It may not be quite right to say that The Gloaming have a hotline straight to the heart of London Irish community, but this is the second time in just a few short months that I’ve seen them play a Union Chapel show packed to capacity. Of course nationality doesn’t necessarily enter into the reasons for attending and arguably, the likes of Martin Hayes, Dennis Cahill and Iarla Ó Lionáird have an international reputation that eclipses any such notion. But for all of that there are certain points in the set, especially when the twin fiddle attack of Martin and Caoimhin Ó Raghallaigh are in full flight, when the spontaneous whoops suggest a connection so profound and deeply rooted, as to be contained within the double helix of life itself.
I make the point because this is an evening of Irish music, or perhaps more accurately a celebration of Irish culture. Iarla sings exclusively in Irish Gaelic, delving into historical Irish poetry for his lyrics and although I can’t be 100% on their origins, the tune sets have come down the years, also through the Irish tradition to find their latest expression through Martin and Caoimhin. If there is a positive to nationality and a nationalism of worth, then this is it. It’s not about exclusivity, but a delving into a common identity and history with precious artifacts being passed down the generations. They are not physical objects, but little packages of time and human experience given new life for the common good.
For all of this tradition and connection to the past, there is, however, something very modern about The Gloaming. It’s partly the unusual combination of instruments and playing styles, with Thomas ‘Doveman’ Bartlett’s piano in particular giving a very different shape to the music. Whether he’s reaching inside the lid to damp the strings, playing almost freeform passages or more simply adding beautiful lyrical lines to the songs and tunes, he brings his own distinct musical history with him, even acknowledging that he doesn’t think how the others in The Gloaming do. Then there is the peculiar hardanger style fiddle of Caoimhin, with five main strings and five sympathetic strings that resonate, giving another unusual musical voice. Equally you could pick out the guitar playing of Dennis Cahill, a man for whom less is almost certainly more as he brings his own pin-point minimalism into the ensemble playing.
Recognising the value of such a line-up, Martin Hayes is perhaps the primary connection to the Irish musical heritage, while Iarla does the same for the language and poetry. Both have drunk deeply from the wellspring of the Irish tradition and give The Gloaming its lead lines around which, the others weave their harmonic patterns. Iarla is of course the singing voice and some voice it is too. No special knowledge of Gaelic is required to marvel at the sheer beauty of Samhradh Samhradh, The Necklace Of Wrens, Song 44 or Freedom / Saoirse. Martin’s fiddle meanwhile, alternates the top lines with Caoimhin, but it’s his supreme feel that to really lifts the crowd. When he’s in his element all eyes are on him, with the other musicians picking up their cues and clues and the audience utterly silent and entranced, apart from those excited whoops of encouragement.
Martin and Iarla also share the story telling duties, setting the scene for the different songs and tunes. They also share a certain self-deprecating wit to colour their wisdom. Martin relates that he used to think the only good thing about The Sailor’s Bonnet was that it would finish. When using it to teach the call and answer mechanics of such tunes to students, however, he discovered he had unpicked the inner beauty of the piece. He then explains that call and response with wry humour. Later, he also explains how the Opening Set became track eight on the CD and actually finishes the main set for tonight. He also offers an amusing commentary as Caoimhin tweaks the tuning of his 10 strings. Iarla too remembers his initial disappointment when Song 44, hardly the most evocative title, was the first to pop out of the many weighty tomes he carried into their early meetings. I sure none of that really translates, but then it made us all laugh.
Therein lies the nub of things. Things that translate and things that don’t. Things can travel through hundreds of years and still sound like they belong here today. Some things have the power to transcend nationality and language barriers – the words and narratives may be a mystery, but somehow they are still moving and meaningful, just in a different way. We connect with the excitement, the emotion, the feelings of sadness and joy, the yearning and desire. The Gloaming are the custodians of little parcels from the past, reborn in the here and now and we, their audience, have the licence to make of their gifts what treasures we will. In doing so, we connect both to the seamless, ageless lineage of music, but also to that common spark that makes us all human and that is the most wonderful treasure of all.
Review by: Simon Holland