By DJ Dave Hoffenberg
For the past 36 years, Gypsy Reel has been Celtic rockin’ around Vermont. I’ve seen them a few times and it’s a show not to be missed. Gypsy Reel’s line-up includes hot banjoist Claudine Langille, formerly of Touchstone, the sensational Irish/American fusion band that won critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic; Graham Parker, eclectic fiddler extraordinaire; Camille Parker, who has captivated the hearts of audiences across the globe with her mandolin, bodhran, and her singing in French, Spanish and English; young prodigy Silas Hamilton on standup bass and guitar; and Reagh Greenleaf of the County Down on percussion, bodhran and vocals. I had the pleasure of speaking with Graham Parker to see what they’ve been up to.
If you have never seen the band, Graham described the show: “You can expect to see a band that is enjoying themselves. We like to have fun and we enjoy playing music that will entertain. We hope to gain more of the Irish/Scottish tradition through our music because we don’t strictly do that. We mix it up. We do a little bit of Americana or some of our own things. It’s all Celtic hinged but it’s not just pure Celtic. We try and do a show that has a nice variety. We all sing and do harmonies.”
The Parkers and Langille, when she’s in town, host an Irish session open jam every Thursday at The Killarney in Ludlow from 6:30-9 p.m. Graham said they always have a lot of players show up, but they also welcome singers, dancers and listeners.
This Saturday, June 30, head to Brandon Music for a good meal and a good time with Gypsy Reel. The show starts at 7:30 p.m., and call ahead because their show is usually a sellout. This will be the fourth time they’ve performed there. Last summer they recorded a live CD there and they will have that available for purchase at this show. It’s aptly titled, “Gypsy Reel Live 2017.” Graham loves Brandon Music and said, “It’s one of our favorite places to play. It’s a real treat because it’s a real listening audience. They come for dinner and we do our first set, then on the break, they serve a delicious dessert. The food is really good. Then we play our second set. You can bring your own booze. The Foley Brothers Brewing is right down the street so you stop there and you can bring in jugs of beer, so that’s convenient.” This show will feature the full five-piece band, which is the same lineup as last year when they recorded the CD. Graham said the nice thing about Brandon Music is the acoustics there are great. They only have to bring a small sound system.
This live CD is their ninth overall. They have two prior live CDs, the first, titled “Live from Vermont,” and the other, “Live at Killarney,” which was recorded on St. Patrick’s Day. They have six studio recordings as well. Graham said that Claudine is an amazing songwriter. He said they all write tunes and Claudine and Camille write songs. Whatever they do, they blend in with their own arrangements of traditional Irish songs and tunes. Graham said, “Sometimes we’ll do a Beatles cover or another cover, but we’ll always do it in a kind of Celtic Gypsy Reel style.”
Graham (68) hails from Leicester, England. He first learned to play the violin there when he was 7 and his first teacher was a Scottish fiddle player. When he went to school, he joined the orchestra. That led to him being in a county orchestra. That orchestra allowed him to travel. He went to Denmark and Austria and played in the big concert hall in Vienna. He said, “We were a little hit there. All the guys had long hair and they thought we were The Beatles Orchestra or something.” He eventually progressed to the fiddle because he would see people playing them around campfires. He said, “That’s when I got turned on to the Irish music. The first Irish tune I learned was from an American in Scotland.” He then started playing Irish music and his first teacher was a huge influence on him. He recalled, “Liz Carroll taught me and I think she is the best Irish player there is. She’s from Chicago and has played at the White House for Obama. She is a brilliant musician and songwriter. I love her tunes and love the way that she plays.”
Graham left England to travel when he was 21. He said, “I hitchhiked around the world, but of all the places I traveled, I liked Vermont the best.” He’s now been here since 1982. He’s two weeks away from retiring from his regular job in the mental health field, but will still help out part-time. Camille is from Manchester, N.H. but they met in Kenya, Africa. The two of them traveled together a bit and three years later in 1977, they got married in England. They’ve been married for 41 years and have been playing music together practically that whole time. Graham said, “She decided she was not just going to follow me around while I played and that she better learn an instrument as well. She decided on the mandolin because it was easy to carry when traveling. Claudine will attest the wisdom of that choice since she has to lug the banjo around which is heavy [laughing].”
Graham and Camille started the band and Langille came in two years later after a few of the guys moved away. Graham said, laughing, “They had to leave the country just to get away from Gypsy Reel.” They recently added Hamilton and Greenleaf. How they got Langille is an interesting story. Graham told it.
“She was in Touchstone which was a huge Irish American Fusion band in the 80s. We were playing at the Inn at Long Trail in Killington and were playing one of Claudine’s songs and we find out she was in the audience. Right before we played the song the leader of our band says, ‘Guess what, the writer of this song is in the audience.’ She called us the next day and asked if we wanted to get together and play music.”
Hamilton came to them because he’s been a student of Langille’s. He’s only 19 and has been playing with them for three years. She was teaching him mandolin, but Gypsy Reel needed a bass player, so he learned how to play that. He just got back from bicycling around Greece with a fiddle in his backpack and then went over to Ireland to play with Langille and the top Irish players. Graham said, “We were skeptical at first, but we trusted Claudine’s judgment and sure enough, he stepped right up to the plate. I remember when he first came to audition. I knew we were going to hire him. I asked him if he’d ever been in a band before. He said, ‘Not one with a name.’ I cracked up. He does a really nice job and he’s really easy to get along with. He’s a multi-instrumentalist prodigy and is amazing. He’s having quite the life right now.”
I asked Graham if he had any favorite songs to play. He replied, “They’re all my favorites, it changes day-to-day.” He does have a favorite new song that he wrote, “Unreel.” He said that will be part of an interesting “reel” set that he’s really looking forward to. It will start with “Virtual Reel” by Susannah Clifford Blachly of Montpelier which Graham discovered on Pandora. Next will be his tune, “Unreel” and then “Wedding Reel” which was written by a Scottish fiddle player and lastly “Salamanca Reel” which is a traditional Irish one. The set has two Vermont Reels, a Scottish Reel and an Irish Reel. If you’re like me and don’t know the difference between a “Reel” and a “Jig,” Graham explained it: “A reel is adapted to 4/4 (time signature). It’s more like rock ‘n’ roll – it has a back beat – as opposed to a jig which is in 6/8. They’re all adapted tunes.” He then sang me the two so I now now the difference.
Graham thoroughly enjoys playing, every time he does. He said, “I love the energy in the band when it’s going well and the energy you get back from the audience. That’s what we live for. Cheers.”