From his breakthrough over 40 years ago with Tir na nÓg through his decades as a solo artist finding the happy spot between folk, pyschedelic and electronica, Leo O’Kelly is clearly a man who has been there, strummed that.
A regular fixture on the Greystones live circuit, O’Kelly may be the only man on the planet who can make a Friday night in Dann’s feel like you’re in the hippest joint on the planet.
Usually somewhere in the cosmic swirl of Dylan’s Tombstone Blues, as the opening guitar riff come roaring over the horizon.
About to play the Hot Spot, along with his old partner-in-thyme, Sonny Condell, Leo took time out to let us know about the songs that shaped him, and how he got into this ridiculous line of work in the first place…
When I was 14, in Carlow, my mum came home from work, and said, “I’ve got you a job in a band!”. It was The Tropical Showband, and was led by Michael Foley, who was a workmate of mum’s in Sloan’s, who had a branch in Carlow. I didn’t know then, but we probably needed the money… it meant I could pay for my schoolbooks (even if I didn’t have time to read them), and contribute a few quid to the household, as well as have money for LPs.
First gig was February 1964 in The Town Hall (where I later met Robin Williamson)… It was a Sunday afternoon dance, and later that night I played a 9-2 dance in Wolfhill, Co.Kilkenny. I’d never been up so late in my life…
…and I haven’t gone to bed since!
Catch The Wind Donovan Catch The Wind made acoustic guitar even more relevant for me; it spoke of freedom… from electricity, cables, and anything else that could tie you down. Just sling that guitar over your shoulder, and off you go! What’s Bin Did And What’s Bin Hid was the first album I ever bought… and I’m thrilled that I will soon be re-united with my original copy after 45 years separated from it. It has been waiting for me in an old friend’s attic! I met Donovan, over breakfast a little while ago, and told him of his influence… but not before he told me!
Purple Haze Jimi Hendrix This scared the shit out of me! That intro has got to be the best intro ever. I read where that combination of notes was known as The Devil’s Triad, and was banned by the church! I saw Jimi playing it in Belfast 27 November 1967, his birthday… and mine!
Like A Rolling Stone Bob Dylan It changed the world for everyone, and it’s never been the same since. Highway 61 Revisited has always been my favourite, for the songs, the sound, and the chaos! You can almost hear the bass player having a nervous breakdown, just trying to keep up with him on Tombstone Blues.
Painting Box The Incredible String Band I love the song, and the whole album, 5,000 Spirits & The Layers Of The Onion. I sang it in Irish on Television in 1968, and Sonny played bongos, in silhouette. It was our first TV appearance together, before we formed Tir na nOg. Robin Williamson came to our Cardiff gig recently, and that was something. I’d met him in Carlow in 1968, with Joe Boyd, and asked him “How do you write a song?”. He said “You sit down, and you write it”. It still is the best advice I’ve ever heard on the subject.
You can catch the man in action in Dann’s right here, whilst Leo waxes lyrical about one of his idols, Donovan, right here. Meanwhile, you can find out all about Sonny Condell’s all-time favourite tracks right here.