Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Making a splash in Irish waters

There you are approaching the famed Emerald Isle, the wondrous greenery already visible from your little boat as you float ever closer. As your vessel nears the shore and the mythical fog clears, what sights do you first feast your eyes on? Enya high up in her Celtic tower nursing sick fairies back to health; Sinead O’Connor begging you to believe that nothing compares to you; while nearby U2 epically pose to heal the world via a trademark guitar riff? This is Ireland from the outside - you need to step off that boat and dive into the vibrant, diverse Irish music scene of 2010.

Ireland’s musical output has been nothing, if not varied. We’ve had wool-wearing traditional singers such as the Clancy Brothers making waves in the 60s (hey, even Dylan dug them); Horslips trad-rocked their way through the 70s; and Thin Lizzy simply rocked. Then the 80s happened, and U2, Enya and Sinead O’Connor came to signify the be-all and end-all of Irish music. A culture of manufactured pop dominated the 90s, often including large measures of faux-Irishness for the global market.

But what a difference a millennium makes. The past decade has seen a broadening of horizons and a diversification of genres, with many Irish acts showing the confidence and desire to forge their own musical path. So what is the soundtrack to Irish life in 2010? Here are a few appetizers for your aural consumption…

Republic of Loose
Where to start with these funk soul brothers? Loose being the operative word, they have chosen to make the kind of music that nobody seems to make anymore; authentic modern soul records, with healthy slices of funk and rock thrown in for good measure.
With "The Loose", as they’re affectionately known to fans, you have to see them to believe what you hear, and hear them to believe what you see.
Enigmatic front man Mick Pyro's scruffy beard, dirty ponytail and Miami Vice-style dress sense seem completely at odds with his rusty, growling vocals and deliberately disgruntled onstage persona. Sassy call-and-answer vocals bounce back and forth between Pyro and his backing singers, while the faultless funk bass lines, choppy guitar work and tight drumming behind them make it all so sound effortlessly easy that you wish you had thought of doing it first.

Recommended track: 13 Shots from the album Johnny Pyro and the Dance of Evil

Cathy Davey
So, a female with a guitar who writes her own material: girly singer-songwriter alert?
Not quite. Dublin native Davey is three albums in to her ever evolving career and is finally receiving wider recognition for her innovative and intelligent music. Elfin in stature and voice, Davey is a multi-instrumentalist who seems to find novel uses for anything that holds a tune and knows the value of a well-placed yelp or whoop, which lends an originality and magnetism to her songs that is hard to forget.
Her second album, Tales of Silversleeve, centred around compelling, haunting drum rhythms while her most recent release The Nameless continues her flair for layered vocals and wonderful phrasing. Davey’s work is fresh, engaging and most certainly unlike any of her peers’, yet it still retains an accessible, radio-friendly charm.

Recommended track: Little Red from the album The Nameless

Fionn Regan
Regan’s tussled mop of hair and shuffling, guitar-slinger looks have critics frequently drawing comparisons with the young Bob Dylan, and his stripped down recordings have certainly shown a preference for getting back to basics; allowing intricate, intelligent  lyrics to drive simple yet strong melodies.
His debut album, The End of History, was nominated for the prestigious Mercury Music Prize, and it expertly demonstrates Regan's ability to conjure images of love and loss in three-minute acoustic vignettes. It often seems to reveal the singer's own character traits and flaws, and this, added to an authentic delivery in his native accent, makes for intimate and pensive listening.
The Dylan parallels have continued as Regan “went electric” on his recently released second album, The Shadow of an Empire. Jangly riffs, primitive drums and sweet backing vocals have been added to the mix, and like it’s predecessor, the music isn’t overly fussy; it simply provides a platform for the stories and the storyteller.

Recommended track: Put a Penny in the Slot from the album The End of History

Imelda May
Dublin's rockabilly queen has injected the 21st century with a dose of retro glamour, and counts Jeff Beck, with whom she performed at this year’s Grammys, and Eddi Reader among her many admirers. An overnight success that was 20 years in the making, May's music unapologetically employs dirty brass sections, double bass rhythms and surf guitar licks, not to mention a voice that can jump from soulful depths to rough-and-ready delivery in an instant.
With May it’s a complete package; the glossy red lips, big quiffs and 50s glamour go hand in hand with the rootsy, energetic feel-good music that wouldn’t sound out of place in a seedy old New Orleans burlesque house. Her live shows mix early rock ‘n’ roll dance floor fillers with similarly infused original material, such as Big Bad Handsome Man from her critically acclaimed debut album, Love Tattoo. While her work is heavily indebted to the past, May has more than enough spark and wit to remain relevant and interesting. And with her follow-up album Mayhem already released, she’ll be quiffing that hair for quite a while yet.

Recommended track: Johnny Got a Boom Boom from the album Love Tattoo

* This article also featured in The Irish News, an Irish culture magazine published in Sweden

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Putting the 'arty' in party

I've got a cosy little secret. A place with enveloping armchairs, vintage clocks, inviting lanterns and deer's antlers protruding from the wall for good measure. Dickens' drawing room? Sherlock Holmes' study? David Norris' parlour? Nope, nope, nope.

The 'Arty Party' at the Dark Horse on Dublin's Tara street is a monthly art/social evening (so far on Thursdays from 8pm) that allows unknown artists to display their work for sale in the charming upstairs space of the quay-side pub. The evening upgrades the usual pub experience to one of appreciated (and these days, unexpected) originality and character. The space that unfolds as you climb the stairs is in stark contrast to most Dublin pubs, bar a select few. The old-world style and the little details, such as well-thumbed books with model birds perched on top, immediately instill the intimate and welcoming atmosphere. Ok, and the strategically placed offerings of Dolly Mixture, iced buns and cookies helped too...

