One night in 1983 at a recording studio in Tulsa, Okla., Skagway musician Rev. Neil Down made an acquaintance that changed his life - musically and otherwise.
He was working on a speculation session, never released, for Capital Records. In an adjoining studio were Dick Sims, a keyboard player for Eric Clapton, and Henry McCullough, a former guitarist for Paul McCartney's Wings and Joe Cocker's Grease Band. McCullough also was the lone Irishman to play at Woodstock.
"Henry stopped in, and we ended up hitting it off," Down said. "We recognized and acknowledged that kind of mutual pirate vibe, that cosmic brother, rock 'n' roll people kind of thing."
Down, who won't give his real name, and McCullough have visited and stayed in touch. For 20 years, they've been talking about working on an album together. Call "When a Wrong Turns Right," then, an art project of destiny.
Down and Lahna Deering, his co-singer, co-guitarist, collaborator, best friend and muse, traveled to Ireland in February after a two-week showcase in Switzerland and recorded 12 of Down's original songs with McCullough at a small farmhouse in Donegal County.
McCullough assembled an all-star cast of friends for the session: bassist Billy Robinson (who has performed with Mary Black and Topper Headon), pedal steel and rhythm guitarist Percy Robinson (Townes Van Zandt), pianist and keyboardist James Delaney (Van Morrison, Chuck Berry) and drummer Laurence Doherty (Frank Tovey, Paul Rodden).
Deering and Down will play a CD release party for "When A Wrong Turns Right," at 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Sept. 26 and 27, at The Hangar on the Wharf.
"I feel truly and totally blessed to hook up with these cats with these qualifications," Down said. "These guys are more proof of a higher power. It's like five different painters sitting down at one easel. They really hear it, and if it isn't happening with them, it ain't going to happen with me."
"When A Wrong" has the same complex arrangements - shades of jambalaya, Americana, brass bands and lonely pubs - as Down's last album, 1999's "American Friend." But "When A Wrong" manages to sound more focused, patient and planned rather than piled on. It still has the Reverend's tragicomic voice, equal parts laughter, sadness, recollection and ruse.
"He's got some great songs," said McCullough, by phone from Ireland. "I didn't hear any of them beforehand. I knew him as a human being. That's what made me want to help him. It was out of friendship."
The CD cover was designed by Juneau's Lucid Reverie, with illustrations by Swiss artist Bernadette Eberhart.
Deering and Down have been playing throughout Alaska, Canada and the Yukon since they met in Skagway in 1998.
"They have a nice rapport and that spreads," said Adrian Minne, a longtime local musician who's played bass with the duo. "They're just nice people, really fine people. Playing with them is just really easygoing."
So the legend goes, Deering and her mom, Paradise Cafe owner Joan Deering, were walking through Skagway one night when they heard music coming out of the Eagles Hall. It turned out to be Down.
"We couldn't get in because we weren't Eagles," Deering said. "But it rocked, and we started dancing right there in the middle of the street."
Down invited Deering to play a gig - her first. In 2000 and 2001, they recorded "Coupe de Villa," the first Deering and Down CD. Planete Indie, an independent radio station in Belgium, named "Coupe" one of the top 10 releases of 2001.
"Coupe" led to the band's Swiss showcase. Two Swiss fans saw Deering and Down play at the Dawson City Music Festival in 2002, listened to "Coupe" and "American Friend" and helped set up a two-week tour through Zurich, Bern, Basel, Lucerne and Lausanne. While organizing the Swiss tour, Down called McCullough and planned two weeks to record "When A Wrong."
Except for "Sometimes Paradise," recorded in 1999, the 12 tracks on "When A Wrong" represent more than three years of material.
"I had a little cabin in Skagway, and he'd come over and we'd have coffee every morning and play these songs," Deering said. "I always got so inspired and really started thinking about how cool it would be to go record these songs. If I liked them, I knew other people would like them."
"I knew I had to have my homework done, my little sparrows in a row, before we went," Down said. "It was like the cannon was stoked. The timing was incredible. James Delaney was coming through on a tour, and he's a musician's musician. And also Henry (McCullough) is the guitar god."
Deering and Down stayed in Port Rush, in Northern Ireland, and drove to the studio in Donegal, in the northwest part of the country, every morning. The studio sat in a wing of a roomy farmhouse in the middle of a patchwork, emerald Irish valley. Nearby was an Iron Age fort and a mystical pond, whimsically called Vanishing Lake.
"We walked in the first day and they had a table full of food and coffee and tea and bread," Deering said. "The hospitality was incredible."
"The studio was so warm and the guys were so cool," Down said. "If they had an ego, you never would have known it. They were looking to participate in a really cool art project. I look at a great band as pistons in a motor. If one gets out of hand, you blow a rod. This was like a sewing machine. When it stared to careen out of track, it was meant to sound like that."
They recorded the album almost entirely live, with one overdub.
"If we had a bigger studio in the city somewhere, I don't know if it would have gone as well as it did," McCullough said. "The Reverend's pretty good, he's pretty funky, and I think this showed a different side of him. He was able to extend out from what he does in the studio."
"Lahna has a very sweet voice, and I think they play really well together," he said. "She has a certain style of her own. With a lot of the Irish singers, we say they have a purity, and I think Lahna is bordering on that."
Recording time ran out and Deering and Down had to leave Ireland before McCullough could finish his guitar work on "Something About Forever" and "She's Talking To You." McCullough recorded it on his own and had one last surprise: he played his famous gold-top Les Paul. It was the same guitar McCullough played onstage at Woodstock and used for his well-known guitar solo on Wings' "My Love."
"I knew the Reverend likes all that stuff," McCullough said. "I wanted to bring the golden guitar out to let him know we were thinking about him."
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