Are We Taking Enough Risks with Irish Music on TV?
There’s a common question that emerges when an Irish artist delivers a decent performance on our national station: why don’t we see more of this? Proud as we are of our vibrant scene we’re generally taken aback when there’s some air time dedicated to, you know, showcasing it. Other Voices, the darling of the Irish festival scene that takes place in Dingle every winter, had the foresight to make the most of both local and international talent, as well as the cosy and picturesque setting, and record their performances for broadcast. Sadly, you’d need to time a cup of coffee after dinner to stay up to see the thing on RTÉ, usually broadcast at around 11pm, long after we’re all ready for bed.
How do we get more Irish talent on Irish television, in a time slot that will actually cater to newcomers? How can we best showcase the spectrum of talent that is lauded in venues across the country? The answer, according to RTÉ’s The Main Stage, is to book a couple of reliable and well-known faces – R&B artist and former Dancing With The Stars contestant Erica-Cody and frontman of The Coronas Danny O’Reilly – to host a Top of the Pops-esque domestic showcase, complete with a live studio audience, interviews and roving floor cameras. The show took over the Late Late Show’s summer slot for six weeks, aiming to answer these calls for more music representation on RTÉ. The balance isn’t quite reached, with the interview portions often lasting too long compared to the performances. While I can’t agree with Liam Fay’s assessment in The Times that Cody and O’Reilly are ‘painfully inept questioners’, the interview portions are sometimes stunted by the presenters’ lack of experience and over-familiarity with the guests. Cutting down on the interview time and getting on with the music is probably the most important change that needs to be made if the show is to return for a second season.
Further issues arise with the format. Namely, the impulse to bloat the line-up with safe bets who serve little more than to provide recognisable faces and songs for the back seats. Westlife’s Mark Feehily joins pop artist Lyra in the first episode to perform a cover of Adele’s ‘Easy On Me’ that was surplus to requirements at best (there were also tickets up for grabs to see Westlife live just before the ad break). The Coronas fulfil a contract obligation (episode two) though they hardly need the exposure. The same can be said for Gavin James and James Vincent McMorrow, both of whom are mainstays on Irish radio, signed to major labels, and deliver on the mass appeal portion of the programming. More covers come from Farah Elle (episode 3) who takes on Massive Attack’s ‘Teardrop’ well, and Shobsy with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra (episode 6) covering ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ (an apt title for a somewhat wasted opportunity).
This filler only stands out considering the quality of original performances that do appear. Concertina player Cormac Begley is the highlight of episode one – and if you can tear your eyes away from his expressive technique, Stephanie Keane is on hand to showcase some impressive, percussive sean-nós dancing. The Scratch (episode 2) are ceaselessly charming performing ‘Seanchaí’ from their energetic and vibrant debut Couldn’t Give A Rats, released during the 2020 lockdown. The Narolane artists Denise Chaila, God Knows and Murli are reliable as ever (episode 5) with Murli in particular stepping into the spotlight, long enough to prove that we’ve been sleeping on him, and a rare bout of singing from Chaila. Wyvern Lingo also takes to the stage, before taking a break to pursue future projects. Their three-part harmony a cappella performance of ‘Used’ is enough for a petition to be started to keep them together; this is a band who will be sorely missed on the festival and live circuits in the coming years.
Also delivering are Mick Flannery and Susan O’Neill (episode 2), who honed their emotional duets on an American tour earlier this year. Soda Blonde, the underrated project featuring the majority of members from disbanded Little Green Cars, are practised and composed, while Tolü Makay delivers a spellbinding vocal performance of ‘Lonely’ – her hands shaking as they take to the piano for the opening chords is a sweet reminder of how far she’s come since first covering ‘N17’ on RTÉ a couple of years ago.
Damien Dempsey melds well with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, the backbone of the final episode, performing ‘Love is the Bomb’. Finally, the series rounds out with the hosts taking to the stage with the orchestra to perform The Cranberries’ ‘Linger’, an arms-around-the-shoulders sing-song that sums up much of the series.
Each episode, available to stream on the RTÉ Player, runs at about 50 minutes, 20 of which could be cut if we’re to lose lengthy interviews, ‘celebrity’ appearances from radio DJs, and cover songs.
A smoother and ultimately more enjoyable experience would push the banter aside, shelve the old reliables, and fully embrace the diversity of talent this island has to offer. Doing so means more than simply showcasing different genres; it comes from allowing artists to take to stage without the further obligation to cover Stevie Nicks or duet with the host’s band. Collaborations across genres are only going to work if they feel organic, and not part of a contractual agreement.
Many of the acts that appear on The Main Stage have already had their time in RTÉ’s studios, performing on the Late Late Show for instance, so the impulse to provide a familiar face to viewers in this slot is understandable. But is it representative of what actually makes our scene so exciting? Or are we resting too much on our laurels to take real risks?
To watch The Main Stage, visit www.rte.ie/player.
Published on 25 August 2022
Andrea Cleary is a freelance music and culture writer based in Dublin.