I’ve been going to live gigs since I was 12 years old. Music doesn’t get any purer than a magical live performance. What could be better than looking your hero in the eyes and having them sing right to your soul. Last weekend I went to three different gigs, in Mullingar, Waterford and Dublin. Over the three nights I saw four very different songwriters and one band. Every one of them had a story of their own and each one was trying to move as gracefully as possible through the maze that is the music business…
As a musician, I enjoy watching other musicians performing in different environments. I like to watch how they interact with their audience. How do they handle a noisy crowd? or a room of listeners that give you pin-drop silence?, and worst of all : the tiny crowd, the small turnout, the bad night… Each situation brings it’s own challenge. I try to learn what I can from these guys. I listen to the music. In the end it’s always about the songs. Following are my impressions and thoughts on three nights of live music:
Gig 1: JOHN POWER – Mullingar
The first show was on Friday night. John Power was playing at the Music Bar “Number 1” in my hometown of Mullingar. The bar is owned by my Uncle, and former bass player of the band the Blizzards, Anthony Doran. John Power is one of Anthony’s all time musical heroes, so he was in dreamland for the evening. For those that don’t know, John Power was a member of the band the La’s (1986-91) and frontman and principle songwriter for Brit-Pop band Cast in the mid 90’s. I heard a lot of Cast’s music when I was growing up from both my Uncle and another friend of mine who was a big fan. It’s not every day you get a chance to hear a songwriter with such an impressive catalogue of hits under his belt, so close to home… so I paid my €10 entry fee and in I went, curious to hear how the man was sounding twenty years after his biggest commercial success.
It wasn’t long before he took to the stage. He was shorter than I expected, hairier too. What a beard and head of hair! I watched the first song from the side of the stage, not three feet away from the man. It was a bluesy-folky thing, I didn’t recognise the song, but I recognised something in it: Quality. This guy had it in abundance. Of course he had. He’s been writing songs since I was in nappies. It was a strong song, confidently delivered and a million miles away from the Brit-pop that he had made his name from. I was happy to be there to have a chance to see the man at work. It was clear from as early as the first song thought that the Mr. Power was very distracted and annoyed by a certain section of the crowd. There was a gathering of women in the corner of the bar who seemed not to notice or care that there was a gig happening in the very room they were in. The artiste was not happy and called them out on it… “The Gabby Hen Party in the corner there”… It’s very annoying to have to battle against that in a gig. It’s a distraction for the majority of the audience that are there to listen to the music, and even more so for the artist trying to play. For an artist who has reached a high level of success, and played to thousands of adoring fans the world over it must be even more frustrating. Some people just want a night out and see the music as something secondary that floats around behind them somewhere way off in the distance. It’s something every musician has had to deal with at some point. Anyway, you could tell that John was pretty irritated with the situation but he still dug in and put on a great show. Thankfully, after a while the loudest talkers left and it started to feel a lot more like a show. I was surprised at just how many of the songs I knew. This guy has written some BIG songs and it was an honour to hear them right up close. It’s an interesting life being a musician and I’m sure John Power has had his fair share of highs and lows in his career. But all of life is ups and downs , peaks and valleys, that’s what makes it so damn interesting.
Gig 2: CLIVE BARNES, BRENDAN O’SHEA, MUNDY – Kill, Co. Waterford
On Saturday night, I went with my girlfriend to a singer-songwriter festival in the tiny village of Kill in Co. Waterford. The village is essentially just a crossroads and I believe what was its only shop stopped trading recently. So it’s not a place you’d expect to find much of anything really, nevermind a night of amazing music. The Line-up for the festival was Clive Barnes, Brendan O’Shea and Mundy. The gig was in an intimate 70 seater theatre that’s hidden away inside a community centre. I was mostly interested in seeing Clive Barnes and Brendan O’Shea on the night.
From a listening point of view this was totally different from the bar atmosphere of the night before. Everyone was there to listen and there was a hushed silence from the audience throughout. Funnily enough this dead silence can bring its own challenges and some musicians find it more daunting than a chatty audience.
