Upstairs @ Whelans was the setting for Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker's first ever gig in Dublin. When explaining to my other half who I was going to see I just said, “I saw them at Cambridge”. That is enough to justify that I am going to see something that was so good, it just has to be experienced again.
Support came from Bostonian Dietrich Strause, who has been on this entire tour with the couple. Ben guested on guitar on one of his songs and Josienne on vocals on another one. Dietrich had his brand new CD 'How Cruel That Hunger Binds' for sale at the show.
Josienne and Ben almost seem to come from a different time. Their music at times sounds medieval, classical, and at other times reminiscent of 70s folk – Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson in particular.
The previous time I had seen Josienne and Ben they had had a band with them, that included Red Clay Halo musicians Anna Jenkins and Jo Silverstone. This time they were on their own – just Ben's excellent guitar-playing and Josienne's beautiful singing. I loved the pared down sound.
Although she comes across as shy and sings either with eyes staring in the distance or cast down, Josienne Clarke has a wicked sense of humour and her in-between song talk perfectly balances the bleakness and melancholia of the songs. She is the songwriter in the duo and this is no mean feat. The majority of the songs performed at Whelans were written by Josienne and they were magnificent.
'Something Familiar' from their just released album 'Overnight' is probably the best song she has ever written. If there is any justice it should get nominated at next year's Folk Awards. If interested, check YouTube for the haunting video for this song, starring actress Olwen Fouéré. I am not a fan of story videos as I prefer to have my own images with songs, but this is a fantastic video that plays on in your mind long after watching it. And as for the song, it has the same qualities as Richard Thompson's 'Beeswing', Tom Waits' 'Martha', Martin Simpson's 'Never Any Good'... in other words: It makes you cry.
The set included a few covers. Josienne joked that Gillian Welch must know her, as 'Dark Turn Of Mind' seems written about her! I did not know the song but am now going to seek out the original. They also covered Fairport Convention's 'Fotheringay' (nice) and 'For All We Know' by Nina Simone. The latter has never been my cup of tea, but that's nitpicking.
The gig was reasonably attended but it was by no means full. There is not a huge audience for English folk in Ireland, though the Unthanks and Kate Rusby draw big audiences these days. In a way it is a privilege though to see such amazing artists in the intimate setting of the upstairs room at Whelans. You got the impression that everyone present was in awe of the gig. There was zero walking and talking during the set.
It was quite a contrast then to transit from the beautiful music made by this talented, well-spoken duo into the crassness that is Camden Street on Saturday night at Halloween weekend... I wanted to just run home, close the door and put on the CD to prolong the atmosphere of the concert.
Daoirí Farrell has been on my radar for some time. I first came across him when he supported Solas in Whelans, quite some time ago. When he spelled out his name at the end of that gig I paid close attention, as this was an exceptional singer I was going to keep an ear out for. Last year I caught him with the group Four Winds at a tradfest. Both times I thought he was superb, but the gigs were too short, so when his album launch show at Whelans was announced I jumped at the chance to see a full concert.
There was a great buzz in Whelans. The queue to enter stretched around the corner, the upstairs was open and it took forever to get a drink. There was no support and Daoirí played with a full band, with some songs performed solo. He seemed nervous at the start but relaxed soon enough. This was a home show (he hails from Bluebell, Dublin 12) and many friends and family were present.
His most popular song, 'Creggan White Hare' (over 130,000 views on YouTube) was played early on in the set. On that song and on some others Daoirí's singing and mandola playing are reminiscent of Andy Irvine. Although I am a longtime trad aficionado, I know relatively little about ballad singing. I have heard of Frank Harte and of course Christy Moore, but that is about it. I always find it interesting when singers explain how they came across certain songs and who they learned them from.
Daoirí's band included Tony Byrne on guitar, Robbie Walsh on bodhran and Paddy Kiernan on banjo. The bodhran playing stood out for me. The band was padded out with fiddle, two pipes and cello on some songs. It is a personal preference of mine that trad ensembles should not be too large and I would have been happy to have just the main three accompanists, though there is no denying that some of the pipe-playing was very beautiful. Michael McGoldrick plays on Daoirí's new album and as I am a huge fan I had secretly hoped that he might be there, but one cannot have it all.
