Thanksgiving Day, 25th November 1976. The Winterland Ballroom, San Francisco. The day The Band called it a day.
And what a way to bow out, after 16 years on the road, a final concert, entitled THE LAST WALTZ, aided and abetted by a guest list to die for of musical luminaries and friends – Muddy Waters, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Eric Clapton to name but a few – and all captured under the direction of zeitgeist film-maker and music aficionado Martin Scorsese, whose film of the concert has done much to preserve its legendary status. But the road keeps a-calling and 40 years on a young Irish troubadour by the name of Dave O’Grady, aka Seafoam Green, is set to present his own celebration of The Band’s legendary blow-out in his adopted home of Liverpool.
I caught up with O’Grady in late summer just as he was about to embark on a six-week, 20-date tour of the US. I asked him, of course, about his earliest musical memories and sure enough his parents had a great collection of vinyl. Guitar-led music, such as Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Band, was on heavy rotation. “I liked the music since I was four years old but I didn’t play until I got my first guitar at 12 and then everything else went out the window, I just loved it, it blew my mind; as soon as I struck a chord it was, ‘Wow, I did that’.” However, it wasn’t until his early 20s that he really ‘got’ The Band. “I think you need to be a bit older to really get a group like The Band; I mean, you can like the guitars n’all, but the fighting, the loving, the beers, the drugs, you need to have a little experience to really get those references.”
O’Grady started playing live at 14, taking buses and trains, walking or hitching a ride, telling his parents he was somewhere else. “I’d try to get on early so I could get home with a believable story,” he laughs, eyes twinkling at the memory of evenings spent jamming in pubs and folk clubs all over his native County Kildare. “If you had the confidence you could walk up to the bar, look them in the eye and order a pint of Guinness… and I was confident, you know.” If you consider that even when he was still at school he’d be playing four or five times a week and that, now in his late 20s, he plays over 200 gigs a year you get some idea of the experience O’Grady has built up over a relatively short space of time.
Having honed his live performances, O’Grady found himself recording backing vocals in Nashville in 2011 where he met Rich Robinson of The Black Crowes in his guise as producer. They struck up an enduring friendship and O’Grady has supported Robinson on US and European tours, following which they agreed that Robinson would produce the first Seafoam Green album. The songs on the album were 10 years in the making but were polished in the days immediately before recording, spent at Robinson’s LA home, a hubbub of creativity and collaboration as Robinson prepared not only for the recording of the album but for an exhibition of his paintings. O’Grady credits Robinson as a major influence in the development of his songwriting. “I wrote a song in the first person, I was putting myself in a slightly elevated position, and he said, ‘Why are you the centre of this? Why are you the important person?’ He was right, you shouldn’t be writing songs just to make yourself feel amazing; you could write your own movie but you’ve got to be honest, otherwise stop wasting people’s time. Now it’s a much better song.”
The album, Topanga Mansion, is released on Mellowtone Records on 1st November. O’Grady talks about the organic nature of the recording process, of documenting a moment. “It’s a psych-folk record, with some rock ‘n’ roll; it’s quite spacey in parts. One song [Sister] is nine minutes long because we just felt it when we were playing and took it somewhere, we’re not even looking at each other, it’s heads down and someone might drag and we slow down or there might be a spike and we go somewhere else. When you listen to it you can be sure that that vibration existed at a time and place on this Earth. It’s not a drummer in New York sending a track to a bass player in London. It’s a bunch of musicians in a tiny studio in Santa Monica, talking Chinese food and jokes, and taking the piss out of each other and getting mad at me for fucking-up takes, but that can produce something because if the drummer’s mad at me he’s going to hit his drums a little harder and that might be the thing that makes it special.”
Topanga Mansion, in its style, its songwriting and its musicianship has the feel of classic Americana; it rides the hills and valleys with beautifully nuanced tempo changes and reveals O’Grady to be a man who can conjure up the sweetest of melodies alongside the grittiest of guitar riffs. Soulful backing vocals and funky organ licks sit alongside the prettiest pedal steel and fragile piano melodies. O’Grady’s rich, resonant vocals are equally at home singing ballads or rock ‘n’ roll and Seafoam Green serve up the sort of aural melting pot that The Band themselves were noted for.
The ideas and opinions pour from O’Grady as we talk. “I’ve gone off on a tangent,” he says on more than one occasion, but O’Grady’s tangents are always interesting and illuminating. We laugh about how much recorded conversation I will have to go over – “I reckon if I listen back to this I’ll learn more about myself than I ever knew; sometimes I say things and think, ‘Oh, so that’s how I feel about that’. It’s the same with songwriting: you write a song about something and subconsciously you’re telling yourself this is how I feel about this. I can get closure from finishing a song.” If songwriting can close doors on his own past then his songs can, in turn, open doors for the listener. “I was meeting people after a gig in New York and this guy waited in the queue, looked like he’d had a moment, you know, and when I shook his hand he told me he hadn’t spoken to his mum for six years and when I’d played My Oldest Friend he walked out, called her and told her he loved her. That made me happy for a year.” As Robbie Robertson says in the movie of The Last Waltz, “It was the musicians in New York who were doing the greatest healing.”
O’Grady’s 40th anniversary celebration of The Last Waltz takes place immediately after the US tour and a further three weeks performing in Ireland. Fortunately, the band who will be accompanying him – Adrian Gautrey, guitar/keys; Martin Byrne, bass; Ben Gonzalez, drums; Muirreann ‘Muzz’ McDermot Long, vocals; Jez Wing, keys – are well versed in the songs and are long-term collaborators, and he is pretty sanguine about the five-day rehearsal period. “We all know it ‘cause we all love it, but we just need to know it in the room. I don’t want to give it too much grandeur, but we’re a real band honouring a real band,” he reflects, before rattling off a list of guest artists who are to appear including Edgar Jones, Nick Ellis, Mersey Wylie, Paul Dunbar and Chris Nicholls. “We don’t want to recreate it. Some people have done it where someone dresses like Dylan and the drummer looks like Levon [Helm], but we just want to be honest with the music. I wanted to use great local musicians; it would be easy to get people in to play The Last Waltz at the Phil but it’s about the local music community, people who’ve dedicated their lives to the music like The Band did.”
The Band did so at no little cost to themselves and in The Last Waltz Robbie Robertson opines that being on the road “is a god damn impossible way of life”. “It is,” agrees O’Grady. “We’re doing it for as long as we can. You just do it and then… well, there is no destination.” I ask him if he wishes he could sit still sometimes. “Oh I’d love to,” he replies, “but I’m not supposed to. I’m so far gone, man, the needle is so far in my arm, leave me be, save yourself, stay in school, get a job, make money, be happy.” He looks thoughtful for a second and then laughs. The endless highway that The Band departed so memorably still beckons for Dave O’Grady. The party isn’t quite over yet.
The Last Waltz takes place on 25th November at the Philharmonic Music Room, with Seafoam Green joined by special guests in recreating the unique atmosphere of The Band’s final concert. Topanga Mansion is out on 1st November on Mellowtone Records.