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Celtic music institution Pendragon celebrates 25th anniversary

Thursday, September 18, 2008
Journal Pop Music Writer

Sitting around a table at Patrick’s Pub, in Providence, with four of the five members of the Celtic music institution Pendragon on the eve of their 25th anniversary, it’s hard not to reflect on what’s changed and what hasn’t.

We’re sitting about five feet from the table at which we discussed the Rhode Island band’s 20th anniversary. Original members Mary Lee Partington, Bob Drouin and Russell Gusetti, as well as Kevin Doyle, can still talk about centuries of traditions that stretch from Europe to French Canada to Rhode Island, where they fit into them, and the awfulness of each other’s shirts with equal fervor.

And a listen to their new disc, Still Standing, shows that the essential Pendragon formula hasn’t changed — world-class playing, the luminescent voice of Partington, and an irreverence that works only if you know your stuff thoroughly.

Of course, there’s new stuff going on as well. Bassist and singer Ken Lyon left the band early this year, and in that absence the new record features a return to traditionalism and an added focus on the group’s youngest member.

Flutist and whistle player Josh Kane, now in the band for six years, is up to the wise old age of 22 and is “fully integrated” (Gusetti’s words) on Still Standing. Pendragon’s previous disc, 2005’s Artistic License, was the first time in the studio for Kane, but this time around he shines throughout, bringing traditional material to the band, including the set of “The Battering Ram”/“The Barmaid”/“Johnny O’Leary’s,” and taking the lead on the gorgeous air “The Parting of Friends.”

“He plays with a maturity that’s amazing” on slow airs, Drouin says of Kane, who placed fourth in last year’s All-Ireland competition — “A feeling and a maturity that I’ve never seen in someone that young before. … Probably the most brilliant musician we’ve ever had in this ensemble. I can’t imagine what it’ll be like when he’s 40 or 50.”

“Because you won’t be here,” Gusetti cracks.

Kane says later that his increased role in the band comes from getting “more used to being on stage; I’m more comfortable doing things in front of people. It grew with me as time went on.”

Kane, who grew up in Cranston, lives in North Kingstown and is a pharmacy technician by day, says that being in a band that’s older than he is “has definitely brought my maturity level up a little bit. Although, if you think of Russell and Bob, not so much. I think I’ve helped them grow up a little.”

But seriously, folks ….

“It’s ageless. You play with people in sessions who are 12 years old and people who are 80 years old, and it’s one love, one music, and it’s been like that probably for centuries.”

Still Standing features new versions of two songs from Pendragon’s self-titled debut album — “Bonnie at Morn” and “Jock O’Hazeldean,” two vocal songs that allow Partington to call down the ghosts.

“The tones of the singing are colored by life’s passages,” Partington says. “I don’t know that the voice sounds older or younger, but it sounds more storied to me.”

Working on the new record, Partington says, “was different in the sense that 25 years ago each of us, and I think rightly so when you’re new to something, has an intense, almost laser-like lens on what the singular musician is doing in his or her presentation and participation. And I have to say [this time] I felt so attended to that I felt like a stone in the setting of a ring.”

Drouin says in addition to the two common songs, the new record has the feel of the first one in a lot of ways: “There’s a lot of energy to it, but it’s more traditional.”

Over the years, with bass players and drummers coming and going, “We experimented and pushed the envelope here and there, as many Celtic bands do,” Drouin says, “but we all kind of got into this flow of getting more into the tradition. We’re better players now, obviously, but it has that feeling, which I really loved, from that first one.”

It also was recorded almost totally live, with very few overdubs, and while that gives the record a spontaneity, Drouin and Gusetti, who mixed the record, are quick to add that spontaneous doesn’t equal haphazard.

“It’s really tough,” Gusetti says — “sometimes you’re not paying attention to the whole. And we intentionally took a step back in the process and said, ‘What makes this piece sound the best?’ ”

Sometimes, Gusetti says, that meant turning up his guitar; sometimes, Drouin’s fiddle or bouzouki; sometimes, Doyle’s bodhran or the percussion of his dancing shoes. “You have to really step back and listen to it as a listener. We intentionally slowed some stuff down, because for a listener [to a disc], it’s not this frenetic, live, one-time thing. It’s repeated. And we’re very conscious of that.”

Drouin says that Lyon left Pendragon mainly due to the reformation of The Tombstone Blues Band. Drouin calls himself “one of their number-one fans” and says Lyon “left under great circumstances” and will join the group on Saturday’s show.

