The Road That Leads 
to Home

By Paul Bowen
 for the 2001 Cork Jazz Festival

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Johnny Fean and Steve Travers are performing during The Cork Jazz Festival at The Lobby on Saturday Oct. 27th at 4 pm, on Saturday 28th Oct at 4pm and Sunday 30th Oct at 3pm.

It was a mad Saturday night two years ago in North London when I saw them first perform.  And what struck me first about Steve Travers and Johnny Fean's playing was not their stunning musical ability - that's never been in doubt, but why it took so long for them to get together in the first place.  

It seemed that they'd both set out on a musical journey thirty years before and had bumped into one another by accident… Mr Travers I presume? in some faraway land. It also seemed that once they'd opened their travelling trunks, they found that despite two very different journeys, both contained exactly the same musical artifacts gathered on their travels.  

And what journeys, Johnny's from Trad banjo in Co. Clare, through the British Blues explosion of Clapton and Peter Green, melting these two strains into a uniquely Irish invention, the Celtic Rock guitar, clarion call of a new musical clan, Horslips, and to this day never bettered.  

Steve's journey took him from his days in Carrick-on-Suir with the magical James Delaney, straight into the crucible of spaced out psychedelic London. A twenty hour working day would see him play at a wedding in the afternoon, with perhaps a lounge gig in passing, to later freefall with Jazz Rock heavyweights ‘till way past midnight, which left him just enough time to record with some Reggae band, a session that might finish sometime around breakfast. Small wonder he slept with his bass guitar, surviving on a diet of raw eggs and milk.  

That of course was only the beginning of the journey. There was still much to do, once they were up and running. In Johnny's case it was finding a place for Horslips, first in Ireland, then out in the big wide world. It wasn't easy back then, being a guy with flares, eye make up and attitude in a musical landscape where shaggy jumpers and unruly facial hair were the order of the day.  

Johnny: 'Horslips came out of leftfield. Before us, there was no one doing anything remotely like it. We started a completely original thing; Irish melodies set in contemporary songs. We got lots of stick; people were very protective about Irish music and like any change, some people found it hard to accept. But those who just loved music said Yeah! This is it! This is new! Before us people had just been dabbling, but with Horslips everything came together in sharp focus. To me, Horslips was about the influences and elements that each member brought to the music.'  

In 1975, Steve's musical path was to take a catastrophic turn, something that still brings a shudder to those who remember one of the most shameful acts ever to darken Ireland's recent history. Seduced by the big time Showband wages back in Ireland, Steve left a multi racial Jazz Fusion band in London to join Ireland’s biggest band, The Miami Showband. Driving home to Dublin after a gig one night, they were stopped by a bogus British Army patrol. Within minutes, two terrorists from the patrol were dead, blown to pieces by their own bomb that they'd been attempting to secretly plant in the band's personnel carrier. Those remaining went on the rampage. Three band members were murdered in the hail of bullets. Steve and saxophonist Des Lee survived, Steve badly wounded. The soldiers were also members of the Loyalist paramilitary group, the UVF. The massacre shocked a generation.


Steve: 'That event has overshadowed everything else in my public life, but in 1976 I was the first to leave the reformed Miami Showband, as I couldn’t take all the attention and celebrity for something that had no music connection. I started teaching bass for a while.'  

But teaching is only half fulfilling on a road half travelled, and so in 1980, Steve formed The Crack. Signed to Sony, (then CBS), they toured with Doctor Hook and Tag Mahal and had a series of chart hits, perhaps the most notable being “When The Time Comes”, a tune that had a lot of people mistaking them for Paul McCartney. Sir George Martin told Steve he should get his own life and forget about becoming the new Beatles!  

Meanwhile Johnny had been doing his fair share of travelling, ten years of it to be exact. It had taken Horslips to within a whisker of every band's dream; cracking America. But it had also taken a heavy toll on the band members, who in the wake of Punk and the shifting demography of the music world, decided to call it a day. Johnny however, never forgot where he'd come from. 'Horslips were the Irish people's band, always going into this little town or that little town. We never forgot where our roots were.' For him, it was the start of the road returning.  

Steve was by now a session player on the Dublin scene, doing advertisements for radio and TV and, before once more returning to London, playing bass on “Breaking Star Codes" a solo album by a certain Barry Devlin, the bass player with Horslips. Steve and Johnny's paths were getting ever closer. It was only a matter of time. First though, a furious stint as one of the busiest bass players on the planet.  

Steve: 'I had the great fortune to work with some of the most exciting players on the scene, from African jazz musicians, members of The Hugh Massakela Band, bassist Aubri Oakey to South American and Cuban rhythm kings. Ironically my musical fulfilment arrived when I realised that the rhythm of my blood was in fact the beat that most excited me. Like James Delaney had discovered years before, Celtic music was what excited me most. I had ignored it all my life. I set about finding a role for the bass guitar in Celtic music as I believed that Rock and Funk or the flavour of the day had been superimposed on Irish traditional music for long enough, and for me it required its own bass style. The natural bottom end of Celtic music is the drone so I concentrated on the lower mids for bass guitar and used the rhythms of the Bodhran. When Johnny Fean heard this he insisted that I had discovered the missing link and we have both enjoyed our personal musical renaissance together ever since.'  

To hear them together is at once startling and inspirational. Steve wields a power and fluidity of playing that would leave even the legendary Motown bass players wide eyed in admiration. Johnny plays with a blistering fury unheard since Rory Gallagher; his searing vibrato like a rocket fuelled Uilleann pipe as he weaves molten melodies across a deep Celtic sonority.

Steve: 'There is no greater feeling than aquaplaning live with Johnny on our stretched out versions of classic jigs and reels or reworking some Celtic Rock classics.' 

It's taken a long time, but their paths are the same now, in music at least, the ideal marriage between contemporary and ancient Ireland now within their grasp. And that, after all these years, is not a bad place to be… together on the road that leads to home.


© 2001 Paul Bowen