Temple Bar Trad
Various venues, Dublin,
25-28 January 2007
Temple Bar Trad, a festival of Irish music and culture only in its second year, has already become a large, wide-ranging event. Not only were there eight substantial concerts over four days, but also a range of activities for children, a ceili, advanced instrumental workshops, an exhibition of work by photographer Tony Kearns, plus regular pub sessions throughout the cultural quarter. On its current trajectory, and particularly because it is based in the capital, it has the potential to become the performance-based traditional music festival in Ireland, perhaps someday even presenting a Dublin alternative to Celtic Connections in Glasgow, which incidentally takes place around the same time.
Of the eight evening concerts, four were dinner-time showcases held in the 90-seater Cube in the Project Arts Centre. The showcase artists were connected by the fact that none, in these particular combinations anyhow, have recorded a CD, and yet each was sold out. There were several mentions from the stage of the fact that Dublin is not that well known for traditional music, and delight in the fact that now here was a festival which presented an opportunity to change that, but isn’t it rather the case that Dublin is known for music, but for the poor, tourist-geared kind, or even when the music is good for noisy playing environments? It is a bustling city after all. Either way, Temple Bar Trad could not have come a moment too soon.
While the last issue of JMI may have bemoaned a current lack of avant-gardism in traditional Irish music, Temple Bar Trad provided at least one moment which challenged that idea, though not, as you might imagine, in ensemble. Programmed by Finbar Boyle, apart from the final concert in the Olympia comprising Scottish singer Julie Fowlis and Irish bands Lúnasa and Dervish, the emphasis again was this year was on unaccompanied soloists and duets.
Wexford fiddle-player Steve Larkin and box-player Johnny B. Connolly have played on and off together for several years and there’s thoughtfulness, skill and finesse in their playing and arrangments, but given responsibility for breaking the festival ice, there was possibly too much reliance on guitarist Aidan Brennan to give the performance an edge. The precision of Larkin, however, contrasted nicely with the subsequent performance of Danny Diamond, a young Dublin fiddle player, who is less a technical but rather an expressive musician, and who was partnered by the solid playing of Danish banjo player Jonas Fromseier. The young concertina and fiddle duet, Edel Fox and Ronan O’Flaherty, who released a CD recently, had thus graduated to Project’s 220-seater ‘Space Upstairs’, and I was keen to hear this partnership live, Fox in particular having been voted TG4 Young Traditional Musician of the Year in 2004. Despite a punchy start – the virtuosity of musicians who are barely out of their teens, if even that, was evident here as throughout the festival – everpresent accompaniment meant that we never really heard Fox or O’Flaherty move out of a particular comfort zone. Both showed moments of magic in their solos, but the capacity audience could easily have absorbed much more pared-down music.
The showcase concert of uilleann piper Sean McKeon and fiddler Liam O’Connor, both from Dublin, was obviously promising – as festival programmer Boyle noted, they are two of the ‘most noticed’ young musicians in traditional music at the moment – but it actually provided the outstanding moment of the festival.
Seán McKeon has all the technical ability and energy to become a leading piper, though with the pipes an obvious style is not so obvious in a player so young. Like fellow Dublin piper Mikie Smyth, who showcased on Sunday, such is the dexterity of these young pipers that regulator playing, the traditional trademark of the master, appears to present little obstacle as both make them respond to their every chanter nuance, seemingly at will.
I had heard Liam O’Connor only twice before, both times on radio – in concert with McKeon, and also as part of Liam O’Flynn’s group. This is perhaps over a year or more ago, and on both occasions I was struck by his technical ability. However, there was no obvious indication then of the creative journey that he has clearly taken in recent times. Now only 23 years old, a fiddle solo of three reels half way through the set was, in a word, breathtaking. O’Connor is a former pupil of Seamus Glackin, but there is also classical technique there, and the influence of Chieftains fiddler Sean Keane was evident. And yet, while O’Connor appears to have studied the techniques of Keane, particularly piping ornaments, and there was suggestions of the influence of other masters, Frankie Gavin and Tommy Potts perhaps, here was a young musician who is essentialy standing on the shoulders of giants, but who has worked his way through these influences and created something of his own.