Lyon agrees, adding that he and Partington worked together on a separate project at the Icon Festival in Boston last weekend, and that he will join Pendragon at Saturday’s show. He simply ran out of hours in the day, he says. “It was a way for me to keep my hand in at a high level … I wish I could have kept doing it, [and] they’ve made the adjustment wonderfully.”

Drouin says that when Lyon left they saw an opportunity. “We just looked around and said, ‘Hey, let’s just keep it the way it is, and not try to replace him with a heavy-duty bass player.’ ”

“Any time there’s been any turnover, that’s what you do,” Gusetti says, and over the years Pendragon would know. “You look back in on yourself and you approach things differently and you play to your strengths. … You react to the moment.”

“We could really blast out the reels,” Drouin says; “Kenny’s an amazing bass player, Kevin’s a great percussionist. We could really blow people over with that. I know for the last six months of us doing concerts, I was drawn to a softer approach. Which I know you [indicating Partington] are. We’re kind of moving back to where Mary Lee likes it the best.”

“We’re trying to play lighter instruments,” Gusetti says. “That’s the key.”

“This lineup is almost magical,” Drouin says. “We all get along so well. And having the dance as a regular feature makes it more entertaining and fun for me. When you play Irish dance music, you’ve gotta have a dancer.”

That’s Doyle, and while age usually matters little in traditional music — in fact, experience is a plus — his energetic step dancing makes him the exception. He’s got a physical role and he has to keep in great shape for it.

“You have to continue to work to keep the wind and the energy there,” says Doyle, 57, who works about 20 minutes a day when there are lots of shows in his near future. “It’s not that you’re trying to remember the steps, although you are constantly learning new steps. But it’s more about keeping the proper energy, so you don’t look totally wasted when you’re done.”

As with a lot of groups nowadays, Pendragon is being hit with a generational quirk: Now that some of the members are retiring, they have more time to concentrate on the band.

Drouin retired about five years ago from his job as a government regulator and says, “I have much more time to play now.” He hosts sessions at Ward’s Publick House, in Warwick, on Sundays (which is where he discovered Kane), and at Patrick’s on Mondays, “So that’s six hours of playing a week, sometimes more.”

He also credits the influence of his three-year-old granddaughters, particularly on a new prolific streak as a writer. “When I’m with them, we’re always making up songs. We never just do stuff; everything’s got to be a musical. It’s not ‘Get the toothpaste’; it’s (operatic voice) ‘Get the TOOOTHpaste, let’s brush our teeth …’ ”

“Actually,” Gusetti says, “he’s always like that.”

“I don’t know if it’s a childlike thing,” Drouin continues, “but something was unlocked, and now I find it much easier to write tunes. I used to write one every few years. Now I’m afraid to sit down if I’ve got a couple of hours. I’ll get a tune in my head and I won’t leave for three hours! …

“And I’m starting to dress like Russell. That’s the only downside.”

As Doyle, who has driven for RIPTA for 12 years, looks on with “a lot of envy,” Partington explains that being retired for a year from teaching English at Burrillville High School, “I feel a sense of freedom that I have probably never known in my life. … I find that I approach each concert not as if I’m going to work, but as if I’m going to an event, a party. I look forward to it in a way that is thoroughly renewed after 25 years.”

She still runs into students, including one who sent her a book she had co-written about growing up in a French-Canadian family. “That, to me, was a tribute to how the work started and what it was meant to support.”

“Getting the story and the traditions out to people” is how Gusetti defines it. “… We’re telling those stories and making those connections, and while we’re doing what we like to do, it is hopefully passing on that tradition.”

That ethic extends to the Blackstone River Theatre, in Cumberland, which Partington, Drouin and Gusetti rebuilt and of which are all on the staff. “It is the passing on of these traditions,” Gusetti says, “but instead of us passing on the traditions, we’re bringing in people.”

In the meantime, Pendragon continues, and as the members talk about the next 25 years, it’s clear that they’ve settled into a new groove. And if that feels a lot like the old one, well, there you go.

“We don’t play a bazillion gigs anymore — we don’t play pub gigs; we play what we want to play when we want to play it. Because we want to have fun doing it. … We’ve been fortunate to have great audiences over the years, but I think in many ways we play for ourselves. And you want to be comfortable with what you’re doing.”

It’s not always quite that comfortable. Drouin recalls a whistle player in her mid-30s who comes to the Patrick’s session occasionally. “I asked her, ‘How did you get into Irish music?’ And she said, ‘Oh, it was you guys! I went to a Pendragon concert.’

“I said, ‘That’s great!’ She said, ‘I was 11.’ I went, ‘Ughhhh …’ ”