Multi-talented musician Paul Duffy shares his passion for Irish music.
You may think you’ve had an interesting life. Paul Duffy’s is probably more interesting.
His parents were the talents behind Duffy’s International Circus; he was delivered by a midwife after a performance in North Donegal. Nine years later, Duffy taught himself to play the saxophone — and promptly played it on a tightrope. He went on to learn bagpipes, bass, drums, flute, guitar, keyboards, tin whistle, and the trumpet.
He put those talents to work with other people’s bands at recording studios and bars around Dublin — and started his own band at age 26.
Duffy would go on to international tours with The Commitments, and performances with Ben E. King, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, Brian Johnson, Suzi Quatro and other music legends.
After moving to Sarasota, he launched the Irish Rover Pub—a legend in its own right, for six rousing years. These days, he devotes his creative energy to music.
Speaking of which, Duffy will perform a concert of timely and timeless Irish music with Darin Graves at 3 p.m. Sunday, March 11, at the Unitarian Universalist Church. Along with Duffy’s musical talents, he’s also a hilarious storyteller, as we discovered in our recent talk.
My sources indicate you were the youngest person to ever walk the tightrope while playing the saxophone—an instrument you taught yourself to play. Do you confirm the legend is true?
Yes. The story may have been exaggerated as it’s told from person to person.
What inspired you to learn to play the sax?
When you grow up in a circus, it’s not cool to do just one thing. You’ve got to be adept at whatever they throw at you. I started out on trumpet. My father was a saxophonist. He said, “How about that?” I said, “OK.” So I ended up playing sax in the circus band.
How’d you wind up playing it on the tightrope?
Well, as soon as I could play, my father asked, “Why don’t you play the saxophone and walk across the tightrope?” I said, “OK, why not?”
What possessed you to learn so many instruments?
I was always a curious kid and music really gripped me. If I saw somebody play something that I thought was cool, I’d follow them to the ends of the earth to get them show me how to do it. “Hey, guitar player. Show me how you did that.” They’d play and I’d watch — I couldn’t get enough. They’d be flattered initially — then, “Get away from me, you crazy kid!”
You never felt drawn to the accordion?
No longer than 10 seconds.
It sounded like it was in pain?
Yeah. I was reminded of that old Gary Larson cartoon.
Where they hand out harps in heaven and accordions in hell?
(Laughs) Ah, you’re familiar with that one.
How’d you wind up with Robert Plant and Jimmy Page?
I wound up in Spain playing in an Irish band with Kenneth Flanagan, an Irish-American sax player. We were booked with Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. When I got there, Jimmy Page got on the stage pretty well lit — cigarette dangling from his mouth, puffing and blowing on that the whole time. He stretched out his arm, turned the Marshall amps up to 10, and played some incredible stuff. It was close to the end of their tenure together. Later on, I hung out with them, listening to their stories. As a 25-year-old, I was in awe. I’ll never forget that. It’s indelibly etched on my brain.
What led to your tour with The Commitments?
Well, you know, the band was originally fictional! It all started as a Roddy Doyle novel. Alan Parker, that wonderful director, agreed to do the screenplay. I was out of the country during the filming. Then the movie came out. Contrary to popular belief, it was not just a cult hit. The soundtrack went platinum in 27 countries—and they were under pressure to put a real band together and hit the road.
And that’s when they called you?
Right. I was doing session work around Dublin and I got a call: “Would I go out on tour with the Commitments?” I said, “Sure, I’ll help get you started.” I figured that’d take about six months or so. Six years later, I was still touring with them. We did very well and met some very cool people.
The Irish Rover is still talked about and missed. Any stories?
Too many. That’s where I met Brian Johnson, actually. Our first St. Paddy’s day I’d closed off the service road, and we had musicians playing outside. Brian arrived with six or seven other people. He said, “It’s about time we had a live music scene in Sarasota, my son.” Brian’s seven years older than me — and he kept saying “my son.” (laughs) We had a great old chat — Brian struck me as down to earth, just one of the lads. Then he asked, “What’s your slow night?” I said, “Tuesdays suck.” He said he’d come back with seven people next Tuesday. I figured I’d probably never see him again. Next Tuesday, Brian showed up with more than 30 people. I told the bartender, “I think Brian’s crew deserves drinks on the house.” Brian said, “To hell with that. Make them pay. That’s why we’re here!” We’ve been fast friends ever since.
Any thoughts of starting an Irish Rover II?
I’ve definitely thought about it. My wife and I have several grown children between us. My daughter is going to be 14. We’ve talked about opening a small place after she graduates high school. Going into it this time, my eyes will be a lot wider. I won’t make the mistakes I made the first time.
You’ll make new mistakes!
(Laughs) It’s a possibility.
What can audiences expect at your pre-St. Patrick’s Day concert?
I’ll be on horn with a fiddle player from Tampa called Darin Graves. He’ll be playing some Celtic tunes and also backing me up on some Irish pub songs — the kind that demand audience participation. Most either celebrate the hero who stands up to the British or the joys of falling down drunk. It’s all great fun.
“Finnegan’s Wake” …?
Oh, that’s a mainstay — people shout that out at you all the time. Also “Seven Drunken Nights” “Big Strong Man,” “Danny Boy,” “Fields of Athenry,” “The Wild Rover,” “The Irish Rover,” “The Limerick Rake,” “Swallowtail Jig” — all the good stuff that puts people in a happy mood.
Any contemporary Irish songs?
Absolutely. We’ll do a couple of originals, including a ballad about the Irish refugees who fled to America on rickety ships and often died along the way. There’ll also be some contemporary stuff—even a few U2 songs. As much as I can’t stand Bono’s egomania, it’s still great music.
Not a popular man in Dublin, I take it?
No. (laughs) The joke you’ll hear is: “What’s a difference between Bono and God? God doesn’t walk around streets of Dublin thinking he’s Bono.”
What can you tell us about Darin Graves?
Darin has incredible aptitude. He plays Celtic music in bars, festivals and Renaissance fairs all around. He’s a talented kid. (laughs) I call him a “kid,” but he’s over 30. Give him a fiddle and he’ll energize the crowd. It’s a concert atmosphere, but people do sing, clap and stomp their feet, as well.
Looking back at your life, you’re rarely in one place for any length of time. After decades of touring, have you finally settled down?
Absolutely, my wife and I just got back from a fantastic trip through Europe. It’s all very lovely, but Sarasota is home.