For several minutes, noticeably longer than an average set, the first reel appearing to be a sophisticated relation of the standard tune ‘The Merry Blacksmith’ and the last ‘The Hunter’s Purse’, another session standard, we teetered with O’Connor on the very edge of the melody as he stretched our concepts of the aesthetics of traditional music – expanding the melody, reducing it, compacting it, going forward, pulling back. This was dangerous music executed in a risky environment, with no accompaniment, no safety net, and there was no cutting short lest he run out of ideas. O’Connor has the potential to have a serious impact on fiddle playing. The pair’s final set, ending with the inevitable ‘Bucks of Oranmore’, brilliantly managed to avoid cliché, not least with O’Connor playing the fifth part cadenza-like all the way up the fingerboard. Advocations of the avant-garde suddenly seemed rather tame…
The ongoing reliance of traditional musicians on a scrumpled up sheet of paper on the ground to provide their set-list, to provide them with opportunities for tedious quips and giddiness, and to avoid engaging verbally with, and often even looking at, the audience, could be viewed as a harmless quirk of this genre, but more often it is just a cringeworthy example of unprofessionalism. Just as curious is the impression many performers seemed to have that audiences for traditional music, even in Ireland, are for the most part people who know little about this music. Seriously, how many times do we need to hear that Séamus Ennis was a famous uilleann piper?
Ironically, the showcase concerts were much more professional affairs than the main concerts. Christina Pierse from Roscommon, who sang entirely unaccompanied on the same bill as McKeon and O’Connor, had no piece of paper and delivered an excellent performance, demonstrating through song and words her deep commitment to traditional singing. Caoimhe Hogarty too, aged 29 and from Dublin, performed with a backing group of four others, and, having just finished a two-year diploma in traditional music performance at Ballyfermot College, it was clear that professionalism was on the exam-sheet. Possessed of a particularly beautiful voice, and a magnetic charm on stage, it is only a matter of time before she is snapped up by one of the more well-known traditional music groups.
The coupling of fiddle players Michelle O’Brien and Siobhán Peoples was Finbar Boyle’s coup of the weekend and it was sold out well before the festival started (again illustrating the knowledge and discernment that is out there among audiences – neither of these performers have even recorded a solo CD). As Siobhan Peoples said in her introduction, both being fiddle teachers, ‘landing on stage is like landing on a spaceship’, and thus it is not often that we would get to hear the pair in this setting. Yet they are exceptional musicians, and often it was like hearing fiddle master Tommy Peoples in magificent stereo, both having inherited that immediately recognisable bowed triplet from Siobhan’s father, who taught them both. Conor McEvoy from Co. Meath, another fiddle player uncovered for the festival, provided a less high-powered set, but is an extremely accomplished musician, carrying off a challenging strathspey (a tune type with dozens of quick triplets) in his very first set.
In the duet of Martin Quinn (accordion) and Angelina Carberry (banjo), it is clear that Carberry is the source of energy, precision and wallop, allowing Quinn a more relaxed, expressive space. There were many high points, not least because their choice of repertoire is creative, from an original jig written and recorded by Máirtín O’Connor on his Chatterbox album and yet rarely heard, to Mick Flanagan’s reel, a simple tune with real punch recorded in the 1980s by Frankie Gavin, but somehow also rarely heard, and the Princess Royale, another well-known tune with great creative possibilities and yet one which is rarely recorded definitively.
Mícheál Ó Raghallaigh on concertina was extremely successful both in drawing the audience in with a thoughtful programme and in regularly finding his level. Probably the most consistent performance for a soloist of the entire weekend.
Julie Fowlis and band (with Dubliner Eamonn Doorley of Danú on bouzouki) provided a reminder of the treasures that exist across the water that we really should be seeing more of in Ireland in major concerts like this – Eliza Carthy, John McCusker and Chris Wood for example (though Wood is indeed on tour in Ireland this March).
While Lúnasa can bring the house down every time, I wonder will I ever again be able to square myself with Seán Smyth’s fiddle solos, or Kevin Crawford’s flute or Cillian Vallely’s pipes, becoming, at different times, the vehicle for their colleagues’ gung-ho, rock-like expressiveness. I know the audience loves it, and I know I use to, but that’s the thing about the avant-garde; as soon as everyone loves it, it just doesn’t seem to have the same kick anymore.
Published on 1 March 2007
Toner Quinn is editor of the Journal of Music.
Toner Quinn is editor of the Journal of Music.