Siobhán Kane caught The Gloaming‘s recent performance at The National Concert Hall.
The seed for these five brilliant musicians to come together was sown, as so many things are, over a few tipples and talk; and somewhere, from initial conversations between fiddler Martin Hayes and sean nós singer, Iarla Ó Lionáird, to their first live performance together on the stage of the National Concert Hall, which also housed American pianist Thomas Bartlett, guitarist Denis Cahill and fiddler Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, The Gloaming was born. The lexicon associated with birth, for example – renewal – well describes what took place, and what will surely continue to evolve from the rich collaboration and friendship they have nurtured.
They began with a flurry of traditional tunes to set the tone for the evening, which was to honour tradition and pulverise convention, paying homage to what brought us all here, from the past to the present, from the streets to the Concert Hall; providing a familiar template that they could then use a touchstone to deviate from and soar back to.The reels segued seamlessly into something vibrant and joyous, and it was pleasing to see so many people of varying ages let themselves melt into the fluidity of the music.
The collective then proceeded on to new, less familiar, but collaborative territory, interpreting poet Michael Hartnett’s Muince An Dreoilín/A Necklace of Wrens, and Samhradh, with Ó Lionáird’s sublime vocal revelling amidst the swooping, free sound of his accompaniment, ably illustrating that poetry is not simply transmitted through words, but also feeling. Before the first half broke, Hayes excused the length of the piece they were about to play, in the most charming way particular to his way of thinking and speaking, “it’s a long piece, so we’ll see you after”, and again when describing how The Gloaming and some of the work came together, “so there we were, here you are, and there you go”.
In truth, Hayes is probably the heartbeat of the whole collective, since he is the one that has enjoyed a long relationship with each of the other musicians, mentioning at one point that he has known Bartlett since he was twelve, when the precocious twelve year old booked Hayes and Cahill for a concert in Vermont. Hayes and Cahill also enjoy a beautiful musical shorthand that continues to add coal to the fire of the steam train that is The Gloaming, and this creates a reliable strength for the project which is almost giddy in its sense of combining and melding styles and influences, talents and kinship.
There was an overwhelming sense of fluidity, evident in the way that Bartlett often plucked the piano, and how Ó Raghallaigh sometimes plucked the fiddle, making their approach to their instruments something other than tradition might dictate, but like Bartlett, this is also Ó Raghallaigh’s strength, and their sense of provocative playing lent a sense of further excitement. Bartlett approaches the piano as one might do a harp, and his contribution added an undeniable weight to the collaboration, as he has an instinctive grasp on Irish traditional music (as does his friend and collaborator Sam Amidon), but for other kinds of music, also, showcased on something like his project Doveman, (which includes The National‘s Dessner brothers). Ó Raghallaigh is also in thrall to music in the same way, and his own fiddle playing is astonishing, protean and alive. All of the musicians work so well together, and the piano really works in this context, with Bartlett instinctively knowing when to bring his skeletal piano to bear, and as he ebbed in and flowed out, became a sort of companion for the percussive brilliance of Cahill in the process. Cahill was laid back as ever, cutting a kind of Nate Dogg dash in his hat, bobbing along on the lightness of touch he brings to the guitar.
At different turns Bartlett sipped from his glass of red wine, adding an air of informality and pleasing looseness to the performance, which felt elevated rather than shrouded by the more formal environment, and Ó Lionáird made us laugh when he introduced Song. 44 adapted from an 18th century poem by Aogán Ó Raghallaig, who discovered that “the woman of his dreams, only existed in his dreams“, before qualifying that they were not his own thoughts on the matter. Laughter and joy were something that throughout the night became synonymous with the experience, with the audience and artists in complete communion, and it was a pleasure to see five amazing, diverse musicians in such abandoned union.
Another thing that became evident very quickly is how each individual musician continues to feel they are on a journey, with their obvious curiosity becoming as much of a currency and metronome for living as Hayes and Ó Raghallaigh’s fiddles do for the music. For example, when Hayes introduces Michael Coleman’s Sailor’s Bonnet, written in the early twentieth century, he said that because it is in such common usage, it had become so familiar to him, almost staid, so that he didn’t give it too much thought, until he started teaching it, and through teaching realised how beautiful it was, and at that moment (though it was probably evident long before) it became clear that part of The Gloaming’s desire is to break such familiar music down to show others its complicated beauty, but also to show that it is never too late for rebirth, as Hayes said “now we’re beginning to look“.
When the five men come back out on stage to rapturous applause for their encore (which was over all too soon), they finish with the rousing, almost meditative Óró, Sé do Bheatha ‘Bhaile, and the piece is suddenly transformed, becoming a different kind of rebel song, but a passionate call to arms, nonetheless. As we spill out on to Earlsfort Terrace, the questions that seemed to preoccupy people the most were “when can we see them again?”, and “where will they take us to next?”. So there we were, here you are, and there you go.