A visit from the English cousins
Notes from the Imagining Home: England night at Dublin’s National Concert Hall
It’s the morning after the night before and there’s a new version of “The Curragh of Kildare” rattling around my head. I’ve heard versions of this song performed by many people before, but I’ve never heard it given the kind of dramatic emphasis and deconstructed elan which Kevin Rowland applied at the National Concert Hall the other night. He did some back-and-forth parrying with Lisa O’Neill, he gave the song a few sharp upward flicks and he made you realise that new versions of old songs can always go to the far side of the tracks in search of fresh energies. Aside from demonstrating strong musical moxie, he also displayed trademark sartorial smarts – few but his bandmate Sean Read (also onstage on him) could compete with him on that level.
Rowland was one of a cast of singers and musicians performing at the Imagining Home: England night in the NCH’s week of shows to mark the week and year that’s in it. This iteration was about celebrating the musical relationship between this island and that country so you’d turns from Martin Carthy, Camille O’Sullivan, Cáit O’Riordan, Paul Brady, Andy Irvine, Cathal Coughlan, Declan O’Rourke, John Sheahan and others. To keep the evening on track, there was an fantastic – and fascinating – all-star band onstage led by musical director Kate St. John.
There was much to laud about the evening, but what stood out for me were the peformances bringing it all back home from the likes of Rowland and O’Riordan, the kids born to Irish immigrants over there. You’d always remember when the English cousins would come holiday-making for a few weeks and there was a similar cut to what you got the other night from these two. It comes down as much to the very different definitions of Ireland and Irish identity which have informed their lives as their own musical eclecticism and sagacity.
When O’Riordan went hell for leather down Dalling Road on a spirited version of her old band The Pogues’ “Dark Streets Of London” or when Rowland showcased a thriller of “Carrickfergus” (one of the standards recast on the forthcoming “Let The Record Show Dexys Do Irish & Country Soul” album), you heard some wild music drawn from a deep well. It makes sense that the music was wild because when these singers sing such songs, they’re coming to the microphone with reams of socio-economic, political, historical and cultural influences, influences which are often intangiable and largely unspoken about until an event comes along to shine a light.
One thing which this night also did was point up the Irish angle to so much of English popular music’s most interesting twists and turns in the last few decades. In interviews for RTE Radio One’s coverage of the show, artists like Rowland, O’Riordan and O’Sullivan talked about people like John Lydon, Boy George, Kate Bush, Morrissey, Johnny Marr, the Gallaghers, John Lennon and others, the second-generation Irish kids who picked up a guitar or started to sing. Rowland and O’Riordan were repping that constituency and tradiiton and they did so with vigour and energy.
Elsewhere, there was much to like about O’Rourke’s devilish version of “McAlpine’s Fusileers”, a haunting “Macushla” from O’Sullivan, the spine-tingling duet on “Plains Of Kildare” between Irvine and Brady, both of those latter gentlemen’s own solo runs and some great shape-throwing from Coughlan (though you got the sense that, of all the acts, many in the audience didn’t have a clue who he was).
For me, though, it came back again and again to watching and listening to the cousins at work. There are many contexts in the mix when it comes to the relationship between here and there, but the one where those who were born elsewhere work out what their Irish roots and backgrounds mean to them is one which always provides much analytical eating and drinking. On a night when there was much to ponder, it was Rowland and O’Riordan who put an unique and compelling spin on the proceedings.