But here I am unashamedly bowled over by aesthetics again. The evening gives a platform to artists of various degrees and forms. There are those who seek an audience, a place to meet like-minded individuals, those just starting out, appreciative of a friendly leg-up, art enthusiasts or anyone looking for new social nooks and crannies to discover. And not to be outdone by the decor, the art really leaps off the walls. Paintings, sketches, photographs, embroidery, portraits, abstracts, works of all materials, textures, shapes and sizes, are all framed and vying for attention.

Such nights are in demand when the strains of 'Don't Stop Believing' interrupting your conversation, just doesn't cut it anymore. It's out with the old and in with the new, it's not arty farty, it's Arty Party.


Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Getting Cultured

There's nothing like a helping of free culture to draw a crowd and Dublin's Culture Night was no exception, this year's festivities saw thousands take to the city in a frenzy reminiscent of a game of Screwball Scramble. The capital was divided in to six areas of exploration: Heuston/ Museum Quarter, Historic Quarter, Temple Bar & North of the Liffey, North Georgian Quarter, Trinity College/ Docklands and finally, the South Georgian Quarter. All of these areas were absolutely brimming with attractions and entertainment for all ages and with only six or so hours to take in all the cultural goodness, it was quite the task to schedule, never mind prioritize.

With a chisler temporarily in my custody, a kid-friendly excursion was in order, so a hop and a skip over to the National Wax Museum saw us join the extensive queue of everyone else with the same wattage of our light bulb moment. Now this, one could be forgiven for thinking, was the new revamped, 21st century Wax Museum - and it is, just with what could be taken for the previous century's waxworks. And as for the children's 'Enchanted World'? A badly lit, ill-constructed tunnel does not a kids' area make...

*Note: this attraction was not from the 'Enchanted World' but would've added something amusing to it at least*

But rather than feeling shortchanged by the odd facial expressions and misplaced wigs, the free entry (and only that) made the bizarre exhibits curiously entertaining, although one Spanish tourist did admit - "Ok, this is too Irish for me" on encountering the 1798 Rebellion exhibit and Wolfe Tone's nose. It can safely be said that many of Ireland's finest weren't looking their best that evening.

Temple Bar was a-buzz with old style variety acts, performers and buskers, making it a feast of sight and sound to venture through. Turning a corner to find a jubilant couple of hundred people singing 'Walking On Sunshine' with two buoyant and surprised buskers was a treat, as well as the electric-trad band who garnered an instant and impressed audience further on up the alley. Up at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, a jazz/ funk outfit were tented outside on the grounds, and as the evening grew more autumnal they provided a lively atmosphere whether visitors stopped to listen, took shelter at the make-shift bar or walked through the artists' workshops that were open for viewings.


The evening's vast array of activities meant, by way of a back handed insult considering that the organization and diversity on offer cannot be faulted, that relatively little was actually seen, with all the queuing and indecision in my case anyway. But maybe there were better equipped culture vultures out there than yours truly. Having missed 2008's first Culture Night, and last year's outing, I was delighted to be immersed in the hubbub of the city that evening, and although we can and should go make these excursions in the other eleven months available, there's something to be said for Dublin's vibe on that evening when all involved are trying to beat the clock. Here's hoping for a Culture Weekend next year.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Electric dreams...and picnics

Long after the last sodden drops have been wrung from the ineffective raincoats...the memory lingers on.   And a good one at that.

Considering I only caught the last third of the weekend, as unexpected tickets were belatedly bestowed, I am now enamoured with the first weekend of September. From the fairy lit forest trail to follow at the entrance, to the feast of entertainment that awaits you on the other side of the security folk; carousels, giant tulips, disco balls and tribal flags, the effort that goes in to this knees-up is not to be snuffed at.

Hot Chip on Saturday night drew a great crowd and palpable anticipation, flooring the audience with hits from the off. Not ones to reside motionless behind their instruments, the ferocity of their performance was as much of a joy to watch (if you're vertically gifted) as it was to listen to (vertically challenged). The Frames celebrated their 20th anniversary on the main stage with a feeling of mutual delight from both band and audience. That, combined with Damien Dempsey's surprise appearance for 'The Auld Triangle' led to many suffering vocal chords come Sunday morning.

Pantibar's ThisIsPopBaby stage saw some psychedelic cailini in full Irish dancing dress, wrap a willing crowd around their collective fingers, with everything from Lady Gaga to doo-wop Underworld covers, with wild fiddles to boot.

Those of you who forayed in to the forest after dark, while dodging others foraying to the jacks - au naturel, were rewarded with the bountiful treasure that was the Salty Dog Saloon. A pirate's boat-cum-stage with a beach shack bar complete with barrels and tables,that felt like a secret shindig that everybody was in on. Aboard the boat the tightest funk band ever, with a dirty brass section, kept revelers (kids included) doing the jungle boogie until 5am on Sunday morning.

Regardless of all the high jinx at the festival-goer's disposal, the picnic still has it's naysayers. Even I must admit some of the clueless stewards encountered and the poor lighting to aid the navigation of campsites and car parks did detract somewhat when all you want to know is where a stage, a toilet or your car is...

But claims that it's try-hard or tragically hip overlooks how the little details like coloured fish hanging from trees, white flags billowing with people's personal wishes attached or even ostrich burgers, make a difference. People don't want to feel that they've bought in to some templated festival product, but rather that someone has tailored the little discoveries to be made across the site, to add to their experience.

It doesn't come across as gimmicky or painfully quirky, just a break from the usual festival machine, and who doesn't want a final fling before Summer's end? 
If it's not your cup of jasmine infused green tea, you know what you can do.