Big Apple was baked in glorious weather over the past weekend with sunny days devoid of the uncomfortable humidity that will inevitably visit us over the summer.
It was a fortuitous time for the very innovative Irish music ensemble the Gloaming to make a return visit to New York City on a very brief three gig tour that also included an arts festival in New Haven, Connecticut followed by two nights back to back in the Greenwich Village area of Manhattan at two different locales. Each had its own vibe and purpose, but both managed to capture the mystique of the nascent Irish music troupe that also includes a New Englander now resident in New York City who is well plugged into the local music scene.
Like the English phrase it takes its name from describing that exquisite time when day passes into night, the Gloaming group of stellar musicians take us on a passage from ancient Irish music into a more contemporary world around us in an entertaining and satisfying fashion.
The periodic band came together in August of 2011 arising in part out of the ferment of Culture Ireland’s Imagining Ireland initiative spurring Ireland’s artistic sector to reach beyond its own borders while also stretching its impact at home and abroad.
The collective features Martin Hayes, Dennis Cahill, Iarla Ó Lionáird, Caoimhin ÓRaghallaigh and Thomas Barlett, who first came together at the West Grouse Lodge Studios in Westmeath to begin their musical exploration prior to beginning a tour in Ireland.
All were accomplished artists who had achieved success in their own spheres and were also known for pushing the explorative envelope through other collaborations but were drawn to one another for a variety of reasons.
The youngest of them is Bartlett from Vermont, who at age 12 “stalked” Hayes and Cahill in Ireland on a trip with his parents and followed their work from then onwards as he developed into a much-sought after piano accompanist and musician known as the Doveman around New York musical haunts.
Along with Cahill, a native Chicagoan born to Irish parents from the Dingle Peninsula, Bartlett establishes a rhythmic foundation for the others to follow and interact with throughout the course of their performances.
The centerpieces then are Hayes on fiddle alongside ÓRaghallaigh who plays a hardanger damora fiddle (from Norway). They also perform as a trio with Peadar O’Riada (son of the iconic Sean) called Triúr who skillfully fill spaces or enhance one another’s playing on a variety of pieces on the set list.
Ó Lionáird, steeped in the sean nos song and Gaelic language milieu of the West Cork Gaeltacht around Cúil Aodha, has long been recognized as one of Ireland’s most authentic voices in that tradition, while also achieving brilliant success with mega popular Afro Celt Sound System. He steps up boldly in this unit giving voice to centuries old poetry and songs in the mother tongue.
While their gigs together may be intermittent, their combined star power and abilities allow for indescribable musical magic to flow when they are on stage together as this past weekend proved in many ways.
First up was a multi-faceted appearance at the Greene Space, the street level performance space for WNYC radio (www.wnyc.org) as part of a concert series called “New Sounds Live,” produced as part of the weekly New Sounds radio program hosted by world music aficionado John Schaefer.
Schaefer was smitten by the group’s music from previous performances in town and also by their self-titled new CD and invited them to perform live at the unique hall at the corner of Varick and Charlton streets. The facility also allowed for a live webcast to be aired online at www.thegreenespace.org site which Schaefer interrupted his vacation to emcee and interview the artists in between pieces of the show. (You can see this show on archive at that website also).
Audience members got to experience the visual aspect of the webcast through automated video cameras and flat screen monitors in house which enhanced their appreciation of the tight stagecraft and personal interaction that made it such a brilliant show.
Ó Lionaird was perched alongside Bartlett’s piano either at the harmonium borrowed from Cleek Schrey or at the vocal mike center stage. The singer, who turned 50 on the day they were coming to New York, tenderly gave us a song he first heard at the age of eight that was hundreds of years old as part of the sean nos song tradition appearing on the new recording as “Song 44” as Ó Lionaird titled it.
Much of his material comes from these art songs from times when poetry was king and songs were unaccompanied because they had their own grace and airs that didn’t need embellishment.
Others like “Slan le Maigh” display that powerful connection between the melody of a song air and the instrumental one which may have inspired the words or derived from them. In either case the emotion is palpable and brought to life by a singer like Ó Lionaird.
The instrumentals fueled by Hayes and O’Raghallaigh are rapturous as they “find space for one another between the notes and at other times feed off of it” explained O’Raghallaigh to a query from Schaeffer mid-show.
Hayes revealed afterwards to Schaefer and his audience both in house and worldwide that “we don’t have a grand plan most nights as it is mostly a serendipitous experience of seeing what happens and feeling our ways through it.”
While improvisation is a key element of their act, there is also the strong sense of watching the artists have a musical dialogue on stage that is built on not only a familiarity with one another’s gifts, but also a growing respect for what each brings to the group.
On Saturday night, the quintet moved over to the subterranean hip musical haunt Le Poisson Rouge on Bleecker Street for a show hosted by the Irish Arts Center.
Bartlett is a regular performer here at the venue with a mix of more contemporary and edgy rock artists, and his notion of performing in the round suited the gig exceptionally well in my opinion giving most of the capacity crowd a better view in the odd shaped room. And it gave even more of an impression of a jam session in full flight with its textured and reactive musical conversation unfolding between them.
The set list had some variation from the night before, with some of the songs juggled in the rotation. The 250 people in the audience were treated to another musical tour de force that had them riveted for the hour and a half performance yielding two standing ovations at its conclusion.
For those who have been captivated by Hayes and Cahill’s approach to traditional music over two decades, watching him deconstruct and reconstruct tune settings, the pleasure and intensity is doubled thanks to addition of Barlett, Ó Raghallaigh and Ó Lionaird who add their layering effect.
Hayes’ own new-found appreciation for a session-weary tune like “The Sailor’s Bonnet” led to a blistering set of tunes midway through the show that brought unbridled and sustained applause throughout the room.
Ó Lionaird’s rendition of the familiar “Samhraidh, Samhraidh,” Ireland’s ode to summer bliss, was most appropriate for the day of the Summer Solstice in New York City.
The encore song “Saoirse” based on a poem written by Seán O’Riordáin and translated by Paul Muldoon who was in the audience closed out the night at Le Poisson Rouge and another very successful collaboration with the Irish Arts Center for both the artists and this venue.
While there are some hard core critics from the pure drop choir of the the Gloaming as to its impact or import to the traditional music world, they cannot deny the bona fides of its members and what they have vested in it for a very long time.
They don’t claim to be making a statement with it but rather stirring the hearts and souls of their audience and allowing them to contemplate or escape while they are sharing a time and place or simply be entertained.
They have already been invited to the Kilkenny Arts Festival in August to recreate some of that magic there at the festival now directed by Eugene Downes, formerly of Culture Ireland who imagined a greater role for them some years ago.