Frankie Gavin is to headline a major concert of Irish traditional music this weekend at The World Fleadh festival. It’s all part of what’s been a momentous 12 months for the fiddle great, from playing for George W Bush to hanging out with Keith Richards.
Frankie and his band Hibernian Rhapsody will play The World Fleadh Dome, Portlaoise, Co Laois, this Sunday at 9pm, where they will be joined by the Dublin Philharmonic Orchestra and special guests Brian Kennedy, Moya Brennan, and Anthony Kearns.
The World Fleadh is a showcase for trad music and while not taking place in Galway, the fleadh has impeccable Galway connections both musically and organisationally.
“Eric Cunningham from Headford is the man behind the fleadh and he has been doing great work, putting it together for the past three years,” Frankie tells me as we sit for the interview on a Tuesday afternoon. “As well as ourselves, Sean Keane and Mairtín O’Connor are playing. Gradá’s lead singer Nicola Joyce is from Headford and there are Galway connections with Matt Cunningham, Lunasa, and Mike Denver as well, who are also playing the fleadh. Sharon Shannon is also playing. Although not from Galway, she’s lived here for many years.”
Frankie says his show will be one with a difference. “It will come from a different angle with the orchestra and the number of people we will have with us,” he says.
Hibernian Rhapsody and the DPO will perform the music to accompany vocalists Brian Kennedy, Moya Brennan, and Anthony Kearns.
“We will also have a gospel choir and Michelle Lally [Hibernian Rhapsody] vocalist will also perform some songs. There will be songs featuring all of us together and our band will also play some tunes. Eric Cunningham has written a piece of music especially for the night and we will perform that as well.”
Today, Frankie and the other artists will be putting the finishing touches to the final shape of Sunday’s programme. He’s looking forward to working with Moya Brennan again and the work with the DPO will prepare Frankie for an upcoming US tour.
“The last time I worked with Moya was when Clannad and De Dannan toured Germany many years ago,” he says. “Hibernian Rhapsody will be touring with the Dublin Philharmonic Orchestra next year in the States. May God help us! May God help me with all the stuff I have to learn!”
At the fleadh, Frankie will no doubt get to hook up with his old mate and accordion genius Mairtín O’Connor.
“Mairtín and I go back a long way,” says Frankie. “When we were young I was always up in his house and his mother was like a second mother to me. Mairtín is brilliant. He’s playing on the Saturday so I might sneak in, come up behind him, give him a fright, and play a few tunes!”
The past 12 months have been among the most memorable of Frankie’s long career. Last year he played support to the Rolling Stones at Slane Castle and on St Patrick’s Day performed at The White House for George W Bush. On a personal level, how did he find the 43rd US president?
“Very charming and very funny,” he replies. “He looks as fit as a fiddle. He took a shine to my partner Michelle and I had to put him in his place. When I introduced her to him he went ‘Wow!’. I had to say to him ‘Hey! Steady on!’. Later he was talking to us again and said ‘This guy’s with a beautiful woman.’ I said ‘I told you once before...!’”
Despite the amicability of this encounter, the Iraq war, Guantanamo Bay, and extraordinary rendition have led to Bush becoming one of the most controversial of US presidents.
“For me politics and music don’t mix. It does for other people but I don’t go there,” says Frankie. “I was there to represent Irish music and Ireland for St Patrick’s Day. What I didn’t realise until we got there was that it is also the 250th anniversary of James Hoban, the Irish architect, who was originally from Co Mayo, who designed The White House - or Teach Bán as I like to call it. So for Irish music, St Patrick, and James Hoban it was an honour to be there.”
Given that Frankie has worked with the Rolling Stones over the years, what is it like to hang out with Keith Richards - aka The Human Riff?
“I’ve known him for 12 years,” says Frankie. “I’ve stayed in his house. The first time I came I couldn’t believe it when he carried my case and fiddle up to the guest room. There he picked up a remote control for what I thought was a TV, pressed a button and whoosh! on came this burst of flame in a huge fireplace. ‘It’s there if you want it!’ he told me. The Stones are real gentlemen. They are mad rock’n’rollers but they are also well read. Even being just 10 minutes in his company you can learn a lot talking to Keith Richards.”