Review: The Gloaming at National Concert Hall, Dublin
The Gloaming returned to where it all began to show us just how far down the road they are now with their glorious, unfettered sound
There are ghosts in the wings and rafters on nights like this. Music of such primal power and potency always has precedents for some of its span and depth because it’s coming up from the roots. Back 45 years ago, that wise Cúil Aodha resident Seán Ó Riada and his band Ceoltóirí Chualann laid down a blueprint for what traditional music could and would be on a night at the Gaeity Theatre. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve listened to the recording of that concert – I had it for years on a battered cassette with a tattered red cover which was last seen in a box of similarly ragged peers in a shed in Tipperary – and wondered what it was like to catch a band with such firework at the height of their powers and their pomp like on “Ó Riada Sa Gaiety”.
Watching The Gloaming at work in the National Concert Hall last night may probably be the nearest many of us will come to similar thrills. Rock and pop compete and deliver on other levels, but this was a much different stock of emotions. There were times – many times – when the ensemble swept and swung and swaggered and, in the words of the poet, caught the heart offguard and blew it wide open.
When Martin Hayes glanced to his right to catch the eyeline of Thomas Bartlett, seesawing like a metronome, at the piano and then went further up, up and away knowing the band were onboard with him come hell or high water. When Iarla Ó Lionaird, sitting back at his harmonium, grinned away with a beam as broad as the stalls at what he was part of and what they were doing. When the rasp of Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh’s fiddle provided an elemental contrast to the dulcet tones of the Clareman beside him. When Dennis Cahill’s guitar gave the soaring, freewheeling, wild sound the ballast and grounding to stay connected. Ah, it was mighty. And you realised you still live for such moments.
The musicians naturally eat and drink these moments. Last summer, in the noontime quiet of a pub on the edge of Feakle, Hayes talked eloquently about those moments. “When the music is really going well you feel like you’re just participating in it. You feel like it’s just happening to you, with you and out of you. You feel like you’ve made yourself transparent enough for the music to flow. It’s not about what’s just happening with your hands. It takes in your whole physical being, your emotional being, your spiritual being. You gradually break down the barriers of resistance to that. You eventually become physically and emotionally more free. This is what we’re trying to do: have a complete flow of music and feeling over the course of a night…every night I go for it like I never did before. As soon as I put the fiddle in my hand I can’t stop going that way.”
When The Gloaming started out on this mazy, mesmeric run – in this very hall as a matter of fact – the portents were good. All five men are masters at work, five craftsmen who’ve long spun their own weave into what is, as Ó Raghallaigh says at one stage tonight, the strange inexplicable beauty of music. All knew each other’s strengths, all knew each other’s tactics and favoured positions. All also carried a mapping of traditional music’s ins and outs, but there was no desire to carry a jar of aspic to go with it. Instead, the job of work was to create something new, something now, something truly exciting, something contemporary which knew where it was coming from but was just as concerned about where it was going.
You’ll hear all these shades and shadows and sport on their self-titled debut album, an album which is slowly navigating itself around many hearts this weather. Such an album doesn’t happen in isolation. In the last 12 months, releases from the likes of Triúr, This Is How We Fly (both of which feature Gloaming members in their ranks) and Ensemble Eriú have put their own pins on the map as they respect what’s gone before and stride boldly towards what to come. It’s about how climate, ground conditions and breeding can produce a new, bright, strangely familar but alluringly different template.
“The Gloaming” ups this ante by a considerable margin. It’s full of these simple tenets about space and solitude nestling cheek-by-jowl with wild, fierce, unruly, buckwild moments when the sounds take flight and pull you along with in their slipstream. It’s there when Ó Lionaird sings those poems by Michael Hartnett or Seán Ó Riordáin or Domhnall Mac Cárrtaigh and pushes them in new directions or when Hayes slowly builds “The Sailor’s Bonnet” into a passage transmitted and transformed for hyperspace. It’s an album which is breathtaking, groundbreaking, grandstanding and any other accolade you want to apply from your big bag of superlatives.
But this music was made for and informed by rooms and nights like this so the performance on Earlsfort Terrace brings it all back home and puts it on a whole new level in so many different ways. Frank McNally picked up on Ó Lionáird’s use of ‘wabi-sabi’ in the paper at the weekend to describe the band’s music and that notion of leaving the edges unsmoothed is very much in the ether here.
You know roughly what Bartlett is doing at the piano and where Ó Lionáird is going with those medieval drones at the harmonium but these aren’t rigorously following any lines. Instead, the percussive thumps and thuds on the wood of the piano from Bartlett or the beautifully raw notes of Ó Raghallaigh’s slides keep the music from simply being a photocopy of what we already know. This is music for living, not for preservation.
As the show ebbs and flows with all that passion and panache, you wonder just where it could go from here. Certainly, this belongs somewhat outside the music industrial-complex that is the norm for acts with hit albums and sold-out shows. All five musicians are very busy men in their own right and, unlike many bands who would drop everything to capitalise on such a boom, there are dates in the diary for other projects to honour first. There’ll be a clamour for more dates, more nights like this, more albums like that, as there always is when such momentum hits fifth gear. What started out as a meeting of the minds to see what could be produced has succeeded and then some. How The Gloaming will react to all of this will be fascinating to see.
But make no mistake about it, this is not for the short or medium-term. This is music which has taken hundreds of years to reach this point and there’s no need when you’re dealing with such time spans for hurry or haste. Hurry and haste are not in this vocabulary. It’s taken a considerable amount of time for The Gloaming to reach this juncture on their travels, but, man, it has been time well worth taking.