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Open Road Traditional Irish Band

Waterford 1986

Celebrating St Patrick’s Day 2024 Listen to Irish Trad Band ‘Open Road’ and read the story which features the development of the Irish ‘vari-didj’ which was originally inspired from listening to the album ‘Light in the Western Sky’ (1982) from Stocktons Wing . Bringing the ‘variable didgeridoo ‘to Australia and meeting Charlie McMahon (Gondwanaland Project) who also had invented his version called ‘didjeribone’. See this story below.


Track 1 Reels : Martin Wynne’s No. 1 & 2 and God Speed the Plough.

Track 2 Reels : Maud Millers and The College Groves. (The version of the 2nd tune Mick Crehan learned from Micho Russell who in turn picked it up from the great piper Felix Doran).

Track 3 Hornpipes : The Plains of Boyle and Pretty Maggie Morrissey. (also known as The Wexford Hornpipe).

Track 4 Jigs: Mac’s Fancy (Scots) and The Mist Covered Mountain. (composed by Jr. Crehan).


Following the introduction of the didgeridoo to Irish traditional music by multi-instrumentalist Steve Cooney of Stockton’s Wing, (see album ‘Light in the Western Sky’ – 1982), bodhrán player and now Co-Founder of Ancient Music Ireland, Simon O’Dwyer began to further experiment with the idea. He wished to use the ancient sound as an accompanying drone to the Irish traditional melodies. To this end, O’Dwyer came up with the idea of having one pipe fitting tightly inside another so that the overall length could be extended or retracted in a similar fashion to the workings of a trombone. With two short lengths he was able to play in the key of G when the pipes were closed and a D when extended with the E and F keys in-between. This allowed him to play with most of the traditional tunes and to change from one key to another. In the summer of 1986, O’Dwyer was invited by whistle player Mick Crehan, now of Crane Bar, Galway fame, to bring the new ‘vari-didj’ into traditional group ‘Open Road’ based in South Waterford to play a residency in the Anchor Bar, Dunmore East. Following the summer season, the band went into a recording studio owned and run by keyboard player Bobby Bible. Over two days in September 1986 an album of instrumental tunes was recorded for release on cassette. These recordings were unique and pioneering in that Bobby being a rock musician applied new and musically progressive techniques to the session. This gave a fascinating interpretation of tunes which had previously been given a flatter more conservative sound. A limited number of cassettes were subsequently released. In January 1987, O’Dwyer travelled to Australia to spend time in the Arnhem Land, Northern Territory to experience an emersion in didgeridoo playing and techniques from Aboriginal players. On his return to Sydney, he was invited to dinner at the house of Charlie McMahon who at the time was playing didgeridoo with his band GONDWANA. Charlie had heard about the variable plastic ‘vari-didj’ which O’Dwyer had brought from Ireland. O’Dwyer discovered that McMahon had made his own version of this a couple of years earlier and called it the ‘didjeribone’ which is a registered name and marketed by Charlie McMahon as a successful musical instrument which is now played throughout Australia and abroad. Most recently the ‘Melbourne Céilí Band’, who performed at Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann 2023 incorporating a ‘didjeribone’ or ‘vari-didj’ as part of the sound. Scott Dunbar independently created a version of the variable pitch didgeridoo instrument called the slide didge in the early 1990s. For many years the original master tapes of the recordings made in Waterford in 1986 by the band ‘Open Road’ which featured the first Irish ‘vari-didj’ were thought to have been lost. However, they have been rediscovered by O’Dwyer and Ancient Music Ireland. Whilst many of the tracks had been damaged so badly as not to be playable, there are four that survive intact. These include the powerful bass drone of the ‘vari-didj alongside the magnificent playing by the melody musicians. They also exude a brightness and presence which was new in 1986 and remains fresh and vibrant to this day. Open Road – band members – Leo Reed Flute, Mick Crehan Whistle, Gerry Whelan Mandolin, Kevin Whelan Mandolin, Simon O’Dwyer Vari-Didj, Nick Power Bodhrán, Jessie Broadrick Guitar (guest for recordings). Photo taken during busking festival in Waterford, summer 1986. Photo donated by Nick Power.


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