This Music Network tour, for which I wrote the programme notes, started last night at the Sugar Club in Dublin:
Cold Mountain tells the story of a young couple, Ada and Inman, from North Carolina, pining for each other while separated by the events of the American Civil War. From the start of their relationship, they have problems finding common ground. One of the themes running through the screen adaptation is misunderstanding, misreading, and communication breakdown.
Brendan Gleeson plays a fiddler, Stobrod, and his first scene shows him being led by Inman to the bedside of a mortally wounded confederate soldier.
Inman: ‘Son, this fella says he’ll play whatever you want.’ Misreading the mood, Stobrod says, ‘What about “Bonaparte’s Retreat”? That’s one I play,’ and he launches into a few bars of the dance tune before realising it’s not quite fitting.
Barely able to talk, the dying soldier says he’d like ‘something sweet, like a girl’s waiting for me’, and he begins to describe a vision of his home place. Stobrod is discomfited: ‘I don’t know what music that is’, he says, but not wanting to disappoint, he falteringly places his fingers on the fiddle neck, closes his eyes, and begins to make up as best he can, uncertainly, a more melancholy improvisation.
The film’s music, in which Dirk Powell played such an important part, is a communication itself, of course, repairing awkward moments and making up for things left unsaid or unsayable, not just between the characters in the film, but between the film and the audience. As in most modern films, scene after scene has its emotional charge either enhanced or delivered entirely by music, but in this story music actually plays a lead role. And it is mostly unpretentious folk music, made – like Irish traditional music- for entertainment and expression by the people themselves out of whatever means were available to them.
It was while working on Cold Mountain that Brendan Gleeson met Dirk Powell for the first time (though it wasn’t in Hollywood, Los Angeles, but in Hollywood, Co. Wicklow). Powell recalls: ‘There was an instant familiarity there, an understanding that was just felt in an unspoken way of what it meant to dig really deep for self-expression. During the course of filming, we played a lot of music together in several different corners of the world.’
Interestingly, American music came before Irish music for Gleeson: ‘I started off on guitar in my mid-teens and learned bits of ragtime and old-time after hearing Doc Watson recordings and seeing him play in Dublin.’ It was only after he left school that he ‘fell in love with traditional Irish music’. He was presented with his grandfather’s mandolin and that’s when the music ‘began to mean something more’. (Coincidentally, Powell’s grandfather was also a significant influence on his passion for folk music.)
Gleeson is self-deprecating about his playing: ‘I mucked about on banjo and fiddle and have been struggling manfully with them since,’ he says, but in fact he could easily have pursued a career in music. In the early ‘80s he played with an old-time band call Fire Hose Reel (with Gerry Hogan, Francis Gaffney, Tadhg O’Sullivan and Charlotte Bradley), and they had a weekly residency in Thomas House in Thomas Street for a while.
But it has been his meeting with Powell that has got Gleeson back exploring his musical side again. Gleeson acknowledges that he has ‘learned a lot’ from Powell, and it is no wonder considering the latter’s affable nature.
Michael McGoldrick first met Powell at the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow in 2006, introduced by Karan Casey and John Doyle. He describes Powell as having a remarkably open spirit: though they’d only just met, Powell asked McGoldrick to join him for a jam on the Festival Club stage with the simple phrase ‘Do you fancy a tune?’ McGoldrick loved that un-precious attitude, and was delighted a few years later to get the opportunity to work with Powell on the BBC series, the Transatlantic Sessions.
Powell says, ‘There’s an interesting connection [with McGoldrick], with both of us having grown up in places where our parents went for work, removed from the source of the culture that we loved and that really inhabited us. There are a lot of similarities between people moving from Ireland to cities like Manchester for work and people moving from the mountains of Kentucky and West Virginia to industrial areas along the northern Great Lakes in the US. There’s no international border between those places in America, but there might as well be. They are vastly different. So, in some ways, Mike and I both play the music with an understanding … that’s tied not just to the power of it but to people for whom it represents a distant home… I think that adds an intensity of feeling.’
McGoldrick became a big fan of Powell, recording a beautiful version of his song, ‘Waterbound’, on his 2010 album, Aurora and helping out on Powell’s forthcoming album, Walking Through Clay.
It was on the Transatlantic tour in 2013 that Powell asked him to join this line-up for the Music Network tour. Though McGoldrick has never played with Gleeson or with Francis Gaffney, he felt that given their backgrounds ‘it can’t be that difficult to get together and put a set together … I’d like to play a lot more music together rather than doing four individuals on stage’ doing their own sets. ‘I’m looking forward to playing with Brendan […] he is into the Sligo-Leitrim style of fiddle playing; and Francis [Gaffney] is from Boyle; and I grew up listening to Matt Molloy; so I think there’s plenty of common ground to work from there.’
Separately, they’ve been gathering potential material for this collaboration. McGoldrick has been learning some old-time songs, writing some new stuff, and short-listing tunes that he and Gleeson might consider. Sounds like a version of the mix that created the American ‘roots’ music in the first place: something coming full circle.
Powell himself is, in Steve Earle’s words at least, ‘a badass’. What does he mean? ‘He is a singer, songwriter, producer, recording engineer, and an all-in-all artist of unique vision and unbending integrity. As far as I can tell there is no genre of American roots music that Dirk doesn’t understand, no primordial mode he can’t master, no polyrhythmic code he can’t crack.’ As Joan Baez said, ‘God gave this one an overdose of talent.’ Powell is not only a living exponent of American traditional music, he is also an expert on and has written extensively about the culture of early Scots-Irish immigrants to the Appalachian region: those eighteenth-century Presbyterians who had moved to Ulster to escape oppression before moving on to North America. In search of new lands, they spread through the Carolinas, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee, mixing with other Calvinist Europeans, putting down the roots of a new world, developing new communities, surviving and unselfconsciously making a new culture.
Though the music may be different from that of the post-Famine Catholic Irish that came mostly in the next century, there was common ground.
Powell observes: ‘I always find that Irish audiences respond to American traditional music because it is a not-too-distant cousin. So much of the story of American music is the way traditions from Ireland mixed with music from Africa. If you listen to those sounds, look at the dance, eat the food you can just feel the way they mixed and what they created. There are other influences, of course, but I think American music often resonates around the world because it brought those influences from every corner of the world and cooked them up into something new that people recognised and found exciting.’
The tour continues: the Mermaid County Wicklow Arts Centre tonight; Thursday 9th January glór, Ennis; Friday 10 January, Hawkswell Theatre, Sligo; Saturday 11th January The Dock Arts Centre; Sunday 12th JanuaryPavilion Theatre; Tuesday 14 January Station House Theatre Clifden; Wednesday 15th January Birr Theatre & Arts Centre; Thursday 16th January Triskel Arts Centre, Cork and Friday 17th January at Riverbank Arts Centre.