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Tom McConville - from Bright Young Thing to Elder Statesman

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Tom McConville was born on Tyneside and brought up in a pub, the Globe, just off Scotswood Road. His parents were tenants. The pub was usually filled with music and, with its clientele drawn largely from the Irish and Scottish communities, it gave Tom his first experience of traditional singing and fiddle music.

Tom’s own musical journey started in the North-East folk clubs in the early 70s and it was Newcastle’s thriving Irish scene which provided the opportunity with his first band to support Sean McGuire, John Doonan, The Fureys, Boys Of The Lough, and even a lock-in with The Dubliners. Those early opportunities to meet and to play with some of the great names in traditional music gave Tom a firm foundation for what was to come, a lifetime of music making and a professional career.

His first band, Lammastide, was resident at Cramlington Folk Club. Fiddle players in the folk clubs were a relatively rare sight in those early days and Tom soon started to make himself known. This was at the same time as Bob Fox was emerging as a folk club singer and their paths would soon cross and propel them into their first work as professional musicians. The story of those early days, from Bob Fox’s perspective, was covered in a recent Living Tradition interview, but it is worth repeating the basic elements of the story.

In the early seventies, the North East of England could be described as the engine room of the folk revival in England. Traditional music was still embedded in the community if you knew where to look and the folk clubs were thriving. Mick Elliot, who many will fondly remember as one of the characters who brought humour to the clubs at that time, was in a trio with Nick Fenwick and Ed Pickford called The Northern Front. Despite the buzz around the folk music of the North East, relatively few people went on to become fully professional musicians, and of those who did, almost all of them did so on the basis of solo performance. Mick would know that the economics of the group format was rarely viable and usually sustained by singers and musicians who had other jobs, but he also knew that life on the road as a soloist wasn’t necessarily easy. With hindsight, we can now see that Mick was actively mentoring some of the younger performers.

Both Tom and Bob knew Mick Elliot very well, but were not particularly aware of each other. Mick knew that Tom fancied trying to make a living through his music and at that time Bob was beginning to be accepted as one of the best of the new young singers coming up through the North East. Mick saw the potential in the match and introduced them to each other, going on to suggest that they work together as a duo. Both Tom and Bob were at a stage in their lives where they didn’t have families and mortgages to consider, so although the move might be considered irrational – no gigs, no car, no established common repertoire and two mouths to feed – it was an easy decision to make and a decision that would kick off the careers of two of the region’s longest established professional musicians.

Tom and Bob played together for about three years before reaching a stage where they didn't think they were getting to where they wanted to be. They were working on an album at the time, but in those days making an album was a big undertaking. For some reason the finance was pulled and the album never materialised. It wasn’t the sole reason, but it was a factor that contributed to their decision to split up. Tom took on the responsibility for fulfilling outstanding engagements, a move which saw him stepping forward as a singer. Not only did he sing, but without an accompanist he also started to accompany himself on the fiddle. He was encouraged to do this by Vic Legg who comes from a family of Travellers in Cornwall and by Barry Dransfield, who Tom regards as one of our finest fiddle singer players.

Tom went on to play with the folk rock band Magna Carta and with Kieran Halpin as a duo. His next group, Dab Hand, made several visits to the USA where Tom met with another of his hero fiddlers, Byron Berline. After a spell with Syncopace and a partnership with guitarist Chris Newman, Tom spent the next 11 years recording and touring with Northumbrian piper Pauline Cato. Every new venture brought success and immense respect from his peers and public alike.

Alongside the various bands and partnerships, Tom continued with his solo work at venues large and small. Bob Fox recalls that Tom was the one who was careful to keep the work flowing, taking care of the bookings and contacts with club organisers. Both on stage and behind the scenes, Tom comes over as a nice guy. People warm to him. In an area of the music scene where accommodation for artists is often provided in organisers’ homes, being a good house guest was important.

Tom's first instrument is undoubtedly the fiddle and to say that he has a complete mastery of the instrument is a bit of an understatement. Tom still credits the legendary Sean McGuire, the fiddle genius from Belfast, for teaching him his bowing techniques. Sean McGuire, who is regarded by many as possibly the greatest fiddler ever to play traditional music, began his fiddle playing at age 12 when he began studying the classical violin. His teachers were Professor George Vincent, from whom he learned fingering and Madam May Nesbitt from whom he acquired his remarkable bowing style. He always regarded that start as one of his greatest assets, attributing his remarkable technique to “my two brilliant teachers”. Sean later recalled how, under Madam Nesbitt’s watchful eye, he was required to practise bowing techniques for a full six months before progressing to playing actual tunes. McGuire’s influence shines through in Tom’s performance and he is never shy of going up towards the dusty end of the fingerboard.

