Peadar MacMahon and The Legacy of Percy French
Published in the January 2016 issue of What’s Up! Magazine
by Jared Curtis
If you have spent any time in Bellingham, you’ve crossed paths with Peadar MacMahon.
The Limerick, Ireland born singer/songwriter has been a staple of the local music scene since he moved here in 1990. Not letting one genre of music define him, MacMahon has played in a variety of bands most notably The Elvi’s and MacArra, as well as bartending at the famous 3B Tavern. Being a part of the scene for so long has allowed MacMahon to see and hear a variety of bands.
“One day I get a phone call from the Flaming Lips road manager asking if we could set up a show in a few days. I was kind of surprised because they were just starting to get big and they were just winging the tour, calling ahead only a few days notice to book shows. They only wanted a small guarantee, so I ran down to Aaron Roeder’s house and I’m banging on the door trying to get him to wake up. It was an amazing show and we had a great time hanging out with them afterwards, but that was a nightly occurrence. Great shows happened there all the time and you really have to praise Aaron for being such a gracious host.”
Although MacMahon has relished in the wild days of his past, he has become mellower with age and more focused on his current project, the amazing The Legacy of Percy French. MacMahon has dug up the past, resurrecting the music of one of Ireland’s most iconic songwriters/artist/poet — Percy French.
“Percy French was Ireland’s most famous songwriter and quite the renaissance man. He wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of Portlandia,” MacMahon laughed. “I was drawn to his music because his songs more like stories with multiple characters. He really tells the story, rather than performing a song.
William Percy French was born in 1854 and began writing and performing songs while attending college. After becoming a famous performer overseas, French toured the US from 1910-1915, performing to diplomats and lower class alike. His first hit song “Abdul Abulbul Amir,” is a satire on the war between Christians and Muslims; and “The Irish Mother” describes the tragic loss of Ireland’s children to emigration. According to Peadar, French’s “songs are timeless.”
Along with the stories he would tell, French also painted on stage, presenting pictures related to the songs and stories he was performing. MacMahon had known of French as a child, as his family would sing the songs, but it was only a few years ago he discovered the magnitude of his work.
“I knew some of his work, but I discovered he had written more than 80 hit songs, so I developed a fascination and began working on this project. I stripped the songs down to their roots of entertainment rather than the operatic style they had become over the years. I had always been a lazy musician, so this was the first time I actually had difficulty playing a show,” he laughed.
MacMahon knew he couldn’t take on the project alone, so he brought in Bruce Shaw to play banjo.
“Bruce had never heard any of his music, so as we started working on the songs, Bruce started coming up with these perfect banjo parts,” he said. “The arraignments really came together beautifully as we knew we had to develop a narrative and tell the story of the song.”
The songs were recorded at Champion Street Studios in a live setting. The finished project takes listeners through a journey of Percy French’s life. The album artwork is courtesy of Jim Ward Morris, which MacMahon said, “went above and beyond and created this intricate and elaborate packaging.” Sticking with French’s artistic background, artist Peter Rand was brought in to the project to help with easel paintings for the show, creating images from French’s life to help interrupt the songs.
“We have been working this like crazy for the past few years, so I’m excited for people to experience the show,” he said. “It’s not something you can perform every night, sure, you’re only playing 9-10 songs, but it could take up to 90 minutes to play those songs. I love playing the songs because they are more intimate than I’ve ever done, I’m responsible for what’s going on in the show and it makes me feel more exposed, but excited. “
MacMahon and his crew performed the show at Boundary Bay for a soft release of the CD a few months back to overwhelming success.
“We had a packed house on a cold and wet Monday night,” he said. “It was a humorous and heartfelt evening.”
MacMahon is hoping to hold another performance in March, so stay tuned to his website at peadarmacmahon.com for more details and upcoming performances. He is also currently looking into taking the show to Ireland this summer to perform at an annual Percy French festival, bringing his project full circle.
“I’m really hoping I can make it over to the festival,” MacMahon said. “It’ll be a nice little journey, and while I’m over there, I’m planning on creating a small tour, so I can play at some of the venues Percy previously performed at.”
For more, check out Peadar MacMahon at the Irish & Folk Monday Evenings at Boundary Bay Brewery, or find him on Facebook.