The last time I heard The Gloaming at the National Concert Hall, they were really just a half-formed thing, a “project”. Barely out of rehearsals and having spent a mere handful of days working together as a group, they nonetheless blew us away with their mix of the expected from the lead actors – Hayes-Cahill slow-build-to-rapture sets, Ó Lionaird ancient rooted blues; and the unexpected from the supporting roles – Ó Raghallaigh minimalism and texture, Bartlett impressionism and musical liberty; together producing re-energised arrangements and a collective “sound” that broke through genre barriers. After that opening gig, the troupe went on a small tour of arts centre venues around Ireland and got a few glowing reviews in the Irish media.
This time, last Sunday, 1 March, the “project” – now a massively successful musical phenomenon, on a three-night, sold-out residency at the Concert Hall and ahead another international tour – was worthy of the label “band”. Though the remarkable energy and delivery and the audience reaction were the same, a lot had changed. The most noticeable thing for me, I summarised in my head as: ‘Thomas and Caoimhín have said to themselves, “Enough softly softly. I’m putting my stamp on this”‘. And that’s what they did. The lead roles may be still there, but, as they say, the plot has thickened.
Thomas’s playing was even more elaborate and vibrant than I remember from last year. It asked more and bigger questions of the music and of the others’ contributions. He is a very expressive player both musically and physically. He danced more than played the piano: gyrating, bending over, enveloping, giving, denying, caressing, buttering, conducting, percussing, empowering. He gave everything of himself to it; sweated over it, in fact. And it responded: literally, in that it moved on stage during louder moments; and musically, in that it was often the most radiant sound in a room full of radiant sounds. He also threw in a touch of dissonance, I think at one point. And he spoke … a few quiet words of thanks.
Caoimhín also seemed to me much more to the fore this time round in terms of leading more tunes and more noticeable in various arrangements. Yes, he sat back and listened to Martin’s solos (– it’s great to see the genuine appreciation on his face during those, and equally eyes-closed Iarla rocking with the tunes), and yes he is often the viola to Martin’s violin, but he had, I think, more solo moments himself and seemed to be offering much more than just texture and harmony in the ensemble moments. Three tunes of his were included in what we heard on the night: a march used for the setting of Francis Ledwidge’s poem, ‘Lament for the Poets: 1916’, and two other tunes, ‘If and only if’ and ‘ Wild Goose Chase’. It was very much his ‘Páidín Ó Raifeartaigh’ under Iarla’s rendition of ‘Cuckanandy’. (And that’s just what I remember without notes – I intended not to write anything about the concert, but it has proved to have been too good.) And he spoke.
I see more clearly now too, that because of the fullness of Thomas’s sound, the usual two-hander link between Martin and Dennis is very different in the Gloaming: Martin, by necessity, responds to whatever force is most to the fore: piano or voice or Hardanger. So, Dennis is found more often working with Caoimhín in the quieter plots. He has one or two lead moments, but there is still room centre-stage for more from the guitar, I think.
Another very noticeable difference from recent outings was the amount of new material. No ‘Opening Set’ at all, and in its place, a brand new song – a setting of Seán Ó Ríardáin’s poem ‘Oilithreacht Fám Anam’ (‘My soul’s pilgrimage’) – opened the night, and illustrated the band’s determination to integrate even more the voice with the tunes. Hayes played a reel (‘Touch me if you dare’) under Iarla’s singing and it worked brilliantly, before they went on a pilgrimage of (seven?) tunes, including those two of Caoimhín’s, with Iarla more comfortably (though still too quietly, I think) contributing on harmonium. The song integration here was slightly more successful, in my opinion, than the later ‘Éiníní’, possibly because Iarla’s voice was the establishing sound in the first, whereas he had to come in to an already full soundscape in the latter.
Also new were the Ledwidge setting, in which Iarla sings in English for the first time with the Gloaming; and a setting of an extract from ‘Acallam na Senórach’ – the medieval narrative of Oisín telling St Patrick about the Fianna; and (as announced by Caoimhín) two reels by Martin. In fact, given that many of the tunes were not on the album and not ones that I recall from previous concerts of theirs, and that I think the settings of ‘Éiníní’ and ‘Slán le Máigh’ were first outings for them, this was close to a totally fresh start for the band; and a testing of material for the next album, no doubt. All the more impressive, then, was the fact that they won the audience over just as much as in 2011.
Meanwhile, a few days later, the news that the main award at the Meteor Choice Music Prize was won by The Gloaming from a shortlist that included Sinéad O’Connor, Hozier, James Vincent McMorrow, Damien Rice, U2 and a few artists I know little or nothing about. This is quite amazing, as was the fact that the album was the number one seller in Tower Records last year, given, first, that it’s an album coming out of such an old tradition, and second, that it was made while the group was still very much in its creative infancy.
What I see in this is three things: one, that a few quite different but mutually-empathetic artists came almost naively (in hindsight) and very tentatively together and surprised themselves and us with how well what they had all been doing separately “worked” when, simply, put together. Two, that a world vaguely familiar with and somewhat disposed towards certain aspects of the music by bands like Planxty, Dé Danann, Altan, Dervish etc. was unknowingly already primed and waiting to fall in love with something with Irish traditional music roots, once the vibe was contemporary and the delivery was “open”. (‘Opening Set’ was apt in more ways than one.) And three, that the opening act is over. Act II is shaping up nicely and the drama may be more focussed on the supporting roles.