Daoirí's debut album, 'The First Turn' is from 2009 and it took him seven years to come up with this successor. In the intervening years he has been singing and gigging, and obtained an MA in music performance from the University of Limerick. The launch of 'True Born Irishman' felt like quite a special occasion and Daoirí said several times how much the great turnout meant to him.
After Lynched and Ye Vagabonds here is yet another great new Dublin-based act. Dónal Lunny has said that “Daoirí is one of the most important traditional singers to emerge in the last decade”. Jools Holland may well come calling soon and if Cambridge Folk Festival do not book Daoirí for next year I will eat my hat.
Last Sunday I attended a living room concert featuring Bronagh Gallagher. I went without doing any research. All I knew about Bronagh was that she was one of the three girls in the Commitments, and I trusted that since my friend Áine had booked her, she must be okay. What a lovely surprise this was. Bronagh is a soul singer, I knew that much, but also a fantastic songwriter. I don't know why I expected that part of the show might be covers. Instead it was all original songs; excellent songs and great stories to go with them.
Bronagh explained that the songs are best performed with a big band including a brass section. For this gig however it was just herself and guitarist Conor Brady. I have since had a sneak listen on iTunes and realise what Bronagh means with the big band treatment, however these songs worked wonderfully well in the intimate living room setting, with just vocals, handclaps, guitar and some great audience participation. Standout songs for me were 'Johnny Eagle', 'Shortcut', 'Radio' and 'Fool'.
The in-between-song chat was as entertaining as the music. Bronagh is an actress as well as a singer, and a great character to boot. I do not want to ruin the stories for anyone who may go and see her in the future, but they featured amongst others a Czech metal bar, a Notting Hill apartment with Christopher Lee knocking at the window, Woody Harrelson in a Malibu kitchen, the Beauty School in San Diego, Kenny Everett impersonating Rod Stewart, the fact that the Irish have heard of Dr Dre, and legendary Dublin tattoo artist Johnny Eagle. It was evident that Bronagh is an avid music fan herself. She name-checked Amy Winehouse, Dolly Parton and Lisa O'Neill.
The taxi driver who had driven Bronagh to the gig had commented that this was like a busman's holiday for her, to which she had replied, “Ooh aye”. During the gig she confessed not knowing what that meant. Much hilarity and speculation from the audience. I have looked this up and a busman's holiday is 'a vacation during which a person engages in activity that is the same as or similar to his or her usual employment'. I don't think the show could have been classified as vacation at all, as Bronagh and Conor put on a long and varied concert, drinking only tea.
I never though of myself as a soul fan, but maybe I should reconsider. Bronagh's songs bring to mind the two Maria's of whom I am a big fan - Maria McKee and Maria Doyle Kennedy. Listening to Bronagh's three albums on iTunes I also noticed similarities to Patti Scialfa's underrated albums and during the gig my mind drifted to Laura Nyro, who's biography 'Soul Picnic' I am currently reading. I can well imagine these songs being sung on fire escapes in the Bronx, or in New York subway stations, where Laura used to busk. No mean feat for a girl from Derry.
I am definitely going to follow up on this. Bronagh plays Armagh in November, Belfast and Dublin in December and Switzerland in January.
The live music experience can be very subjective. A punter's enjoyment of a gig can depend on time and place, circumstances, company, energy levels and alcohol intake. When preparing for his recent tour revisiting 'The River', Bruce Springsteen said that he was not only competing with the original River tour, but also with people's memories of the original River tour.
When a concert stands out in your memory as one of the best ever, it is asking for trouble hoping to repeat that experience. One of my own "best ever" memories was Paul Simon at Roskilde 1991. I had the opportunity to see Paul Simon again at Glastonbury 2011 and I was never so disappointed.
Another "best ever" gig was Séamus Begley & Tim Edey in 2007 at the Worldfleadh in Portlaoise. It was a midnight gig and they played for nearly three hours in a nightclub. I remember it as absolutely electrifying. I have seen both Séamus and Tim play since, but not together, and I wondered if they would be as good the second time around.
