MANCHESTER ARENA, MAY 22nd, 2017

I celebrate yet another birthday next week and, barring any last minute misfortune, I’ll turn forty nine years of age. I am the fiercely proud father of three young daughters and, as the clock ticks on, I’m careful, usually, in what I say to them and how far I go for them. It is they, more than likely, who’ll decide what nursing home I end up in and, just as importantly, where my collection of discs, vinyl and downloads goes when I’m no longer able to care for it.

Over the years, several people have asked, bizarrely, if myself and my wife regret not having sons or if we miss the joys of not having to deal with young boys around the house. But in the unbowed spirit of Simon Carmody before me, I absolutely revel in a house of girls and I wouldn’t want it any other way, ever. Even if, as has long proven to be the case, girls wreck your head while boys wreck your house and pulverize your fridge.

They love music, all three, and this gives me no end of added hope for them and about how they might turn out. And they’re at an age – just turning 13, 11 and 8 – when they enjoy, to varying degrees, pure, unfiltered pop music for the gift it often is – a genuine treat – without prejudice or cynicism, exactly like I did myself decades ago. My own mother set the tone in our house as we grew up in the middle of Cork city in the 1970s and, while we often had little else, she fostered in us a real love of and respect for all manner of music. And wittingly or otherwise, that deference is now being handed on down the family line ;- more and more often, when it comes to putting the lights out at bed-time and switching their devices off, I’m being asked for extra time. For just one more song.

I routinely hear another familiar chorus too :- my children think their parents, and me especially, suffer an appalling lack of judgement and taste, especially in the not insignificant matter of how we sound-track our lives. There’s an odd moment here and there, of course, when, out of the blue, an old chorus or a quirky lyric will fleetingly make an impression in the back of the car and a kooky fusion happens. We had this once with ‘Black Cow’, from Steely Dan’s remarkable ‘Aja’ album, for no other reason, I suspect, than the idea of being asked to take a big black cow somewhere resonated with a six year old already spellbound by the soft conjury of ‘The Gruffalo’, ‘Tiddler’ and ‘Stick Man’. These are indeed the kind of bizarre moments that, as a parent, I’ll be re-cycling in broader company for as long as I can and that will bedrock any future wedding speeches I may make.

When it comes to their own music, they don’t always know what they like but they certainly know what they don’t and, as they get older and gobbier, the breadth of what they’re listening to has increased no end. And so whenever I remind them – it’s what we used to call ‘The Civics curriculum’ – how important Paddy McAloon or Trashcan Sinatras are [‘they sure are trash’, said one of them], they’ll counter with a strong case for Harry Styles or Olly Murs or Little Mix or even, God bless them, Hometown. And this sort of carry-on has its uses.

At a big family do down the country last weekend, Ariana Grande helped to break the ice during those first, more awkward moments whenever the kids from the city found themselves at close quarters with their cousins and their cousins’ many, many other cousins, almost all of them attached to some personal device or other but all of them sussed and mad for music and performing. Some of the usual company was marked absent, away in Dublin for the weekend with older siblings or friends to catch Ariana’s live show down in the docklands but, even at such a remove in South Tipperary, their movements were being clearly and regularly monitored in real-time.

But while my own daughters certainly wouldn’t rate Ariana as highly as they might do Louis, Niall or Harry [‘she’s interesting’, ‘she has a good range’ and so on] her name and her music helped them, last weekend, to level the field, mark the territory and keep the conversation going between townies, reformed townies, died-in-the-wool country kids and my own crew who, on any given day, aspire to being like all and indeed none of the above, well into the small hours. And that’s the power of pop music, doing what it’s long done ;- opening the floor and joining the dots. As the music writer and critic Dorian Lynskey wrote on his blog yesterday about young girls and the live concert experience, they don’t tend to just celebrate music ‘but also youth, friendship, the ineffable glee of the moment, life at it’s most unquenchable’. And, to me, that sort of thing is vital.

We’ve had far different conversations about Ariana Grande over the last day or so and my daughters have helped me to put a small bit of flesh on what I had down, wrongly, as a crudely formed, pop star stereotype. Yesterday evening, in return, I tried to explain to them, although far less successfully, why Saffie Rose Roussos was in the news and how an eight year-old little girl who’d gone to see Ariana perform live in Manchester the previous night, wouldn’t be going home. But when we struggle so badly ourselves to make head or tail of the origins and the consequences of global terrorism, what else can we contribute to the table except hard clichés and an over-coat of the obvious ?