The hornpipes of James Hill were amongst Tom’s early influences as a fiddler and now, 50 years on, Tom is widely acknowledged as the authority on the music of James Hill. James Hill is considered to be one of the most talented fiddler players and tune writers of the 19th century. He is believed to have been born in Scotland in 1811 and to have died from consumption in Westmoreland Lane, off Westgate, Newcastle in 1853, making him 42 years old. Hill produced some of the most popular fiddle tunes, including The Hawk, Beeswing Hornpipe and the High Level Hornpipe. Often referred to as the “Paganini of hornpipe players”, James Hill has left behind a legacy of between 40 and 50 tunes which are recognised internationally and remain popular today.

Tom readily cites his influences but will undoubtedly be quite modest in respect to his own role in the ongoing transmission of musical traditions. I'm quite confident that in the future he will be regarded among the truly great players. It is one thing to be flavour of the month, but it is quite another to be recognised as someone who stands out among a generation. Technical virtuosity plays its part, but there are always other sides to the greats whose names live on down the years. There is something about their characters that also defines them as people who have to be listened to. Virtuosity without personality can leave you cold; for music to reach the heart, the performer has to engage with the listener somehow. Tom engages at many levels and it is probably his experience as a solo performer, where you are often very close to the audience, which makes him so engaging in a group format.

Although continuing to work as a solo musician, for larger events such as festivals and major concerts Tom often goes out as The Tom McConville Band in what has become a fairly settled line-up of himself, Phil Murray of Doonan Family fame, guitarist Dave Newey and his wife Shona Kipling. In folk music circles the term supergroup arose a few years ago when established individuals or small performing units came together to work as a group. The most obvious earlier examples would include Planxty and the Boys Of The Lough, the latter ending up working together over a very long period. Nowadays the trend for festivals is the emergence of what I would call ‘big bands’ as distinct from the supergroup. That is not a slight on musical ability, more an observation on form.

The Tom McConville Band hasn’t consciously defined themselves as a supergroup but I think it is fair to view and compare them as such. In common with the first line up of the Boys Of The Lough, The Tom McConville Band, as I saw them recently, could be seen as comprising of two duos merging seamlessly into a group format. Would it be cheeky to call those two elements the old masters and the young masters? Tom and Phil bring a wealth of experience to the group. Phil Murray introduced the acoustic bass guitar to the live music scene more than 30 years ago and is acknowledged as its finest exponent. He currently records and tours with the indomitable Mighty Doonans. A founder member of the legendary Hedgehog Pie and folk rockers Jack The Lad, Phil is a consummate pro whose humour and ability to engage an audience complements Tom’s dry Geordie wit.

That older pairing of Tom and Phil combines perfectly with the younger elements of the partnership, Dave Newey and his wife Shona Newey – nee Kipling. Shona began playing accordion at the age of 11; winning competitions run by Comhaltas, becoming the UK champion twice and playing in three all-Ireland finals. Guitarist David Newey is a singer songwriter and one of the most sought after accompanists in the business. David’s driving rhythm and unique style, incorporating both fingerstyle and flatpicking, has taken him to all the major festivals and concerts throughout the UK, Europe and the USA.

Dave and Shona were graduates of the first intake of the folk and traditional music degree course at Newcastle University. You often hear people blaming the young people from the various degree courses as somehow being responsible for problems in folk music. I think they are wrong - quality teaching is at the heart of any thriving tradition. That early period degree course was exceptional in that students were given the opportunity to choose musicians who would work with them during parts of their course. Shona’s choice included Seamus Begley and David’s choice for guitar included Chris Newman. The driving forces behind the Newcastle degree course knew the importance of the link with traditional musicians and I guess that those in charge of the finance recognised that they were breaking new ground and knew that they had to give the course room to breathe. That ability to learn from such inspirational musicians is an amazing opportunity, but not too different to the opportunities that Tom and Phil enjoyed in a less formal setting in their youth. Both Tom and Phil talk affectionately of times spent with John Doonan and other traditional musicians. Especially for students coming from areas with weaker links to an ongoing tradition, the University offers a unique opportunity for in depth study with master musicians. Another positive factor is what academics refer to as creative clusters. Just as thriving local traditions breed new players, bringing students and teachers together in one place inevitably leads to opportunities and collaborations. Tom would have worked with both Dave and Shona during their course and the continuing relationships established at Newcastle are evident in their ongoing professional work.