Séamus Begley is described by Mike Scott (in Adventures of a Waterboy) as “a box-playing cattle farmer with a back like a wardrobe and the most beautiful singing voice”. Tim Edey is a multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire (BBC Radio Two's Musician of the Year 2012) and he accompanies Séamus on guitar.
They were due to play one of the nicest venues in the country, the Seamus Ennis Centre in the Naul, on 24 September and so I made the trek up to North county Dublin. It was getting dark as I was going to the pub across the road to buy a pint for the gig. In the distance I saw a tall man talking into a mobile and I remember thinking he looked like Donogh Hennessy.
I did not get to test whether Séamus & Tim were still as outstanding nine years on from Portlaoise, as Tim had been struck by appendicitis and could not make the gig. Donogh Hennessy was replacing him. I have to admit I was disappointed. Over the years I have seen Séamus Begley perform with Steve Cooney, Jim Murray and Matt Griffin - all great guitarists playing in the style pioneered (so I am told; I am no expert) by the Australian Steve Cooney. Donogh Hennessy is a fabulous guitar player in his own right. I remember seeing him way back when he was part of Sharon Shannon's touring quartet; he was a founder member of Lúnasa and I have seen him play with Lumiere. He is a producer and owns a studio in Dingle. Mike Scott, again, once described Donogh, in a blog about session shenanigans post-Other Voices, as "the man who knows all the tunes".
The Naul got an excellent gig. The show was a mix of trad instrumentals (polkas, slides, reels, a waltz) and songs. Séamus' singing is unlike anything I have ever heard. There were many jokes too and they took requests. My own was a song they were most likely going to play anyway ('The early morning rain'), but there were some off the cuff requests as well, requiring the men to confer and hum for a bit.
The Seamus Ennis Centre is a music lover's dream: An intimate venue with great sound and always an attentive listening audience.
The show had an interval, allowing us to go across the road for a fresh pint. The guys played for over two hours. It was trad at its best and I had a fantastic evening. I still do not know whether Séamus Begley & Tim Edey can match that "one-of-best-ever" gigs. I hope to have the opportunity to check that out some time in the future.
Sunday 11 September I went to see Roy Bailey at the Green Note in Camden. This was a suggestion of friends in London. I was not familiar with Roy's music, but have since learned that he is a legendary folk singer; a kind of English equivalent to Pete Seeger no less. A protest singer, a socialist, half of an award-winning duo with the late Tony Benn and an academic. And all I knew was that he was Martin Simpson's father-in-law, although I am now sure Martin would say that the other way around.
The Green Note is a lovely venue. It is so small that you can see well from anywhere inside. The place filled up early with a dedicated listening audience. I drank organic draught beer; surprisingly good. I was in London on my way back from the Netherlands, where I am from but which long ago stopped feeling like home. I had a very happy night in the Green Note, sitting in this dark, atmospheric café among like-minded music fans. Audience participation was very much encouraged, as Roy said he wanted the show to be a communal experience, rather than just him doing his thing and us listening.
Roy is 80 years of age and walks with a stick. His voice is strong though and this was not a short gig either. Roy was accompanied by Marc Block, whom he credited with enabling him to continue to do gigs, as Marc drives him around. Marc contributed guitar, harmonica, bodhrán and vocals. They were also joined by Ian Brown, who added guitar and vocals to the songs he knew, and stayed out of the ones he didn't. I liked this, as guests outstaying their welcome can sometimes mar a gig.
Highlight for me was a song called 'Everything possible', written by Fred Small, an American songwriter. The song had a lovely message, as had Sunday's show in general. Roy very much came across as a man with his heart in the right place. He is not a songwriter but a collector of songs, and a well-travelled one. Storytelling and anecdotes were an important part of the gig.
Roy has only recently released his first ever live CD 'Live at Towersey 2015', featuring the aforementioned Marc and Ian, as well as Martin Simpson and Andy Cutting.