THOUGH THEY were together for only three years and released just two albums, 1960s ensemble Sweeney’s Men enjoy legendary status in folk and folk-rock circles.
The group’s musical innovations anticipated much of what followed in folk and trad in the 1970s while, post-Sweeneys, its members went on to be key figures in the likes of Planxty, De Dannan, Steeleye Span, Wings, and The Pogues.
Now, after a hiatus of more than 40 years, Sweeney’s Men have re-formed for a short tour, which comes to the Town Hall Theatre on Friday November 15, featuring the classic line-up of Andy Irvine, Terry Woods, and Johnny Moynihan.
It was in Galway that Sweeney’s Men first made their bow, in 1966, with a summer residency in the Enda Hotel on Dominick Street. The original line up featured Irvine, Moynihan, and ‘Galway’ Joe Dolan. Dolan left within the year, to be replaced by Terry Woods and this was the line-up which recorded the band’s first album, Sweeney’s Men (1968 ). Music journalist Colin Harper has written of the album: “Capturing the dustbowl-Celtic-hillbilly magic of the classic line-up it would be a source book for every British and Irish progressive folk act of note for years to come.”
While Sweeney’s Men had emerged on the wave of the folk revival, the group had a distinctive sound that set them apart from The Dubliners or The Clancy Brothers.
“We were a string band more than an Irish music band,” Johnny Moynihan has said of the group. Moynihan is credited with introducing the bouzouki to Irish music and when added to Irvine’s mandolin and Woods’ 12-string guitar, it gave Sweeney’s Men a ‘double-stringed’ sound that was unique at the time.
“There weren’t too many other people doing what we were doing,” Terry Woods tells me, as he reflects on the group’s emergence. “The three of us all hung out together pre-Sweeney’s Men. There was a particular gig in the Neptune Rowing Club in Dublin on a Friday night, we all went to that. We also went to the fleadh in Clare. I remember us watching the 1966 World Cup Final in Sixmilebridge, we were all camping in Johnny Moynihan’s VW van which became the Sweeney’s Men wagon while we were touring around the country.”
Sweeney’s Men drew their material not just from Irish music but Americana, a particular passion of Terry Woods, who had somehow managed to build a collection of Carter Family records.
“It was very hard to get them, I can tell you that,” he declares. “The Christian Brothers had put me off all things Irish and I never really got into English pop music. In all honesty I don’t know how I ended up with this American old-timey thing but it just worked for me.
“One of the first things I learned to play was the five string banjo and in those days you couldn’t get anyone to teach you how to play it, and there were no books or records you could learn off but I managed to do it somehow, it just seemed to be a natural thing for me.”
It was a period of much experimentation and exploration and, no sooner had the first album been recorded than Andy Irvine departed for an extended trip to the Balkans. His replacement was electric guitarist Henry McCullough, signalling a new shift in the group’s direction.
“Johnny had met Henry and at that point music was getting into an experimental stage,” Woods explains. “There were a lot of crossover things happening and personally I was interested in going electric. I was influenced very much by what Bob Dylan was doing and The Byrds and The Band and I wanted to take folk music into that vein, people like Tim Hardin was one of my favourite songwriters.
“For me it was a very natural thing to do, though I remember we were booed off at the Cambridge Folk Festival because we had an electric guitar. Nevertheless that’s the direction I wanted to go in and after Sweeney’s Men I ended up being one of the founder members of Steeleye Span.”
McCullough’s stay was short-lived as he was coaxed away to join Joe Cocker, and later, Paul McCartney’s Wings. He does not appear on the group’s second and final album, The Tracks of Sweeney, though he does contribute a couple of compositions to the disc. Tracks found the group (now consisting of just Woods and Moynihan ) including more original material and dabbling in folk psychedelia like Woods’ ‘Brain Jam’. The album was released in December 1969, but the group had already split and gone their separate ways.
Fast forward to summer of 2012 and Sweeney’s Men have reconvened to take part in Andy Irvine’s 70th birthday concert in Dublin.
“We had a lot of fun rehearsing, a lot of laughs and remembrances,” Woods admits. “The gig itself went very well, the audience reaction was exceptional. Personally I don’t think there were many people at that show who would have even been around when Sweeney’s Men were playing but the reaction was really good. So the three of us thought ‘Maybe we should do something else’ and Andy then suggested a few shows, and November was the only time he had available because of his own work schedule and that’s how the tour came about.”
I ask Woods what kind of material audiences can expect the band to perform.
“When we were rehearsing and looking at stuff to do, I suggested we start at the beginning,” he replies. “So we’ve been doing the earlier stuff and concentrating on music we did up to the first album because that was the stuff people know us best from and I think that’s what we’ll be focusing on.”
Woods reveals there are no plans to record any of these re-union shows so this really is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to catch Sweeney’s Men live.
Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie