Ensemble Ériu: what’s the appeal?

The more I listen the more I’m impressed. Each track says something different yet there’s absolute cohesion throughout… it’s brilliant. – Kevin Crawford of Lúnasa

Following their full-house headliner gig at the Martin Hayes-programmed Masters of Tradition festival in Bantry (where they also appeared on a very packed stage with Martin and Dennis Cahill and others as guests on the Sunday), and before that an Improvised Music Company gig in Whelan’s and the premiere of their commissioned music based on Jack B Yeats paintings at the Model arts centre in Sligo as part of Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann (and an appearance on Fleadh TV the same night), Ensemble Ériu have a number of concerts coming up that will hopefully allow more people to experience the intensity of their music: first on Friday, 19 September in the acoustically superb St Kevin’s Protestant Church in Hollywood, Co Wicklow as part of Music Under the Mountains, then in Triskel Christchurch as part of the Cork Jazz Festival on October 24th, and then in the Unitarian Church on St Stephen’s Green on November 2.

Heart-swelling, surprising, fresh and beautiful, it’s exactly what I look for in music. – Nialler9

I could be accused of being biased in relation to this group considering I helped them out a bit earlier this year in admin and publicity work, but I have nothing to gain by praising them and I wouldn’t say these things about them if I didn’t feel they were true.

They are an extraordinary band … lots of imagination, all sorts going on … they are something special.” – John Kelly of Lyric FM

I loved what I heard from the very first versions (with partly digitised instrumentation) of the tunes that Jack sent me. It was a surprisingly physical reaction I had, almost synesthetic, I’d say. I didn’t hear the making of the notes and beats at all, but instead experienced an overall, abstracted stimulation of nerves and felt little corresponding bursts of light or emotion in my brain. It felt like I’d stepped into a dreamlike world, somehow childlike too, happy, filled with a sense of potential and liberty.

Absolutely captivating and enchanting stuff … very refreshing and original. – Ellen Cranitch of Lyric FM

Their finished record (which doesn’t do them FULL justice) and early concerts (while they were still gelling) were (nonetheless) fantastic. No matter how often I hear them, I always get a massive jolt listening to the settings and to how these very talented musicians build them up before our ears, but I have never quite experienced that transporting effect as intensely again as I did in the first weeks of listening to them.

They’re a band who are getting brighter and bolder with every encounter. A recent Good Friday night stand in Dublin was full of promise and shine and today, on a much bigger stage and with a much clearer sound behind them, you could sense that potential and sparkle touching greatness. The musicians have a great nous for a track which goes from an graceful drawl to an infectious swing and can take the audience with them even in this setting. It’s music which is at turns both wild and mannered, a sound already with the stirrings of something special within its bones. You’ll be seeing and hearing from them again. – Jim Carroll, The Irish Times

But then I saw them again in Whelan’s recently playing a full set of the older material and everything changed. It was like they’d become a different group since the last time I’d heard them. They were (nearly throughout) so on top of the material they were able to shape it at will, inject it with hormones or something, or push and pull it like it was attached to them. As I said to them afterwards – a little out of breath, stuck for words and art-struck – I’d never been so close at a seated gig to just getting the-fuck up and letting go, just moving or yelping or singing or some kind of weird shit combining them all. (I’m reminded of the liberated responses to the music that is to be seen in the dancing of Fabulous Beast’s show, Rian. I wish! It might have been more like a concert equivalent of what some church people call being visited by the holy spirit. If I wasn’t so uptight and self-conscious a person I think I might have started speaking in tongues and flailing about the place.)

like immersing yourself in a sacred bath of purification… rich with soul and wisdom – The Celtic Music Fan

Was I the only one?

They’re a fantastic group who bring Irish music in a fascinating new direction … Their album is one of the most original Trad based albums since, well, The Bothy Band! Unlike most Trad style bands since then, Ensemble Ériu do not owe a lot to The Bothy Band. They’re a different kind of band altogether and more power to them for that. – Dave Flynn, Clare Memory Orchestra Artistic Director


There is so much going on in the music that some people might not “let it in” at first. As Tony MacMahon identified when he first heard it, there is an “impressive musical intelligence” behind this stuff. It goes considerably beyond the arrangements and settings that traditional music groups and audiences are more familiar with. Yet, they have always got a great response at concerts, including in places I might not have expected it. For example, when the venue audience at the Fleadh TV recording in Sligo didn’t pay much attention to them at first I wasn’t surprised, but I was surprised when quite quickly, once the more delicate scene-setting stuff was done, a good few of the people around me stopped their chatting and drinking and listened up.

I missed them in Bantry and was a little concerned their sound might not “fit” in the House, but I was delighted to hear they got a great reaction there too, and to see a few people online feeling somewhat similar to how I felt:

“Ensemble Eriu -an amalgam of trad, classical & jazz. Pure bliss at Bantry House” was one tweet.

And here’s what Finola Finlay and Robert Harris wrote on their Roaring Water Journal site after seeing them:

Perhaps the Harris/Finlay award for the most memorable experience – so far – has to go to Ensemble Ériu… It’s hard to describe the musical experience that Ériu gave us last night. It brought to my mind the works of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, but was nevertheless unique. Who would have thought that such creative things could happen in this quiet West Cork backwater? It was stimulating, energetic – dynamic. I wonder what Martin has in store for us next year? http://roaringwaterjournal.com/tag/dennis-cahill/

And what pleased me most was this post on the group’s FB page from Janet Adams:

Your Saturday night late slot gig at the Masters of Tradition festival in Bantry this weekend was simply joyously fantastic. It wasn’t what I expected on a Saturday night in Bantry at all, but with Martin Hayes running the programme I shouldn’t be surprised. You are the most exciting new band I have heard since The Gloaming and alt-j and I hope to see you hit the scene big time at the festivals next summer. Stages where I would love to see you would be the In New Music We Trust Stage at Radio 1’s Big Weekend, the blue tent at Womad, B.A.R.E in the Woods…and ye would have a ball on the Africa Express But I will go to whatever festival you play!!!!!!! Thank you so much for 2 totally amazing fantastic concerts …

As would have been on display throughout the Bantry festival, Irish music is blessed with melodies so ridiculously beautiful and rhythms so grabbing that it often captures people physically, including those with composing urges. Those melodies and rhythms are in some ways so irresistible they are very difficult to do much with as a composer without doing damage. That goes some way to explaining why trad ensemble playing hasn’t changed that much since the 1960s (as well as why arrangement is, where the playing is good, often totally unnecessary for the full enjoyment of the music). Nonetheless, every now and again, with exceptional talent, vast musical understanding and exhausting hard work, someone comes along (I’m thinking of the likes of Dave Flynn and Neil Martin, as well, for example) who can do something to open up a whole new realm of beauty in the music and around the melodies and metres, in terms of writing and arranging (as distinct from the great many players who do so in their playing) without drowning the essential elements.

(Delighted to hear Jim Lockhart playing a track from the album last weekend on Radio 1’s Weekend on One: mainstream appeal! Post-Gloaming, he referred to it as, though of course they were in the studio around the same time as the Gloaming were and working on the settings even before then, but there is something in the idea of it being post-gloaming, with a lower case, that I like!)



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