I do know where to start in this, a tribute to my friend, Dennis Cahill.
No one will ever replace him on the Irish music scene, where he won accolades for his stunning arrangements of traditional Irish music. Because I was graced to hang with him before illness caught up with him, I thought I would share some memories.
Dennis died Monday night after a long illness.
He was the most comfortably bald man I have ever met. Covered his head most of the time with a hat like the one above and cut whatever hair grew back because, he said, it’s much easier than trying to tend it. Hop in the shower and it’s done.
That is very practical advice from a man who travelled all over the world just because he was so good at what he did. You could be sitting with him playing at Chief O’Neill’s down on Elston one night and know that he had just returned from playing at the Royal Albert Hall, or Carnegie Hall, or any of dozens of other places where they knew what he and his musical partner, Martin Hayes, could do.
Dig down into this file from Ireland to hear some of it.
He was, of course, so far beyond the description “good” that there isn’t a word for it. If you were a guitar player, like me, you could just sit and watch and wonder where it all came from. Endless inventions, stunning scales, chords you would never reach in a year’s practice.
Then he could pick up a mandolin and play that just as well.
He was the best accompanist I have ever had as a singer. He knew how to take great advantage of the spaces, the quiet spaces, that live behind the scene in most songs. You would give Dennis a space in a song, any song, and he would fill it with elegant, beautiful runs, some so percussive you couldn’t figure out the timing.
He had the smallest hands I had seen on an adult guitar player, but he could stretch them so much further than anyone else that it would make us just sit and wonder how he did that.
Practice would be his answer.
He had a simple rule for all of us on guitar: play less. Too much noise got in the way of everything, he said. If you listen to his work, you can hear him using just parts of chords, holding back until the right moment. What he presented was powerful, but subtle at the same time. That is a hard mix for a guitar play to master.
Those of us who were close in the Irish music community back in the 1980’s depended on one another, for guidance, for the occasional filthy joke, for sympathy when you most needed it.
Dennis was at the heart of every bit of that.
When my father died, I headed to Hollidaysburg, Pa. to the little Catholic Church where he was to have his mass. Dennis and violist Liz Knowles and piper Kieran O’Hare drove from Chicago to Central Pennsylvania, pushed the reluctant priest aside and played a funeral mass that no one who attended will ever forget.
Then we all went to my sister Sandy’s place for an Irish session that wouldn’t stop, followed by a somewhat tipsy visit to the local Altoona bowling alley for some late night bowling.
It was exactly the kind of funeral my father would have organized. Dennis and his friends were at the center of it, and as long as I live, I will never forget that.
The final memory that I care to share (and there’s lots I care NOT TO} was when Dennis, Liz, Kieran, Brendan McKinney (the owner at Chief O’Neills’ and a great piper and floutist) and I got invited to play at the Wheatland Music Festival in Michigan.
I was scared to death, of course, and the others were so cool about it all I could do was stand back and try not to faint. Minutes before we went on stage, where I would sing a couple of songs I had written, Dennis grabbed me by the collar and looked right in my face and said, “If anyone here is going to screw this up, it’s you. Do your best.”
Except he didn’t say screw.
Heart pounding and dripping sweat, I went out with the band and Dennis off to the back playing behind every note I sang. It was the best experience I had ever had in music, and remains that to this day.
After we left the stage Dennis was back in my face again.
“You were like you had done that all your life. Terrific.”
When Dennis said something like that to you, you could carry it around forever.
We played at one of the sessions at the festival after the stage show. I remember one thing that said something that only a musician would appreciate about Dennis’s sense of humor. In one complicated piece, he pulled me aside and said “Whatever you do, don’t put that B minor chord in the package. That’s the worst cliche ever.
Off we go to play, and at exactly the right point, he dropped in the B minor and looked up and smiled at me.
I’d give a lot to have him play that kind of stunt again.