April 01, 1994

Full to the Brim

Filed under: Archive,Music


The Guinness Celebration of Irish Music

Festival Theatre, April 1994

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

Looking at my program for the first Guinness Celebration back in 1986 I am reminded of names in the line-up. It was an impressive two-night card- The Dubliners, Christy Moore, and Stockton’s Wing. Also, Maura O’Connell, Liam O’Flynn, Nollaig Casey and  Arty McGlynn, all of whom were back for this year’s gathering. It is hard to believe that in just eight years there has been such a transformation in Irish music. With the huge success of U2 and, to a lesser extent, bands like Hothouse Flowers and the Waterboys, it has become a force in world music. Paradoxically, with performers such as Van Morrison and Elvis Costello, aka Declan McManus, identifying themselves ever more strongly with their Irish origins, the music is also defiantly regional.

The Irish sound, long cherished by nationals, expatriates and folk enthusiasts everywhere,  has been steadily moving into the mainstream. Once it was only The Dubliners, The Clancy Brothers, The Chieftains and, lord forbid, Val Doonican. But the groundswell from the formation of Planxty in 1972 made room for the soft pop of The Fureys and more importantly the folk rock sounds of De Dannan and Clannad. From there came the New Age popularity of Enya and the collapse of those pedantic demarcation disputes that frequently splinter and enervate the folk scene.

The attention and success that Irish music now enjoys has given it a collective confidence and vitality that was everywhere evident in Jon Nicholls’ splendid 1994 Celebration.  After some droll warm-up from comedian Brian Doyle  harpist Maire Ni Chathasaig and guitarist Chris Newman took the stage.  The legendary harpist Blind Carolan was the source for the first item, followed by a brace of jigs and some eclectic numbers. Maire Ni Chathasaig is the leading harpist in Ireland today, her technique is faultless and her scholarship is worn lightly – as in her amusingly informative  introduction to a Celtic May festival song. Chris Newman betrays  his longtime jazz associations when in pieces like A Sore Point and Out of Court he djangoed to Maire’s ringing harp sound.

Maura O’Connell, former lead singer for De Dannan, has been working out of Nashville since the late Eighties. Accompanied by two American guitarists, she showed she’d moved a step or two since her somewhat stodgy set back in 1986. Opening with the Paul Brady song, To Be the One, followed by Summer Fly, she gave a sardonic spin to Irish Blues, a little touch of sexual politics with some zippy fretwork from the Nashville boys. She closed with the some  likeable pop -It Still Hurts Sometimes- evidence that her Grammy nomination was no fluke. But it was her unaccompanied version of the traditional favourite, The Water is Wide, that really caused shivers on the neck.

There are plenty of rock and reel bands these days. But there can be few with both the precision and thump of Four Men and a Dog. With Gino Lupari upfront on bodhran and face-pulling, the rest of the group play like demons. Cathal Hayden’s fiddle playing is nothing short of exceptional while  Gerry O’Connor on banjo and guitarists Kevin Doherty and Arty McGlynn also hold their ground. Doherty even crooned a version of Woody Guthrie’s Rambling Man as the musicians moved form traditional jigs and reels to American ragtime and string band styles. Lupari, a huge fellow with an hilariously restless stage manner, also threatens to be the Ginger Baker of the bones and bodhran.

After interval came the evening’s true highlight – the set by Liam Flynn, Arty McGlynn, Nollaig Casey, and joining them, Andy Irvine. All fully paid up members of the pantheon, these musicians were impressive. McGlynn is one of the most skilled guitarists on the music scene with credits back to Van Morrison and Planxty, his wife Nollaig Casey is a superb fiddle player and Liam O’Flynn, co-founder of Planxty, has to be the best uilleann piper on the planet. With The Irish Bog and Maugham’s Return the trio showed their spell-binding best, the tender melancholy of the pipes matched effortlessly by the other instruments.

With Donal Lunny having to leave the tour early, Andy Irvine teamed up with the O’Flynn trio instead. This proved a most fortuitous circumstance. Irvine led with the emigration song, A Storm Free,  and working with his trademark bouzouki and mandola, he pitched in with jigs like Alastair’s March and Paddy’s Wack. But it was his own songs that touched most. The West Coast of Clare may be as shamelessly sentimental as Irvine says but it was given a memorable rendering by the group. Irish traditional music and its creative hybrids have never looked more vigorously alive than here.

So, for me, the smooth pop sound of headliners Mary Black and the Black Dogs seemed less satisfying even though the opening number Ellis Island amply revealed the sweet clarity of Black’s voice and the easy unity of her six piece band.  Dressed in crofter chic, Black capered at the microphone for Past the Point of Rescue and a tuneful, if slightly over-sweet,  version of Ewan McColl’s School Day’s Over. She sang contemporary songs like Carolina Road, Bright Blue Rose and Sandy Denny’s By The Time it Gets Dark. But it was the De Dannan weepie, Song For Ireland that really hit the button.

The finales from the entire ensemble were a sight to behold – eighteen musicians on stage and no-one getting in anyone else’s way. They sang the Luke Kelly song Will You Come to the Bower, thumped out jigs with an arsenal of pipes, fiddles and guitars and Maura O’Connell led some croony community singing. For the last show of the tour Jon Nicholls took a bow and danced a jig, as well he might with a success like this. His Guinness Celebration is an established fixture- look for it in 1995.

The Adelaide Review, No.126, April, 1994, p.32.

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