Godbotherers & godpleasers

Olov Johansson is a Swedish key harp (nyckleharpa) player (“you push the frets to the strings, rather than pushing the strings to the frets”) who has developed strong connections with traditional Irish musicians. Traditional Swedish music I would describe as more formal, gentle and classical in its patterns than our traditional music, but last night’s concert was an exploration of the universality to be found in music through collaboration rather than about differences.

Conor Byrne has brought together Dervish fiddler, Tom Morrow; peripatetic guitar player and singer, Gerry O’Beirne; and Olov (who has also played with Dervish & many other Irish musicians) for a Music Network tour exploring music’s inevitable fluidity of form.

Olov’s ability to play traditional Irish music (ranging from mostly straight along melodic lines to occasional more adventurous harmonies) as well as the time he has spent here absorbing the traditions are bound to influence some of his playing of Swedish music and his compositions, and the same goes for the Irish players. In fact, I thought I detected something a little Swedish about one of Tom Morrow’s own reels, though I could be wrong. And surely Olov’s ‘Going Green’, which he wrote especially for his companions on stage, has some nod to the Irish tunes he’s been listening to and joining in on.

The arrangements of the Swedish polskas and waltzes that we heard were impressively handled by mostly trad-playing Conor Byrne and Tom Morrow (the latter employing a viola for the purposes), and, it seemed to me, particularly relished (as a new journey?) by the less easily ‘placed’ Gerry O’Beirne.

In a diagrammatic way, you could say the Swedish tunes were the ‘serious European’ element of the night, while the Irish reels were the ‘wild island’ element, and so Gerry’s cosmopolitan songs, instruments and playing were the ‘wayfaring vessel’ of this voyaging variety show, or the comedy! Chicken is Nice, an African fishing song had us singing along in the pews, for instance. But that artificially imposed structure completely falls apart when you think of Gerry’s serene Night in Ventry on solo ukulele and his beautiful Fergus River Roundelay; the weightiness of Conor’s TG4 piece, Faoi Lán Cheoil (“made up more than composed”); and the gentle jauntiness of many of the Swedish pieces.

Gerry’s versatile playing moved easily from chord-rhythm accompaniment to melody & harmonies and lead; and his compositions were thrilling. His wry sense of humour and profane sense of life come across brilliantly in his songs and introductory remarks. (He has also given me my first experience of slide guitar in trad music.)

Another first for me was to hear Conor Byrne singing live. He has a very strong voice (runs in family, clearly; reminded me most, though, of Dave Curley of Slide) and displayed lots of its character in nailing and putting his own stamp on both a Fionn Regan & a Christy Moore. Meanwhile his and Tom’s consistent lift and interplay in the reels that formed the backbone of the playlist was the icing on the cake of a fantastic night of songs, re-working of old tunes, and original tunes from many traditions.

Fair dues to Music Network & all who have put this together.

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