More Power to Your Elbow,
an interview with Gerry Cunningham
by Tom Knapp (September 1994)

Ireland has been a land of troubles and strife since before the great Cattle Raid of Cooley. It has also been the birthplace of some of the world's best folk music. A potent example of that excellence is an eight-piece band from County Tyrone (just west of Belfast).

More Power to Your Elbow, named after a colloquial Irish expression for "give it all you got" (often said with drinking-related connotations), has stamped its own brand on the face of Celtic folk-rock.

But this is no typical band, either. For one thing, most of the musicians still hold day jobs. Take for instance 36-year-old English teacher Gerry Cunningham. The band's founder, he lays down the lead vocals and acoustic guitar.

Cunningham said the band's music is strongly based in traditional styles "with a more modern rock beat." He lists Irish groups such as the Waterboys and Horslips as major influences.

"We try to capture the traditional styles, combining the purest with the modern rock," he said during a telephone interview from the Harp Bar in Boston. "It's the fiddle and the tin whistle with a strong, driving rock beat."

Celtic music is experiencing an enthusiastic revival in its native Ireland, Cunningham said, and that upswing in popularity is reflected across the water in America. The band takes advantage of that by touring whenever possible.

They always try to give a lively show, he said, including traditional reels and jigs as well as several tunes penned by Cunningham. "We like to explore all types of music," he said. "The style of Irish music has permeated all styles of music, even country."

They play enough rock 'n' roll to keep a typical American crowd happy and enough solid traditional sounds to please those with an ear for Celtic music, Cunnigham said.

The Elbows' first album, the live recording Sold Out, is a fast-paced explosion of high energy. Largely traditional, the album has several sets of jigs and reels highlighted by fast fingerwork on fiddle and tin whistle. The infectious rhythms so typical of Celtic music make it impossible to keep your feet still.

"Very few bands do a live album first," Cunningham said. "But we decided to take the plunge. We said, 'There's nothing to fear, let's just do it.'" Besides, he noted, Irish music thrives on a live performance, pulling strength and energy from the crowd.

The album includes a few surprises, including covers of the Beatles' "Get Back" (renamed "Jo-Jo") and "Dirty Old Town," a perpetual favorite made famous by the Pogues. Five Cunningham originals also provide a nice punctuation to the traditional numbers.

"I write about a lot of things," he said. "I'm a big reflector of life." His songs range from a lively and bawdy picture of Irish lads on their way to a music fest ("Trip to Tipp") to a mournful tribute to Mickey McGoldrick, the band's original keyboardist, who was killed in a car accident last year ("You're Not Here Tonight").

The group hails from a corner of Ireland that has been hard-hit by Loyalist death squads, and many of the band members have lost friends or family members in the troubles. But Cunningham said he avoids politics in his songs.

"At the moment it's a tricky situation," he said. "The politics are a very involved subject. In our country, it's also a very dangerous subject. So we try to stay clear of anything controversial when we perform live at home."

[ by Tom Knapp ]