Thursday, November 4, 2010

“An Ocean and a Rock” (Lisa Hannigan)

What is the name of the crest of a wave where it comes to a point and seems to turn white, just before rolling over on itself? That is Lisa Hannigan’s voice. It’s not too heavy, but it isn’t ethereal, either. It’s powerful; it comes from the earth. It’s something you want to sit with for a while, just experiencing it over and over again.

I’ve missed a couple weeks in posting since I got back from China, mainly because I was sleeping all kinds of odd hours and generally getting readjusted to the States. I wasn’t even gone very long, but for some reason, it took a while to get back on track. All that time, though, I was playing Lisa’s album Sea Sew on my computer or my MP3 player, turning it way up, and singing along. On the 13-hour flight back from China, I listened to the album three times in a row. I even did a little chair dancing. I probably looked ridiculous, but after sitting in the same seat for eight hours, I really didn’t care.

At the moment, “An Ocean and a Rock” is my favorite. The title reminds me of one of my most-loved spots on the entire island: a little stretch of rocky coastline behind my friend’s house in Barna, just west of Galway. There weren’t any massive waves that built to a point and rolled over on themselves, but there was the constant pull of ocean and earth. There was salt in the crisp air, and when the sky brightened, it was as though you could reach up and touch heaven. While I was in Ireland, it was home.


Thursday, October 14, 2010

Unabashed Swell Season lovefest

Glen Hansard, I wish I knew how to quit you.

The Swell Season are back on tour for a few dates around Europe. For me, that means a lot of afternoons lost to YouTube for the next couple weeks.

Here is an especially delicious one. First, there’s something about it that is visually lush — maybe the combination of the lighting and the rich blue of the background. Of course, even more addictive is the song itself and the delivery that is, as always, impassioned, lovely, powerful, and resonant with my own heart.

Since first hearing the Once soundtrack three years ago, I’ve listened to The Swell Season almost daily. While I was in China for two weeks and the band were taking a short break, I told myself I could walk away at last. I had the albums on my MP3 player, but I wasn’t able to rely on old clips or the band’s tweets to get through the hiatus, since YouTube and Twitter aren’t available in China. So, I resolved to go cold turkey, keep it old school, and simply listen while I waited patiently for the next album.

But it’s useless — I can’t walk away. And why should I, after all?


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Master of the Nets Garden

So, I haven’t posted anything in a month. I’m sure all eight of my readers have been worried, but fear not — I was spending a couple weeks in Suzhou, China, just west of Shanghai.

I had a grand plan for this blog on the trip. Although Suzhou is a “small” Chinese city, with a mere 6 million people in the greater metropolitan area, I figured that the Irish had most likely broken into the social scene and established a local drinking establishment there. And before I left, I used the trusty Internet to discover that I was right. There was reportedly one lone Irish pub in the city, called the Shamrock, on Shiquan Street. I resolved to go there, have a pint, and capture on video the live Irish music that I assumed could be found in Irish pubs the world over.

Well, not only was there no Irish music — there was also no Irish pub. Although we were armed with only an address and a vague idea of the pub’s location, my husband and a friend and I set out from our hotel one evening with great confidence. We could practically taste the Guinness and smell the fish and chips. But as we made our way down one long, crowded boulevard after another, we came to realize that it was not to be. An hour and a half after our journey had begun, we found an English-language bookstore, where a table of expatriates informed us of the Shamrock’s demise just a month before.

Luckily, the following week, I discovered the nighttime tour of the Master of the Nets Garden, just down the street from the Shamrock’s former home. The garden was first constructed in 1140 and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Here’s just one of the performances I saw there. No, it’s not Irish — but still extremely cool.


Friday, September 10, 2010

“Becoming a Jackal” (Villagers)

I was recently driving along and listening to the World Cafe on NPR when I heard an amazing track that the show’s host, David Dye, later said was by an Irish band called Villagers. I made a quick note but sort of forgot about it when I got home.

A few days ago, I was at Starbucks and noticed a card for a free iTunes download for a track by a band called Villagers. “Hmm,” I thought, as I poured half and half into a cup of Earl Grey. “Villagers. That sounds familiar.” I dropped the card into my bag and headed home, but then I sort of forgot about it.

Yesterday, I was watching an interview with Glen Hansard on YouTube, shot during the Electric Picnic festival that was held last week in County Laois. During the interview, RTÉ Radio 1 host Philip King talks about what he calls a “golden age” of Irish music happening at the moment. And one of the names he threw out was Villagers.

And then, WHAM! It all came together like one of those movie montages where the main character’s life flashes before his eyes. Fate had been trying to get my attention, and I finally stopped for a second and noticed.

Conor O’Brien — who is Villagers, or fronts Villagers; I can’t quite figure it out — has a crazy-mesmerizing, haunting, addictive voice. He does remind me vaguely of someone ... but who is it? David Gray? Morrissey? Simon & Garfunkel? It’s sort of all of those, and none of them, at the same time. I know he’s unique and incomparable, and but there is something rich and atmospheric about his music that puts me in mind of those once and current greats. Either way, I am seriously loving it.

My favorites so far are the home sessions that are posted on YouTube. When someone sounds like that when he’s just hanging out in his kitchen, you know it’s quality.


Friday, September 3, 2010

“Sadhbh Ní Bhruinneallaigh” (Liam Ó Maonlaí)

Pam Stucky over at P as in Pterodactyl posted some shots of her trip to Inishmore, and I couldn’t help but follow suit. My trip was in June 2001 with my friends Cian and Pio. Our seaside B&B came with its own cattle, and the bean an tí (woman of the house) informed us when we checked in that there was no need to give us keys, as the house was never locked.

