Southside Sessions

A review of the inaugural TRADITION:DL, the Dún Laoghaire Festival of Traditional Music

Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire, Co. Dublin, 3-5 August 2007

‘Eileanór na Rún’, one of the most beautiful love songs in Irish, delivered in sweet, measured style, unaccompanied; the beginning of TRADITION:DL, the first Dún Laoghaire Festival of Traditional Music, augured well. Could it be that this was a festival where music would be played and songs sung at a pace dictated, not by an invisible aerobics trainer with a stopwatch, but by the qualities of the individual piece? That was certainly how things went in the first concert, featuring sean-nós singer Róisín Elsafty and harpist Siobhán Armstrong. These musicians are of quite different musical backgrounds – Elsafty growing up in a house where traditional Irish-language singing was an integral part of everyday life; Armstrong at the forefront of exploration of Irish harping traditions and with an impressive record of participation in early music ensembles such as William Christie’s – but were clearly happy to be performing together. In the way in which they spoke of the music and the way they delivered it, there was trust that what gave them so much pleasure could give similar pleasure to the audience.

One of the fascinations of sean-nós is the scope it offers the individual singer. ‘Eileanór na Rún’ can speak to us in the stark, stony depths of Seosamh Ó hÉanaí’s voice just as it can in the tenderness of Elsafty’s. Elsafty ranged across the repertoire. We had light songs like ‘Píopa Ainde Mhóir’ or ‘Sí do Mhaimeo – this had a little less rhythmic kick than I expected – as well as classic big songs like ‘Coinleach Glas An Fhómhair’. The lullaby ‘Seoithaín Seó’ was sung with such wide-eyed innocence that there could have been a slumbering child on stage. Armstrong left the singer to her own devices at times; at times accompanied her with a light hand. The collaboration on ‘Síle Bheag Ní Chonnalláin’, a song Armstrong had resurrected from Bunting, was delightful. The wire-strung harp has qualities of its own: a lot of resonance, a surprising variety of colour and a hint of resistance to the will of the player that gives the music extra depth or body and not just the seductive surface associated with much conventional harp-playing. ‘Tabhair dom do Lámh’ emerged refreshed from this treatment and pieces like the lament of Ruaidhrí Dall Ó Catháin (c. 1570-1650) for his sister or Carolan’s ‘Farewell to Music’ were a revelation.

If the rest of the concert had been dull fare, we would have been content with the rich and satisfying first course. As it happened, though working from a very different cookbook, the Tap Room Trio were not planning to offer just over-cooked vegetables and lumpy gravy. With several recordings to his name, Belfast-born Harry Bradley is well known as both flute-player and piper. His interest in digging up material from old 78s is parallelled in fiddler Jesse Smith’s special interest in the music of Michael Coleman. Growing up in a musical family in Baltimore – not the illustrious jewel on the coast of West Cork; the other one, reputedly on the east coast of the US – Smith had Brendan Mulvihill as a teacher and after coming to Ireland played for a time with Danú. John Blake has a great reputation as accompanist on guitar but seems able to find his way round several other instruments as well. Both in physical manner and in style, there was a nice balance to the group: Bradley (the main talker) leaning towards the audience; Smith (interjecting and joking from time to time) upright and compact; Blake (almost silent) leaning back and looking entirely unflusterable even when playing full tilt.

What was pleasing about their approach was the shifting focus and texture, as players came in and dropped out. (And in an excellent flute duet, Bradley’s woody, breathy style contrasted well with Blake’s smoother tone.) There was variety too in the material played – reels, of course, but also slip-jigs, hornpipes, jigs, schottisches… – and in its sourcing (recordings from Chicago; tunes from the Canon Goodman collection given an exhilarating run-out). Altogether a very satisfying show. Many went home sated at this point but those with an appetite for more could cross the road from the Pavilion Theatre to the Gastropub Company – the name seemed to bemuse Bradley who creatively rebaptised it on several occasions – where young musicians like fiddlers Dermot Burke and Conor McEvoy, piper Seán McKeon and flute-player Domhnall Banks were playing.