At some point soon, I’ll honour one of my many promises to my three daughters and take them to their first real pop concert. The older two saw One Direction at Croke Park some years back but they’re clued-in enough to know there’s something far more intense waiting for them on the next level, down around the edges where its much more intimate, personal and probably cool too. Their cousins’ cousins, with their trendy gear and social media accounts consistently to hand, make sure they know all about the extent of that sorcery.

And it’s no different in principle – maybe just more sophisticated and clinically marketed, perhaps ? – than it was back in the early 1980s when my father blagged me in through a side door at the City Hall in Cork to see my own first ever live concert, a helium-filled show by a fledgling Depeche Mode. Or on that night, maybe twenty years later when, back home for Christmas, I smuggled my youngest brother into The Savoy on Patrick Street [where in 1984, I’d fetched up in an over-sized crombie for The Smiths] to see The Divine Comedy. Up the stairs over the manky carpet, in through the venue doors, warning him to stay wide and to have his story straight in the event of capture, watching him suck it all in, still practically uncorrupted, for the first time. And although others may well argue, I honestly think that these sort of experiences have stood us well. Because without that love of music, and without that love of sport, who and what are we?

I’ve been fortunate enough to have attended many live shows in Manchester over the years, both in the giant-sized Arena itself and in some of the city’s many excellent smaller venues that circle it. And with one of my best friends living with his own family of music-loving girls in Salford, the news that broke late on Tuesday night carried an added significance, as it will have done for the many Irish music fans who have routinely made the return trip to that terrific city over the years.

Live music, live pop music especially, is nothing when it isn’t giddy, loud and delirious. At its most endearing and important it absolutely defines the moment, any moment, regularly undistilled and often manifest in the high-octane, skittish and sometimes demented reactions at live concerts. An experience which can also, of course, be a dangerous, unwelcoming and intimidating one for young women, and not simply because of the atrocity in Manchester earlier this week.

But as my friend Anne McCoy – who I first met through attending live shows in Dublin- posted in the wake of Tuesday night’s suicide bombing, ‘all the dead and injured weren’t in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were in the right place at the right time because they came to share the magic and joy of music’.

So when, over the coming years, my own daughters take their first, urgent steps into the heart of live music, they’ll do so with my full blessing and encouragement – and no little trepidation and fear either– because, as a parent, to do otherwise, just isn’t an option. And never has been.

THE SWINGING SWINE / THE GLEE CLUB

 

Guest post by Hugh O’Carroll… 

In late 1980s Dublin, having played a bit part in The Babysnakes’ story and a bigger part in The Stormcrows’ story, I was called on by Mr. Eamonn Dowd to guest with, and then join, The Swinging Swine. They had formed in Galway and had already gone through some line-up changes but the core of the band was Eamonn on guitar, vocals and some fiddle, Joanne Loughman on vocals, Doug Steen on lead guitar and John Lalor on bass. They were using the drummer from The Stars of Heaven at the time but that was a fluid situation!

The guest appearance was on a show called ‘Borderline’ on RTÉ and it all went well, though a cameraman pulled out my jack plug, but the vibes were good and I joined for full-time fiddling.

 

Swinging Swine

The Swinging Swine. Picture courtesy of Hugh O’Carroll

 

The Swine had been playing in and around Galway for a couple of years in the same circles as The Stunning and the infant Sawdoctors and all three were garnering interest. We added Billy Geraghty to the line-up as our most permanent drummer. In Dublin we started a residency in a nightspot called The Speakeasy and this became legendary. The band thrived and started creating some really energetic folk, country, and rock music to the delight of an ever-colourful audience. Besides the highly engaging activities of the Swine onstage, there was always the possibility of a guest appearance by a Waterboy or a Hothouse Flower or other luminaries of the day.
We gigged around Ireland to pretty good audiences as well and started recording a lot with help from Larry O’Toole, Donal Lunny, James Delaney, Paul Thomas and other Dublin-based legends.

Eventually we released an EP with the lead track being ‘Them Ghosts Do Come’, which sneaked into the Irish charts for quite a few weeks and thus we got quite a bit of radio play.


RTÉ were good to us and we were constantly on TV, on shows like Nighthawks, Check It Out, Púiríní and other shows of the day along with other bands of the day, like Interference, The Dixons, The Stunning, The Golden Horde and the like, who were all good buddies of ours.


We switched our main Dublin residency to Walters in Dun Laoghaire and, if anything, this became even more exciting than The Speakeasy. We also played other big gigs, including a few Trinity Balls and a couple of Olympia gigs etc, aided by an array of management characters including Horslips legend, journalist Eamonn Carr and Robbie Foy.

