(A version of this first appeared in the Journal of Music.)
Iarla Ó Lionáird’s opening song, An cúil daigh-réidh, lit up by Thomas Bartlett’s abstract sound-scape, and the piano-pierced set of tunes it led into, were so powerful that, à la Yeats, “every casual thought of this and that vanished”. From the stage came a wave of thrilling musical force into which the audience willingly leapt as one. It produced an electrified response and a feeling of such finality we might have said: right so, we can go home now!
When the applause eventually died down, Martin Hayes’ deadpan joke, along the lines of ‘We didn’t know what to expect ourselves either’, summed up the uncertainty that I think this concert had generated beforehand. The combining of established musical icons, emerging talents and non-trad influences was bound to have us wondering whether this would be a greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts phenomenon or just a well-intentioned experiment.
If this had been a teaching exercise, a musical journey, as it were, the concert might have started, schematically, with the Hayes-Cahill showcase, in which a tune, in this case, The Sailor’s Bonnet, is played very gently, “broken up a little”, as Hayes put it, to let in more light, before the pace is switched to ‘dance’ and a set of tunes is virtuosically built up into a great roller-coaster of melody and mood. (It’s a toss up whether their duet, actually played mid-way through the second half, or the more experimental ensemble opener mentioned above, received the more applause.)
From there, they might have taken us to one of Ó Lionáird’s raw reworkings, in his great sculpted voice, of an old song, say, Thugamar Féin an Samhradh Linn, and given the classically-trained, jazz-influenced Thomas Bartlett a more familiar and flexible line to build up, add to and ad lib on.
And then, we might have gone to, say, Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh’s exquisite, but too brief, version of Peadar Ó Riada’s An Draigheann, moving into his own “region where traditional music begins to disintegrate” and texture and silence reign, before coming back, with Hayes joining in, to set up Ó Lionáird’s hewn rendition of Tráthann an Taoide and more of Bartlett’s foraying.
And, after a few other stop-offs, we might finally have arrived, where the concert actually began, at a Wagnerian-style synthesis of all these elements, leaving us speechless and breathless at the awesome places that creativity can take us.
But before you get carried away with yourself, this wasn’t an exercise of any sort, much less a class. We were just being treated to some great music, for goodness sake; indeed, music with firm footing in traditional tunes and songs, though never predictable thanks to the Cahill-Hayes playfulness. But even without Bartlett we would definitely have found our way into modern composed music of the kind Ó Lionáird has recently collaborated on with Donnacha Dennehy, and into looping improvisation of the kind Ó Raghallaigh is entranced by, and even into dance music and rock. Some of the wildness of rock solos came through, for instance, in the frenzy of their version of Óró, Sé do Bheatha ‘Bhaile reminiscent of Steve Wickham (“man, you make that fiddle sound like an electric guitar”). And there was even a trance like quality to some of the Hayes-Cahill approach, taken to hypnotic extremes by Ó Raghallaigh (whose duet with Cahill was so quiet as to be almost lost in the atmosphere of the near-sold out Concert Hall). It occurred to me that if it was standing only and a younger crowd there would have been dancing going on and it wouldn’t have involved any one-two-threes or lifting of feet.
But Bartlett added something. It was, in fact, watching Bartlett that gave the best sense of what this ‘band’ was about. Some of the time he sat sideways on the stool and became an attentive member of the audience, wine glass in hand even, imbibing a vintage musical heritage uncorked (with his help at rehearsal stage, it would seem). At other times, he threw himself bodily into the job of providing a more pronounced and edgy accompaniment to jigs and reels, including piano string surgery. (I wondered might he have experienced occasional twinges of frustration in trying to find fresh ways out of the scales of trad’s dance tunes only to be driven back to their undeniable strength. The effect he was aiming for wasn’t always found, I think, and was even reflected at one stage in a humorously-raised Hayes eyebrow. God only knows what face Paddy Maloney would have pulled!) And finally there was his Schroeder-like, head-down mission, including conductor-like hand movements, to introduce traditional airs to his classical and jazz graces, resistance be damned, tension and all.
On the whole, mission accomplished, I would think, and all the while, together, they managed avoid that artistic fog called ‘fusion’. Just as the name they have chosen for themselves is a time between day and night, the music they produced as ‘a band’ was more in between worlds than fixed as something new and synthetic.
