A PERSONAL REMEMBRANCE ON ALEC FINN BY KEVIN MACLEOD
I was very deeply saddened at the sudden passing on 16th November 2018 of my dear friend and lifelong musical collaborator Alec Finn of Oranmore Castle, Co. Galway, Ireland. His death, aged 74, leaves a huge hole in traditional music in Ireland, and the outpourings of sadness from all corners of the globe were huge. I had known him extremely well for 37 years, so it left myself and many others reeling.
I first heard Alec's astonishing music with De Danann on a John Peel BBC Radio 1 session in 1978, then tracked down the seminal duet album he and Frankie Gavin made in New York City in 1977 in a few hours - Alec told me that a bottle of Jack Daniels was all it took to create this legendary, one-take recording of the amazing weave that they had, and that interplay was at the very core of the sound of their band De Danann. I first saw them live in Kilkenny in 1981, and met Alec afterwards in the bar, and, having a passionate curiousity about mandolins, exploring the bouzouki was high on my agenda, so who better to ask! He was hugely welcoming to us three visiting Scots that night, and he passed me his address to keep in touch. Alec was proud of his Scots granny, a MacDonald, so was curious that we should have made such an effort to see the band. Thus began a lifetimes' friendship and endeavours, with many trailblazing tours and gigs around America, Ireland and the UK undertaken, the thrill of making my 4 solo cds, each with Alec playing on them, and also being invited to create the artwork and perform on Alec's "Innisfree" solo cd, which was a great honour.
But above all that, we met often over the years down in London, over in Galway, Inis Oirr, or Dublin and, of course, in one of his most favourite places, Edinburgh. He adored the music scene here in Scotland, the malts of the moment in Sandy Bells Bar, the Scots repertoires of fiddler John Martin, singer George Duff and the bagpipe music repertoire of pipers Allan MacDonald and Mike Katz, and, of course, the whisky. He really revelled in it all, and the sessions were long and immense. Every meeting was also filled with rummages in charity shops, fleamarkets, garden centres and junkyards, with his amazing artistic eagle-eye gathering colourful and exotic baubles, ironwork, belt buckles, stained glass, Mexican tiles, anything remotely bird related, exotic plants and trinkets. These all ended up adorning his exotic castellated home and orchid filled conservatories in Oranmore Castle, and also in his beloved retreat in Vence on the Cote D'Azur, where he was truly in his creative element. His memorable 60th birthday party there was something else, as was the fabulous wedding of his daughter Heather at Oranmore Castle. Being asked to the 2003 Zoukfest by him as his tune player was a real personal highlight. Days to truly savour and reflect on with much warmth and a tear in the eye over the years to come.
But fundamentally, he made other musicians, singers and tune players sound so much better and so special. And his close coterie of musical collaborators that he chose to underpin included some of the very greatest musicians in Ireland - Mary Bergin, Frankie Gavin, Noel Hill, Dolores Keane, Mary Staunton, John Carty, Eleanor Shanley, Kathleene Loughnane, Sean Ryan, Mike Scott and many others. He had the most superb ear for improvising something unique, groovy and perfect for the moment. He himself was simply unforgettable, larger than life and totally unique, a "creative soul", as his talented son Cian Finn described him in the recent TG4 "Se Mo Laoch" documentary on Alec's life. Timely now in hindsight, it captured the artistic essence of this great man, and I was deeply honoured to guide him through his recollections during the memorable recording in February 2018, the last time I saw him. Playing one last pipe march with him in the Great Hall of Oranmore Castle will remain the high point of my musical life.
I really will miss his whacky humour, fantastic musicianship, scurrulous cartoons, astute musical guidance, creasing ourselves watching Mel Brookes in "Dead and Loving it", perhaps not the chaotic trail of mess he left everywhere, the hilarious and cutting observations on life, his complete lack of interest in any technical stuff and his ability to render it useless almost immediately, his colour sense and innate visual taste, the endless side-splitting jokes, his ceramics and paintings, the deep generosity of his music, his unwavering loyalty to his close friends and above all his utter zest for leading the artists life.
Thanks Birdman, it was a fabulous rock and roll ride!
Kevin HJ Macleod Edinburgh, Scotland, 4th December 2018