We spent a lovely overcast afternoon walking the length of the island to Dún Aengus. I had been to the Cliffs of Moher in the past and watched in a mixture of terror and envy as people would lie down and peer over the edge. Since the three of us were the only people at Dún Aengus that day, I decided to finally try it. I lay down and peered further and further over the edge, watching waves crash against the rock below. Probably about a minute passed until fear took over and I scrambled back toward a wider patch of solid ground. I still get chills today just thinking about it.

Later that night, we went to a quiet pub on the island where Cian and Pio had a great chat as Gaeilge with one of the island’s elders and I tried to catch a word here and there. And even though Liam Ó Maonlaí wasn't singing sean nós in the pub, this clip might give you a feel for the kind of evening we had.


Friday, August 27, 2010

Don’t Judge!

This morning, while I was eating a bowl a cereal, I flipped on the Today show just as Katy Perry was taking the stage. And while I was rolling my eyes at her outfit, the stage props (was that supposed to be a cloud? Or gigantic cotton candy?), and surreal dancing bears, I suddenly had a flashback to the mid-90s and realized I couldn’t judge.

As I’ve said before, I went to Ireland inspired by earthy traditional music played on accordions and fiddles, tin whistles and bodhrán drums. I found all that, and it was marvelous. And then, there was this:

I’m cheating a bit this week, because the Spice Girls aren’t Irish — but in Galway during the fall of 1996, it seemed nearly impossible to escape them. One of my earliest memories after arriving in town is turning on the television in my apartment, seeing the official video for “Say You’ll Be There” (the one set in the Mojave Desert), and thinking, “what the...?” But it wasn’t long (probably that weekend) before I was dancing to — and singing along with — their songs like everyone else. Sure, you could go down to The Crane or the Club Áras na nGael for an amazing trad session, but just as often, it was pop music that spilled out of clubs and pubs as you walked down the street at midnight.

It was the constantly shifting combinations of traditional and contemporary culture that I found most exciting and confusing about living in Galway. On a Tuesday night, I might go to an Irish language class and then set dancing at Monroe’s. Then on Saturday, it might be a night out at the GPO and dancing to more pop music than I’d heard since the 8th grade. Back in the States, my friends were mortified that I knew all the words to Spice Girl songs. But I was so surprised by the idea of a Europop, gin-soaked, neon-tinged Galway that there was nothing to do but embrace it with enthusiasm.

Katy Perry’s Today show stage featured larger-than-life candy — a fitting metaphor for the pop music that can become our guilty pleasure. When it’s done well, it’s music that makes us dance even as we check to make sure no one catches us in Top 40 indulgence. It may not have much substance, but it’s a sweet treat and the sugar buzz can make you feel invincible for up to four minutes.

It’s the last week of summer, people. What the heck? Here’s another one.

Have fun.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

“Cúirt Bhaile Nua” (Colm Mac Con Iomaire)

Before I went to Ireland, I would listen to traditional music and imagine myself standing on a green, windswept hillside, with the sound of pipes in the distance and smoke rising out of the chimney of a charming cottage nearby. I thought of high kings at the Hill of Tara and great legendary and mythical figures: Brian Ború, Cúchulainn, Queen Medb. And I dreamed of standing at a cliff’s edge, gazing resolutely into the distance, while waves crashed into the rocks below.

Imagine my satisfaction when I went to Ireland and was able to live out all of these visions — with a few alterations, of course. There was plenty of standing on green, windswept hillsides, though it lacks a certain something without the pipes and the cozy cottage setting. It doesn’t take long before you start to feel like an idiot for being cold and windswept (and most likely rained on) when any sane person is in the pub having a pint.

I also spent one glorious summer afternoon at the Hill of Tara, seat of the ancient high kings, which turned out to be a set of otherwise unremarkable undulating hills situated next to a busy visitor’s center. And none of my fantasies had involved the swarming masses of tourists always present at the Cliffs of Moher — except for the time I went in January and the wind blew so hard, you had to be especially careful not to get too close to the edge. There’s no resolute gazing when you’re gripping a rock wall in terror. (My friend might look happy in this photo, but I’m sure he was terrified on the inside.)

All of this is the long way around to saying that having a crush on a country is a bit like having a crush on a person. The better you get to know it, the more it will disappoint and delight you in unexpected ways. The end result may be even better than what you originally dreamed of, but it is still different, and something to get used to.

Listening to Colm Mac Con Iomaire’s version of “Cúirt Bhaile Nua (The Court of New Town)” brings back all those old dreams and visions. Which I don’t think is such a bad thing after all. They represent a longing to connect with a place, or a period of time, or a people that might not really exist anymore, except in a spirit that you can still sense in intangible ways — or in tangible cultural elements that remain with us thanks to artists like Colm.

Gaeilge (Irish) is also one of those things that, to put it plainly, I love about Ireland. Colm, who is also the violinist for The Frames and The Swell Season, tells a lovely story as Gaeilge (in Irish) about the title of his solo album, The Hare’s Corner, in this video from TG4.

Finally, in the clip below, you’ll notice that Colm says that this song is typically sung unaccompanied in the sean nós (old style) tradition. So please also be sure to check out the second video as well — an amazing clip of Nora McDonagh singing “Cúirt Bhaile Nua” as Gaeilge. The two songs actually sound nothing alike, but I’m taking it on faith that they’re two versions of the same beautiful thing.


Colm Mac Con Iomaire

Nora McDonagh