Cutting-Edge Celtic

Gráda takes its evolving genre of music on a North American tour

The audience for traditional Celtic music remains not only strong but devoted--yet the music is evolving. Case in point: the young group Gráda, which injects elements of pop-rock, jazz, Eastern European and African music into its sound. With members who range in age from 26 to 32 and hail from both Ireland and New Zealand, Gráda is honing the cutting edge of Celtic music.

"Because we're coming from quite a different direction, more from the contemporary side, there are still purists out there who might not like what we're doing," said guitarist Gerry Paul on the phone from Dublin last week.

Much of the contemporary influence on the band's music is contained in the robust, almost funky rhythms and heady, jazz-style improvisations.

When Paul spoke, it was on the eve of Gráda's current North American concert tour (its eighth on this continent), which will include the band's first Tucson performance on Aug. 25 at the Berger Performing Arts Center.

Paul said he thinks younger listeners want to hear a band that reflects their own varied listening habits. A partial list of locations in which Gráda has performed around the world is testimony to that.

"We've played underground reggae clubs in Copenhagen and jazz in Japan, a big classical festival in Germany, blues and rock festivals. It's quite freeing to be able to do that. We'll play anywhere they'll have us."

Gráda recently saw the release of its third album, Cloudy Day Navigation, on Compass Records, the Nashville, Tenn.-based independent label owned and operated by banjo player and guitarist Alison Brown, whose style bridges bluegrass and jazz.

Paul said the band found a kindred soul in Brown, whose eclectic style appeals to Gráda's catholic tastes.

Helping the members of Gráda find their distinctive style on Cloudy Day Navigation was producer Trevor Hutchinson, who plays bass with and founded the contemporary Celtic band Lúnasa and has played with such acts as the Waterboys and Sharon Shannon.

In addition to Hutchinson, Gráda's other guests on the new CD are cellist Vyvienne Long (who has played with Damien Rice) and percussionist Dave Hingerty (a veteran of playing with The Frames and Josh Ritter).

Before coming to the attentions of Brown and Compass Records, Gráda actually made one little-known CD, barely more than a demo. It was recorded even before the band had officially formed, but it provided the impetus for a future together.

The Dublin-born Paul grew up in New Zealand with his immigrant family, and played blues, rock and Irish music as he was growing up. He met and started playing with Andrew Laking, a native Kiwi double bassist and singer who has played various styles of music all over the world, including with Bret McKenzie of the folk-comedy duo Flight of the Conchords.

Flutist Alan Doherty, from Ireland, also spent time in New Zealand, contributing as the lead soloist to the soundtrack of The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Doherty, Paul and Laking all found themselves in Ireland in the spring of 2001. Together with singer Nicola Joyce and fiddler Colin Farrell (not the actor), they were contracted to play a hotel residency on the Italian island of Sardinia. As part of the process of scoring that gig, the nascent group recorded a demo CD.

The residency fell through, and the band was left with 500 copies of a rush-job CD that nevertheless showed potential, Paul said. Nowadays, it's a raw and rare collectible for the more rabid elements of a growing base of Gráda fans.

"It was a frustrating experience, really, but we figured that since we had come together for this thing that maybe we should give it a shot as a real band."

To accommodate his interviewer's schedule, Paul was actually on the phone at nearly 1 a.m. in Ireland, backing up files on his laptop and packing for a flight the next morning.

"Well, first it's Shannon to London, then London to Chicago, then on to Seattle and finally somewhere in Canada, so we'll have traveled a fair amount by the time we see you in Arizona."

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