Listeners at the Mitchelstown Cave. Photograph: Evening Echo.
Lisa Hannigan, Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh and James Vincent McMorrow
Mitchelstown Caves, County Cork
23 July 2011
Small pockets of people gathered at the entrance to Michelstown Caves, well armed with heavy coats and scarves despite the balmy, summer night. Cork Opera House – the concert’s organiser – had warned that the cave would be twelve degrees Celsius; a whole lot colder than it sounds when you’re sitting still for two hours, but entirely worth it for this most unusual of concerts.
We walked through an unfeasibly small door and descended the eighty-eight steps into the Tír na nÓg cave – I had to think of Alice and her rabbit hole – guided by the torchlights of volunteers, past tantalisingly tactile-looking stalagmites and stalactites. Signs warned, ‘Do Not Touch.’ We finally emerged into a large cave with the most perfect natural stage – and the most basic of stage setups.
Lisa Hannigan opened with a charming quip about the cave’s humidity being as terrible for stringed things as it was for her hair, but she persevered with guitars, banjos and ukuleles throughout her set. Playing mostly new material, her voice was enhanced by the surprisingly gentle acoustic of the cave – not the sort of cathedral reverberation you would expect. The lyrics and melodies of her tender and witty songs, ‘Travel Safe, Don’t Die’ being a prime example, were delightfully at odds with the imposing grandeur of the surroundings.
The fiddle player Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh also braved the humidity, switching between three different instruments in a series of his own drone-based compositions interspersed by his interpretations of traditional tunes. The context provided by Ó Raghallaigh’s introductions – where or how each piece was conceived – gave great insight into the inspiration of these instrumental works, allowing for a much deeper listening experience. Ó Raghallaigh’s music seemed best-suited to the event, playing with the cave’s own soundtrack of drips and echoes. The light, resonant tones of his Hardanger fiddle, and a brand new five-stringed fiddle built by the Norwegian fiddle-maker Salve Håkedal, suited the space particularly well, the gentle tones seeming to reach into every nook and crevice.
James Vincent McMorrow closed the evening with a set largely drawn from his debut album, Early in The Morning – interrupted by a pared-back interpretation of Mark Kozelek’s ‘Like the River’ with acoustic guitar, a much warmer version than the original. Throughout his set McMorrow used the simple combination of voice and strings to great effect, once memorably going off-mic, suiting the gentle acoustic of the cave. The concert drew to a close with a lovely rendition by all three of ‘Blue Moon’, for which Hannigan and McMorrow’s vocals were perfectly harmonised.
So softly, softly was the approach of all three, that I occasionally wished for something to challenge the music’s stability and push the limits of the acoustic – but perhaps future concerts in the space will allow for more experimentation in this regard. Indeed, new work commissioned specifically for the space would be an exciting prospect. But still, with the simplicity of hearing music and song in such ancient surroundings, watching the shadows of the musicians flicker against the rear walls, it was impossible not to consider the firelight entertainment that might have inhabited the cave centuries ago. A reminder that no matter how far we’ve come, the things that catch our breath so often remain the same.
Published on 12 August 2011
Aoife Flynn is a freelance music curator and manager. She blogs at www.stranded.ie