June 01, 1988

Relative Success

Filed under: Archive,Music

Festival Theatre

As their name suggests, Clannad is a family affair. Paul, Ciaran and Maire, the Brennan siblings, combined with their twin uncles Noel and Padraig Duggan in 1970 to form one of Ireland’s foremost folk outfits.

A lot has happened to Clannad since they first started winning the battle of the bodhrans back in Gweedore, Donegal. Maire’s husky vibrato lead vocals, harmonised with the choral voices of her near and dear, have made the Clannad sound distinctively, sepulchrally Irish.

It was in 1980, when their fifth album Fuaim (Sound) was released, that their hallmark blend of vocals and synthesisers became fully evolved – . then Clannad went into the film business. The lilting sweetness of Maire’s voice layered over bass synths made the traditional air Mhorga’s Na Horo Gheallaidh into the best-selling Theme from Harry’s Game. It was like Fleetwood Mac, New Age music and wistful trad-folk all rolled into one. It went to Number Five in Britain and commercial recognition in the US was not far off.

Clannad followed with the increasingly ornate Macalla (Echo) album and their latest, Sirius, recorded in Wales and gussied up on the West Coast by Greg Ladanyi and a Who’s Hum of near-celebrity vocalists like Bruce Hornsby and Steve Perry.

Opening with the majestic Caislean Or, the band made it clear that the Brennans and the Duggans intended to make the most of friends of the family, Ian Parker and his battery of keyboards, drummer Aaron Ahmun and former Bryan Ferry henchman, Mel Collins on tenor and soprano sax.

There were synthesisers everywhere and the drums were mic-ed to the teeth. Clannad certainly do not lack what is called a fat sound. After Skelligs and The Wild Cry they sang their own Second Nature from Sirius and like much of the late work of Fairport and Steeleye Span, Clannad wasted their splendid talents on mediocre pop. Despite Mel Collins’ soaring Baker Street sax work and plenty of bombast from Parker’s keyboards, Something to Believe In, another new song, was also hard to credit.

A cluster of instrumentals from the soundtrack of Robin of Sherwood provided some of the best music all night. Lady Marian opened with incandescent harp and synthesiser duets and then the flute work from the multitalented Paul Brennan gave the medley of Miss McDermott and Royal some lovely shading. The final piece, Action, got the band opened up again, but not to best effect as the heavy drum and keyboard sounds turned Clannad into Emerson, Lake and O’Reilly again.

It is as though the band doesn’t trust the core of their work enough, or else, after so long together, they are tired of the traditional nexus. But it is songs like Buchaill on Eirne, with deft acoustic guitar work from Paul and Uncle Padraig that really are the money in the bank.

After The Turning Tide and Closer To Your Heart, the band performed the Theme from Harry’s Game with disarming understatement, only to dissipate the mood with their worthy, but overblown anthem to Greenpeace, Sirius.

Clannad are a great band and they have matched traditional and high tech instruments beautifully although too often they created special moments – an unaccompanied Gweebara ditty or a winsome air – and then obliterated them with undistinguished sub-Stevie Nicks pop.

But when they hit the home straight with the traditional favourite Dohbar Do, Padraig finally plugged in his mandala and Paul got his whistle into gear. Mel Collins, a consummate reed player, played something Irish at last and Clannad achieved what they had been nudging at all night. They gave us unsentimental indomitable Gaelic music that could only be called electric.

“Relative Success” The Adelaide Review, No.52, June, 1988, pp.24-5.

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