We were on the verge of various different record deals and bigger gigs and tours when the years of constant gigging and partying and general rowing over wee things started to take its toll.

We’d been like a family for a few years but concentrated familiarity can breed a little friction and even though there’d been no lack of encouragement from our supporters, the band fell apart. The whole folk rock frenzy of the Swine was highly enjoyable though and certainly had some serious highs!

From the time I first joined The Swinging Swine I’d always got on really well, musically and personally, with Joanne. I gelled musically with all the Swine but particularly with Joanne. When the group broke up I joined Niall Toner’s Hank Halfhead, which was a country-rock band which had at times been home to many a famous individual! While gigging away with the boys I was writing and recording with Joanne. We were heading down a more left of field indie alley.

Kevin Boyle, a mate of mine from Hank Halfhead, was a wiz with a fancy four track and a nifty guitar and bass player. We recorded demos with Joanne on vocals, myself on guitar and fiddle and Kevin on guitar, bass and programming.

We tried some other mates in the band but the three gelled recording wise and we decided to do some recording with our old mate, Larry O’Toole, in Temple Lane studios.


We decided to call the band The Glee Club, which was a suggestion from a friend of ours inspired by the Cork band, Five Go Down To The Sea.

We mixed up the recordings and made a wee demo and sent out about 3 or 4 and got a quick response from Keith Cullen from Setanta Records, home to The Frank And Walters and The Divine Comedy, to name but two. Keith signed us up pretty quick and in a flash we were going to London for a spell.

It was agreed that we’d record a mini LP with Angelo Bruschini from The Blue Aeroplanes producing.

We went to Bristol to start and got some backing tracks together before heading down to Dave Stewart’s Church studio to do the tracking. It all came together pretty quick and the album was released in 1993 to reasonable critical acclaim. We gigged as a 3 with backing tracks and played a little around London with Radiohead, Slowdive and The Gang of Four to name a few !

We also gigged a bit in France and were getting good feedback from Europe in general.
Melody Maker then gave us a great review and we got more positive feedback from press in Ireland, U.K. and Europe.

Around this time it was decided we should fully move to London.

Kevin had a new baby and this was not practical for him so we were down to a core of two members, but we were joined by Magnus Box on bass and an auld buddy of mine from Dublin, Justin Healy, on drums. This line up played another few gigs and around this time there was interest developing from Ivo from 4AD records, home to bands we loved like The Cocteau Twins, Pixies and Dead Can Dance etc.

Ivo had spotted Joanne previously and loved the voice and was interested in working with The Glee Club but thought the mini album was a bit ‘rock’.

We recorded a pared down version of Need, with Ivo and 4AD’s opinion in mind.
The recording took place in The Drugstore, which was The Jesus And Mary Chain’s studio, with engineer Dick Meaney and both Setanta and 4AD were impressed. Plus, we were loving it too!

It was decided that we’d record some tracks in Eden Studios with Hugh Jones of Echo And The Bunnymen fame, with Dick and others engineering. This resulted in 4 new tracks which we were all thrilled with.

The end result of this period was an agreement that we’d add re-recorded versions of songs from the mini-album to the new tracks recorded with Hugh and release a full length album on Setanta in Europe and on 4AD in the U.S..

We spent most of 1993 recording the rest of the album in The Drugstore with Dick Meaney in London, where we now were living full-time. Magnus was still playing bass and a friend of his, Adrian Meehan, was playing drums as they had on the tracks with Hugh Jones.

Everyone was happy with the album when finished and it was decided that we would go to the CMJ festival in New York to push the album, which was called ‘Mine’. Mazzy Star and Mercury Rev, amongst others, played at the festival. We played three sets there ;- one at Sin É, which at the time was a buzzing venue having been home to some golden gigs by Jeff Buckley.

All in all the trip to New York was a success. We were featured on the excellent No Disco show in Ireland and reviews in the home country were glowing!

It was decided that we should move to the U.S as the reaction to the album was good as 4AD had pushed it with the radio stations and the band was now a long-term feature in the College Radio charts.

Setanta had a friend, Gina Orr, who was interested in managing the band Stateside and it was agreed that myself and Joanne would move to San Francisco to make the most of the fact that the 4AD push was exposing a lot of people to the band and we continued to do well in the College Radio and Alternative charts in the U.S..