But, don’t be fooled. The Gloaming is not a band; not even in the sense that Planxty was a band, or Altan is a band. For instance, even though the Hayes-Cahill set was superb and as ever a joy to behold, in terms of seeing The Gloaming as something distinct from careers to date, one could disagree with its inclusion in the midst of their first outing. If it had been the opener, perhaps it could have been seen as that pedagogic point of departure, but late in the proceedings, as it was, it felt almost too easy, and a little like a crowd-pleaser (even inducing some thigh slapping and hand clapping). To be expected, though.
So while solo careers and other projects won’t be flung in the ditch, in fairness, they do all seem to have agreed to step outside comfort zones for the sake of ‘the band’: Ó Lionáird played bodhrán for the first time on stage, Bartlett “hammered out jigs and reels” (Hayes’ humour, again), Ó Raghallaigh played second fiddle (albeit on his new Hardanger), Cahill ceded sonic space to the piano, and Hayes allowed himself, in the first place, to ‘join a band’.
The Gloaming (‘sa Ceoláras’, as it were) may not turn out to be the dawn of a new era, as, say Ó Riada’s Ceoltóirí Chualann did, but it is a most luminous way forward for adventurous music lovers.
REGARDING HUGH’S PHOTOGRAPH, I COMMENTED:
Hugh’s own experience of performing no doubt informs his sense of how best to present the live music experience in image, and it’s the physicality of it that comes across most powerfully in the long exposure technique he is exploring. I think the fact that the players are often not identifiable by their facial features in his photographs is very significant. It becomes rightly more about the music itself than about who is making the music and how they look – so central in how music is presented to us in this visual age. It’s cool, though, how Ó Lionaird is quite easily recognised here – the voice being a still centre in music compared to other instruments, and with the kind of singing Ó Lionaird does it requires a relatively still body to deliver. Bartlett’s back, in contrast, has become a Baconesque fluid form, looking almost naked, and full of uncertainty. Ó Raghallaigh’s hand-on-knee pose and Hayes’s vertical fiddle reflect the fact that this sequence was dominated by singing – the fiddlers look like they could have been chatting for much of it, though there was clearly some bowing going on at some stage. Cahill’s hat can be made out, but it’s the trace of his guitar going from a rest position to being played with concentration that is the most musically revealing element in the photograph. It’s very interesting too to zoom in on the audience and assess the reactions to the music in their faces – there’s quiet a lot of variety there. It’s also interesting to reflect on the fixed elements of the sound system, the piano and the ‘props’ and how they act as a kind of landscape in which all the activity takes place. (I notice that Bartlett didn’t get a chance to take a drop a wine during this set.)
The set list for that first night was as follows:
1. “An cúil deígh-réidh / Cois an Ghaorthaigh” (Song) / Catherine Kelly’s / Unnamed Jig Lullaby / Paddy Cronin Reel / Rolling in the Barrel / The Taproom / Tom Doherty’s Reel
[An Chuil Daigh Re / Catherine Kelly’s (slip jig) / Billy O’Rourke Is The Boy (jig, also referred to P Joe’s Lullaby, after Martin’s father) / The Mill Stream (reel) / Rolling In The Barrel (reel) / The Tap Room (reel) / Tom Doherty’s (reel)]
2. “A Necklace of Wrens” (poem by Michael Hartnett) / The Cliffs of Moher
3. The Wild Goose Chase (by Caoimhín) / The Old Bush / Dick Cosgrove’s / Saoirse (poem by Seán Ó Riordán)
4. The Lonesome Jig / Jack Connell’s Slide / The Boys of Ballinahinch
1. An Draigheann (by Peadar Ó Riada) / Untitled piece (by Caoimhín) / “Lag Trá / Tráthann an Taoide” (words by Dónal Ó Liatháin, air by Peadar Ó Riada)
2. “Song #44” with tune by Thomas Bartlett
3. The Sailor’s Bonnet / The Girl that Broke my Heart / ? / Ryan’s Rant / The Sailor’s Bonnet
4. Thugamar Féin an Samhradh Linn
Encore: Óró ‘Sé do Bheatha ‘Bhaile with The Glass of Beer