what I would make. It was like a job. It wasn't a very well-paid job, but you knew it was going to be money in the hand."
After a trip in 1968, Irvine became fascinated by Bulgarian rhythms. "I didn't understand it for a long time: where's the beat?" he says. Irvine quickly worked up a version of "Stewball," a song he'd learned in the north of Ireland from Eddie Butcher, interpolating a middle section in 7/8 meter. His rhythmic experiments influenced the next generation of traditional musicians, including Michael McGoldrick and Steve Cooney.
"I thought, 'Do I dare do this?' I do consider myself to be the instigator of that. I'm proud of that. But some older musicians said, 'Tut, tut.'" Now, "7/8 seems to be the rhythm of my body," Irvine says.
While busking, Irvine started writing songs "I was playing for my own amusement, and I got tired of the repertoire I had," he says. "A good way of learning new stuff was to write it, when you were away from any other source of being able to find material."
What came out were "personal" songs: "The West Coast of Clare," recorded for Planxty's 1973 self-titled debut; "Time Will Cure Me," for "The Well Below the Valley"; and "Autumn Gold," which appears on Irvine's landmark 1977 duo album with Paul Brady.
Later, Irvine turned to politics and history. "Raoul Wallenberg," about a Swedish architect who disappeared in 1947, after saving thousands of Hungarian Jews from extermination, and "Michael Dwyer's Escape," a song for the Irish leader of the 1798 rebellion, appeared on "Rude Awakening," Irvine's 1991 solo record.
"People would come up to me and say, 'You know that song you sang about Raoul Wallenberg? I never knew that. I'm going to look into that more,'" Irvine says. "I thought, 'Yes! That's it.'"
Fans can look forward to several new projects, currently in various stages of completion. Irvine recorded tracks for a new solo album with Australian producer Luke Plumb. "He knows everything about my music," Irvine says. "He's not going to do anything I don't like."
Usher's Island, Irvine's group with McGoldrick, John Doyle, Paddy Glackin and longtime associate Dónal Lunny, also has an album that's coming out soon. And Irvine has two limited-edition retrospective CDs that he'll sell at gigs in the near future.
Irvine's current U.S. tour, however, will likely be his last.
"From the 30 percent withholding tax, to the tiresome, expensive and ultimately humiliating application for a work visa, which very often doesn't come through in time," Irvine recently wrote on his Facebook page. "Most of all, to the totally unfair disparity between a U.S. musician touring Ireland and all this sh*t we have to go through to tour over there, enough is enough."
Cormack, meanwhile, will keep hosting concerts.
"All of the concerts in the more traditional settings: They were smaller venues, where it was not mic'd," Cormack says. "Some of the instruments are very subtle. If they are mic'd, you lose the feeling of the instruments. It's better to have the room acoustic. That was an aesthetic that I grew to understand and appreciate."
ANDY IRVINE performs as part of the Middletown House Concert Series on Sept. 23 at 7:30 p.m. Suggested donation is $20. Call 860-983-7963 or email email@example.com for reservations and directions for the upcoming concerts.