Live Reviews: Iarla Ó Lionáird / Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill

ESB Beo Celtic Music Festival, NCH, Dublin / 5 August 2006

It is not difficult to see the thinking behind the pairing of Iarla Ó Lionáird with Martin Hayes for one evening of the ESB Beo Celtic Music Festival. Both have unquestionable credentials as interpreters of traditional music; both are seen as bringing the music forward while maintaining respect for the past. Both are associated with, to take the title of one Hayes/Cahill CD, the lonesome touch. I was quite happy to be offered the opportunity to hear them and their fellow-musicians, but I was not over-excited at the prospect. I haven’t been entirely fascinated by some of Ó Lionáird’s recent work and I had begun to wonder if Hayes was not going to end up as the new-age wing of traditional music, a kind of Anam Chara on the fiddle. I was delighted to have at least half of these expectations vigorously kicked off the pitch on the night.

Iarla Ó Lionáird was accompanied by two very accomplished players, Leo Graham on electric and acoustic guitar and Graham Henderson on assorted keyboards (and guitar for one song). They did everything that was asked of them – playing the melodies straight, moving into lusher harmonic pastures, suffusing the songs with washes of colour, bending melodies into new shapes. Ó Lionáird sang a selection of slow and slowish songs in characteristic fashion and to the evident satisfaction of the audience. I was personally most taken with his vigorous rendition of ‘Mná na hÉireann’ and the newly worked version of Carolan’s ‘Eleanor Plunkett’, though it would be possible to single out other moments for equal praise. Ó Lionáird also paid generous tribute to Mícheál Ó Domhnaill and sang ‘Lord Franklin’, one of the songs for which he is most remembered.

I must admit, however, to feeling rather detached from proceedings for substantial sections of Ó Lionáird’s performance. I could not help feeling that he is too aware of the beauty of his own voice and that he has perhaps settled into a way of singing that could easily become mannerism. There were times when the switching between a light register and a more intense one (like a fiddler’s bow pressing more heavily on the strings) seemed almost arbitrary. It was curious to find what seemed to be an airy little song (‘Cu-Cu-ín’) sung with almost the same intensity as ‘Caoineadh na dTrí Mhuire’. Some variation in delivery, preferably arising from the individual qualities of the song, would surely provide a more complete musical experience.

Since seeing him perform against the clatter of a cash register and shake off a determined clap-alonger in a now-disappeared pub on Charlemont Street, I have repeatedly delighted in the music of Martin Hayes. I would have been quite happy with a performance as good as any of those I had previously experienced. It became clear almost immediately that we were privileged to catch Hayes in what may be the best form of his life. Apart from uttering hosannahs, what can be said of the Hayes/Cahill duo on this Saturday evening?

Let’s begin with Dennis Cahill. In the opening stages, he was more a minimalist percussionist, flicking out rhythms with perfect timing, than a guitarist. There was a surge of energy and excitement as, after a dance-tune had come down almost to a march, he finally opened out and soared into action, adding melody, counterpoint and invention to the mix. Cahill’s willingness to hold back until the right moment was the mark of a true musician.

Was Cahill’s restraint an accompanist’s way of high-lighting Hayes’ performance? Not at all. Both fiddler and guitarist were entirely focused on together drawing out the beauty of the music. And as tune followed tune they seemed to send each other spiralling up towards new levels of expression. Particularly pleasing was the fact that we started with a slow air and that two others were to follow. Hayes has always had the ability to bring slow-air colourations to medium-tempo tunes. Here, there was the opportunity to hear an intent exploration of truly slow airs. There were beautiful shifts from dark, piper-like near-dissonance to sweet keening in ‘The Dear Irish Boy’, for example. This was nothing like the sound-track schmaltz that passes for slow-air playing among some of our more eminent groups these days.

Hayes/Cahill have increasingly come to play what almost amount to suites rather than sets of tunes. Instead of flaking out endless reels, they mix things up nicely, playful unhurried hornpipes followed by skipping slip-jigs that trigger accelerating reels. Some of the transitions were breath-taking. I hope I can be excused for thinking of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ wind-hover, the ‘dapple-dawn-drawn falcon’ that rides the ‘underneath-him-steady air’ – ‘then off, off forth on swing…’.

Some of the material was familiar – the quirky twists and turns of ‘John Naughton’s Jig’, ‘Paddy Fahy’s Reel’ (and another Paddy Fahy reel or two), ‘The Bucks of Oranmore’ – but everything was played as if newly minted. Lest this become too ecstatic a review, I should say that, though Hayes’ ability to individualise each phrase even at the highest speed is extraordinary, there may come a time – or the time may have come – when the accelerating rush at the end of each suite risks becoming predictable.

Martin Hayes outlined his musical philosophy admirably in these pages some time ago. This concert demonstrated his particular relationship to the tradition. He loves the music that he has inherited and admires his great predecessors. At the same time, he is aware that the shift from dance-floor, cross-roads or kitchen to the concert-stage (and the CD) is more than a matter of relocation. The change of social function, the change in the relationship of musician to society and audience, necessitates a re-imagining of the core of the music itself. Without gimmickry or ostentation, and with a remarkable gift for communication, this is the journey on which Hayes – in the company of another outstanding musician, Dennis Cahill – invites us.

Published on 1 September 2006

Barra Ó Séaghdha is a writer on cultural politics, literature and music.

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