The Saturday night concert had been advertised as a trio of fiddler Frankie Gavin, button accordionist Máirtín O’Connor and Tim Edey, but the guitarist had to drop out at the last minute. However, the other two did just fine without him. In the form they were in, nothing would have bothered them. These two do not perform as a duo very often but, having been friends since their school days and members of Dé Danann once upon a time, they know each other very well. For reasons of temperament, I suppose, I am not a believer in the super-speedy school of playing, particularly when accompanied by a relentless thumping on the beat – the kind of thing that leads an individual player like Dermot Byrne to waste his sweetness on the Altan blare. O’Connor and Gavin are famously speedy and energetic, but even the grumpiest critic could not help enjoying this performance, and in any case there were all kinds of swerves and shifts of rhythm for listeners to follow. The humour in the musicians’ patter – some very good jokes, mercifully, and not the uncomfortable laugh-seeking that can wreck a whole concert – could also be found in the music: if O’Connor zipped into a tune (and on one occasion, just for the hell of it, he put an extra twenty per cent onto his fastest), there was no knowing whether Gavin would race alongside, produce some kind of flamboyant counterpoint or even opt for lowkey discretion. There were occasions when one musician or the other seemed as surprised at proceedings as the audience. Lest yet more players or groups should be tempted to emulate him, it should be said, first, that Máirtín O’Connor’s imagination, like Frankie Gavin’s, is as quick as his fingers and, second, that there is a difference between listening to such virtuosity in the intimacy of a duet and listening to one more blur of hoofbeats as a posse of players gallop past on their way to the border. As it happens, this concert included a surprising number of airs. A kind of low keening proved to be a prelude to an ‘Aisling Gheal’ in which Gavin’s strummings and pluckings accompanied O’Connor and the latter’s groanings did the same for the fiddler. Gavin also gave us ‘Goldsmith’s Lament’ and O’Connor ‘Caoineadh Uí Néill’ (reminiscent surely of the classic ‘Aithris an Scadáin Leasaithe’). And these guys being true cosmopolitans, the spirit of Handel or klezmer was as welcome as that of Joe Cooley.

Caoimhe Hogarty opened proceedings on Sunday night, with Gavin Ralston a generally sensitive accompanist on guitar. Hogarty sings in the full-voiced Dublin style and it was appropriate that she paid tribute to Frank Harte for his encouragement of her earliest efforts. Owing to pre-concert circumstances not of her own making, we may not have seen her at her best on the night. Though she has an easy manner and communicates very well with an audience, some songs were a little rushed – easing the volume and slowing down a little would have given a more complete ‘As I Roved Out’ – and shouldn’t the lullaby have been delivered less emphatically by both singer and accompanist? Nonethless, there was plenty to suggest what a fine singer Hogarty really is – commanding a repertoire that goes from Elizabeth Cronin (‘The Bonny Blue-eyed Lassie’) to Ewan McColl territory. There was a striking English-language rendition of ‘Dónal Óg’.

(As on other evenings, the musicians had scarcely left the stage when recorded music came over the sound-system. If a break from music between two concerts is too much to ask for, could we at least have a few minutes in which to digest what we’ve been listening to? And, while we’re in the gripe department, why did the sound people set the volume too high for the start of several concerts?)

Slide took the stage for the closing section of the festival. This was a purely instrumental performance, show-casing the talents of four young musicians from Dublin and Cork: Éamonn de Barra (flute, whistle and keyboards), Daire Bracken (fiddle), Aogán Lynch (concertina) and Mick Broderick (bouzouki). This was trad for the international stadium, the fiddler in particular hopping and skipping around the stage (miraculously avoiding getting tangled in wires), stamping his heels, or at climactic moments standing right beside another musician in the manner of a rock guitarist. There was also a tendency to build up noise and excitement levels and to finish with a bang. For reasons suggested earlier in this review, these repeated group climaxes leave me rather indifferent, but in a performance that took in Brittany and the Appalachians as well as music composed by group members, there was opportunity also for individual musicians to shine. Bracken himself is no mean fiddler, Lynch really impressed on the concertina (as in one gavotte/slide/polka set), Broderick showed that he could do far more than ‘strum, strum and be damned’ (as the renowned music critic Wolfe Tone once put it), and the multi-instrumental de Barra sprang a melancholy ‘Amhrán na Leabhar’ on us near the end when the group seemed locked into top gear.

Quite apart from the quality of the performances themselves, the festival was notable for its prevailing good humour, the visible happiness with which the musicians played, and the warmth of the audience response. Readers of the JMI will be astonished to hear, therefore, that the festival programmer was editor Toner Quinn, who selected and introduced the musicians. Let’s hope readers will have the chance to investigate for themselves if this proves to be the first festival of many.

Published on 1 September 2007

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

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