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  • Writer's pictureMoya Sweeney

National Concert Hall - like, subscribe and compromise

Updated: Sep 14, 2021

November is a pretty exciting month for any trad musician, between Ennis Trad Fest and The Trip to Birmingham, it’s the perfect antidote for that PFD (Post Fleadh Depression). Of course, like everything in 2020, all that disappeared quicker than my ability to do anything other than watch Murder She Wrote. Every. Single. Morning. Much like Jessica Fletcher, I was on the investigative hunt for online gigs and performances to fill the void of an essentially trad-less summer. When suddenly, like some form of apocalyptic miracle, Tradition Now jumped on the virtual train bound for screens all over the country. Including my own, where from the comfort of my bedroom I enjoyed several cups of tea while watching some incredible performances from the National Concert Hall, Dublin. The only real difference here is the venue choice of my bedroom. I was that person who ordered tea at every gig, and I am not ashamed. Accompanied by a homemade Halloween cookie courtesy of my younger sisters (Clodagh and Eimear, wee legends), I sat down to watch the first instalment of the Tradition Now marathon concerts. Due to the extensive list of artists I can only mention a few of my personal highlights, however I would happily write a Lord of the Rings sized document on how much I adored both concerts. But no one wants to see that, or maybe you do?

Saturday night brought with it an exciting line-up, consisting of instrumentalists and singers spanning the entire island. Landless, a four-piece female vocal ensemble open the series with an a cappella performance complete with luscious harmonies and a breathy choral sound. Standing in the choir balcony, the four women radiate a powerful quality which is reflective of the soundscape created. The traditional modal melodies are honoured in their arrangements, while also adding clustered harmonic lines. Particularly in their version of ‘All Around the Loney-O’, voices intertwine effortlessly between duet and quartet settings, creating a sound I can only describe as a crackling fire in the living room on what feels like the coldest night of the year. When you know, you know. Their voices seem to reverberate and bounce playfully around the venue, I would give anything to be there in person. When you get goosebumps through a computer screen, you know that something special is happening.

A fusion of Irish and Persian music is presented in the form of Nava, a group exploring these ancient musical cultures to produce a sound unlike any other. This combination of instruments, including a santoor, tomak and tar, works perfectly to straddle both cultures in one defined style. The distinct relationship topped off with banjo, guitar and bass marries the Irish and Persian traditions through melodies from both cultures. My favourite being a set of O’Farrell’s slip jigs with a “Miles Davis detour in the middle of it”. This crossing of traditions is achieved so tastefully, with each instrument taking their own solo section in true jazz fashion (serious finger snapping, head bopping, “yeah baby” moments). What really struck me was the enjoyment present on stage, they really believe in the music they are creating. This refreshing take on Irish traditional music is almost like speaking a language with a different accent, the same premise but with slight inflections to show their individual style. A pocket of lightning. Do yourself a favour and listen to these guys.

The night was brought to a close by the formidable Ye Vagabonds, two of my favourite voices on the planet. Both brothers have distinctive tones that possess a quality that is somewhat harsh and soft, captivating an audience with a simple set up of their voices, stringed accompaniment and harmonium. Their enchanting stage presence is held throughout the set, between stories of songs and “radio voice” banter (get these lads a radio show, stat), it feels like they are simply catching up with the audience, or lack thereof. Their performance of ‘Bacach Shíol Andaí’ showcases those famous Ye Vagabonds harmonies with alternating major thirds and perfect fourths, creating that open feeling strongly associated with the folk genre. Both brothers play mandolin in the ‘Humours of Glynn’ set, with each instrument made to highlight alternative elements of the other. This instrument creates a light and graceful sound, contrasting with the low pedal point of the harmonium. The driving strumming accompaniment reminds me of bands such as The Bothy Band, where this rhythmic drive was also present. It was nice to hear an instrumental set from the band as I usually associate them with vocal performances, but it really just shows that they can do everything. It’s annoying.

Live from his “shack” in London, Sam Amidon delighted us with his American folk charm on Sunday night. His growling vocal mirrors the muted tone of the banjo, which is characteristic of this genre. Throughout the performance he switched between banjo, guitar and fiddle, to showcase original pieces, folk songs and American country covers (with a quick detour by “murder ballad corner”). ‘Spanish Merchant’s Daughter’, a track from his recent self-titled release, includes dreamy fingerstyle guitar accompaniment with a softer vocal than previous. He also interacts with his virtual audience here, encouraging a humming solo (God loves a trier). The funniest thing is, it didn’t feel cringeworthy in the slightest, which is incredibly impressive. It takes a certain kind of musician to work a virtual audience, Sam Amidon is that musician. He finished his set with some American fiddle tunes, complete with double stopping and slides to highlight the bluegrass style. His playing is full of life and vigour, which transpires into his playing of Irish tunes, putting his signature folk spin on a set of reels. I was struck by his raw energy when playing, again displaying another impressive interpretation of Irish traditional music. If this is what “murder ballad corner” is like, I’ll have a one-way ticket please.

Although nothing can compare to the thrill of a live gig, these concerts are the perfect compromise to cure those lockdown blues. There is something oddly satisfying about sitting in your pyjamas, not worrying about the couple talking in front of you or not having to wait in line at the bar for what feels like an entire Brahms symphony. But until that day, I will clap, ‘yeo’ and hum as a virtual audience member behind my computer screen. And yes, it is as weird as it sounds.

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