For Dave and Shona, the degree course proved to be a great stepping stone to a professional career in music, although that isn’t necessarily the aim of many of the students. Dave is certainly aware that his work with the band is in effect a continuing apprenticeship and both he and Shona are soaking ‘it’ in. Whatever that hard to define ‘it’ is, you would go a long way to find better teachers than Tom and Phil.

Tom has worked on the Newcastle degree course extensively and has taught many players, perhaps the most famous being Seth Lakeman. He regularly meets young people who tell him they have listened and learned from his work. Often when people run masterclasses and workshops they use it as an opportunity to showcase their own work. Tom thinks that when teaching it is very important for him to play as little as possible and to concentrate on understanding the person who is there and what they want to achieve, and prefers to emphasise rhythm and pace and to encourage the pupil to express themselves with no fear!

Somewhat surprisingly, a typical Tom McConville Band set is fairly strongly biased towards songs rather than tune sets. Over the last few years, Tom has fairly flowered as a singer. Having worked with several singers, it has taken him some time to step out of the shadows. In that first duo with Bob Fox, he left the singing to Bob. He still has the highest regard for 'Foxy', as he affectionately calls him, but has reached his own comfort level with his own singing. Like most singers, Tom's style is quite distinctive and in Tom’s case it is somewhat unusual in that it is strongly influenced by his fiddle playing. Citing Robin and Barry Dransfield as an inspiration, Tom is one of the relatively small band of singers who accompany themselves on the fiddle.

It hasn’t always been an easy journey for Tom, although his positive outlook has helped turn the occasional setback into an opportunity. Several years ago his doctors advised him to give up fiddle playing as it was the prime cause of a continuing shoulder problem. Tom realises now that he tended to use his fiddle as a shield, twisting his stance and almost hiding behind the instrument in performance. I wondered if this revealed an element of shyness in Tom, but he soon put me right on that thought. “Originally the fiddle was like a shield but fiddles are very funny things, very like fiddle players! I’m certainly not a shy person - but experience has taught me when to stay quiet!”

Not prepared to give up the fiddle, Tom sought out an Alexander practitioner who corrected a lifetime of bad posture and playing style resulting in Tom making a full and lasting recovery. Tom credits the Alexander technique as saving his life and opening many doors. The Alexander Technique is a method that works to change movement habits in our everyday activities - a simple and practical method for improving ease and freedom of movement, balance, support and coordination. Tom was so impressed with the technique, that he enrolled on a three-year full-time course to become a practitioner himself. Since qualifying he has worked with hundreds of people, a lot of them musicians, to enhance their stage performances and quality of life in general. Several soloists and orchestras have sought his help as a practitioner who is sympathetic to their needs. Tom runs regular surgeries and workshops and is always happy to work with individuals, whether musicians or not.

Outside of both his solo and his Tom McConville Band work, Tom has played on hundreds of albums. Renowned for his musical accompaniments, the list includes Barbara Dickson, Richard Thompson, Allan Taylor and Lindisfarne. 2006 saw Tom working with Scots instrumentalist of the year, Aaron Jones and All-Ireland champion flute, fiddle and whistle ace Claire Mann. When it came to recording his solo CD, Tommy On The Bridge, he worked with Kieran Boyle, Peter Tickell, Dave Wood and Kevin McGuire. Two more solo albums followed, Tommy On Song and Tommy On The Road and tours with these albums played a major part in Tom being voted Musician of the Year at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards.

Whilst he has shared stages throughout the world with major artists, Tom has never forgotten his roots and is as happy in the intimate atmosphere of a small folk club as he is at the largest festivals. At what point do you transition from being the bright young thing to the elder statesman? Ask Tom. You probably won’t get an answer, because like many of our best performers he is modest in his assessment of his own position. Ask those who have been inspired by his performance or teaching and you will get a different perspective. Tom is a genuinely nice guy and has made that transition gracefully. Time for a blue plaque on the side of that pub off the Scotswood Road!

by Pete Heywood

Published in Issue 117 of The Living Tradition
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