Opening the night was Clive Barnes. Clive is one hell of a musician, his guitar playing is technically way beyond most singer songwriters. He plays mostly blues with a definite American flavour, that is the land of the blues after all. Clive has an interesting story. He’s won awards, released five records, opened for artists like Eric Bibb and The Blind Boys of Alabama. He is a gifted performer and it was a pleasure to watch him at work, and he works hard. This date was one in a series of shows he’s playing across the country at the moment. There is no shortage of road to travel if you want to. I’m sure the man could write a book about his musical life so far. Between songs he shared some stories with us; tours of America booked by unreliable agents, strange gigs in towns with worrying names, urinating next to Bruce Springsteen, his record company going bust and subsequently his home filling up with copies of his own records! He told us at one point “If you break into my house or my car you can help yourself to as many of my records as you like, however, if you don’t want to do any of those things you can buy one from me after the show”. This is the great adventureland of being a musician. It spins round and round and there are infuriating moments and others of unbelievable joy. It’s a dance. The important thing is to keep moving, keep working on your craft, keep improving. Clive has done all of this. It’s clear when you see him play. You don’t get that good by accident. If ever you get the chance to see him perform, take it.
Next up was Brendan O’Shea. Brendan is from Kerry originally but has been living in New York City for the last 16 years or so. I’m a big fan of Brendan, both as a writer and a human being. He’s very calm, humble and honest. All qualities that I’m drawn to in people. He also has that rare talent of being a good listener. Brendan works in, and runs a weekly music night in an excellent bar in New York City called the Scratcher. It’s like a home for the Irish musician community in NYC. When I visited last November he immediately made me feel welcome in a strange city. As a musician he is very different to Clive. Brendan would not be gifted with the same level of technique as Clive, his strength is in his songs and voice. His songs move me. They are stripped back and bare, exposed things dotted with beautiful imagery. There is some kind of frailty in his voice that I like, and some how he reminds of what I think Old Ireland might have sounded like. He sang mostly new songs on the night and it’s left me excited about hearing a new album.
Headlining the festival was another Irish Songwriter Mundy. Mundy is an artist who has been going for a long time. He’s released a bunch of records and had considerable success. His debut album “Jelly Legs” was released in 1996 and was an important album for me when I first started listening to songwriters and Irish music in general. It’s a great album with some amazing songs on it, “To you I bestow” and “Gin and Tonic Sky” being two stone cold classics. After Jelly legs he released a record called “24 Star Hotel” which also had some fantastic songs, including possibly his most well known song “July”. After that record I lost track a little with what he was doing. I heard bits of songs and albums here and there but none of them moved me all that much. I didn’t hear the same magic that ran through his earlier work. So going into the gig I wasn’t overly excited about his set. He arrived on stage, denim-clad and in leather boots, guitar covered in stickers. I didn’t know what way it would go to be honest. Would I hate it? Would he hate it? Playing in a community hall in the middle of nowhere… would it be beneath him? I don’t know the man, I was curious. Mundy announces that he wants to start the gig with a new song… he explains that it’s called “beaconette” – “A beacon is a light, and “ette” kind of means woman right? so a beaconette is a woman made of light” … Or something like that, that was the general vibe anyway. He played the song. It was absolutely stunning, a thing of beauty with all the delicacy and poetry of his earlier work. There was a line about “corroded church bells” that stuck with me. I can’t wait to hear it again somewhere, anywhere. With that song any doubts I may have had about him were wiped out. Not that I’m in any position to doubt a writer of his caliber, but sometimes you think you’ve got someone figured out, and you just don’t. I’m guilty, if I’m honest, of thinking that his best work was behind him. I was wrong. He played another new song after that which was pretty strong too. In fact his whole set was really great. He was funny, a bit scattered and awkward at times, but he played his heart out and the songs were magic. The first time I saw Mundy was in 1997/8 , sometime around then. It was wonderful to be blown away again so many years later. I spoke with him briefly after the show and he says he’s got a new record almost in the bag. Something else to look forward to. The work is endless at all times for all of us. It’s exciting.
Gig 3: TRACK DOGS – The Workman’s Club.
The last gig I went to on Sunday night was in The Workman’s club. The bad were called “Track Dogs”, they are a Madrid based band fronted by Irish Songwriter Garrett Wall and made up of members originally from Ireland, UK and America. Myself and the Cajon player share a mutual friend and I was asked along to sing a song or two with them on the night… so I did. This was another fine gig but my energies were low from the previous nights. I didn’t know any of the band’s music on the night but I enjoyed watching them. They play rhythmic folk songs filled with energy and harmony. They are in Ireland for a week or so and are doing a series of live gigs, busking and radio appearances throughout the country. They did some good radio promotion for the Dublin show but in the end they were a little disappointed with the turn-out. There were hoping for a bigger crowd to play to. It’s not easy to get people out to see live music.
But that’s just part of it. There will be good nights and bad, snakes and ladders. The important thing is to keep going. Start again, every day. It’s the same for everyone. We do our best to keep moving forward.