We moved to San Fran and played some shows, just the two of us in S.F. and Los Angeles, and also went to play at South By South West, where other 4AD acts were on the bill and other people we admired such as Beck.

We were going down grand as a 2 piece but to get more into the shows we enlisted a bass player and drummer, Chris and Dave, to play along with us. Our record deals weren’t lucrative enough to have moved the English boys to The States for a year.

Gina got us a tour supporting the band LOW and off we went from coast to coast for a month. That was a great experience. We went down well and enjoyed their music too!
We went home to Ireland to do Féile, -The Trip to Tipp.

On the bill were lots of bands we liked, like Cypress Hill, Rage against The Machine and Blur, to name but a few.

Things seemed to be going really well but both 4AD and Setanta were losing interest in what was a slow build and, even though we were going back to America for another long tour, we kind of knew that they both mightn’t release another album for us.

It had been a great run for The Glee Club but when that tour finished and I realised that we were losing the support of our backers, I would have found it hard to go back to London and record another album and try to build momentum again. So I rang Joanne and we decided to stop things for a while.

The proceeding couple of years had been intense. Constant touring, recording and schmoozing is both living the dream and not so much!! Either way we went our separate ways for a brief 20 years and then, having meandered around the world and around Ireland playing all kinds of gigs, I started releasing some original material again ,singing a bit and collaborating with various people.

I got to thinking that I might collaborate again with Joanne and rang her up and
we re-gelled well over a single, ‘Platitudes’.

We decided, while doing some promotional work for the single, that we might as well do an album together, and this is how the new album ‘HIVE’ has arrived!
It’s been a long and winding tale but I’ve enjoyed recording this album as much as the earlier stuff.

The album will be released in July, 2017 and The Glee Club are about to announce a couple of gigs in Dublin, where it all started!

GEMMA HAYES

The swagger of the remarkable hurling teams up in The North Mon during our secondary school years in the early 1980s would regularly entice entire slabs of Cork’s northside on tour beyond the county bounds and out of reach of regular reason. On assorted mid-week afternoons every winter, a slew of battered old buses and coaches would fetch up at the gates and deliver the school’s travelling army to remote, rural venues all over Munster for big colleges games. And these were all bleak, barren and backwards places ;- with our crudely-formed inner-city smarts, anywhere other than Blackpool was.

Decked out in our duffle coats and hooped blue-and-white scarves, and with our cheese sandwiches packed away in our pockets, we saw the very best of emerging locals like Tomás Mulcahy, Tony O’Sullivan, Jim Murray, Liam Coffey and the mighty Connerys of Na Piarsaigh up close in their callow bodies and pimply faces in villages and towns all over South Tipperary and beyond. Those young men were never beaten and consistently left it all out there on the killing fields in the school’s cause and, back in The Mon, we made sure to commemorate their heroics.

We had a song, ‘Amhrán na Main’ – a bit like Amhrán Na bhFiann meets The Green Fields Of France – which we’d rehearse in class before big Dr. Harty Cup games and, on those occasions when we’d reach a provincial or national final, the school would produce it’s own hurling fanzine, a badly photocopied, Pravda-inspired issue called ‘Monsoon’. In which you were told all you needed to know about the teenagers on the panel – club, height, weight, the class they were in and their own favourite hurlers – with a cursory line at the end about their off-field peccadilloes.

Frankie Walsh was one of a small number of pupils who were trusted with load-hailers and hand-picked to lead the cheering and chanting on the days of the big games. He had a wheezy smoker’s rasp and a fine beardy shadow and some of those in the school clearly thought his sharp tongue and quick wit could be channelled a bit more positively and, for a change, to the school’s benefit. And so, on the marquee occasions, he’d be given a bit more latitude than usual and enlisted as an official rabble-rouser.

But Frankie was easily bored too and would sometimes deviate off-script and into more dangerous territory [‘Tax The Farmers’ was one of his better originals] and, from his seat at the back of the bus, would slyly drop the teachers’ nicknames into some of his post- watershed material. It took a brave boy to stare down The Christian Brothers but Frankie had a hard neck and a soft head and he’d give anything a decent old shot. And on the days immediately after we’d put one over on Thurles C.B.S. or Saint Flannans of Ennis or Saint Colman’s of Fermoy, he’d strut the ramp up to school like someone returned from a fortnight in America with a buffalo’s head in his holdall.

It was hurling that first took us to Emly, New Inn, Cahir, Clogheen and Ballyporeen, and they were vile places ;- one-bit, two-horse towns that whiffed of diesel and whose pop-up tuck shops and filthy chip vans lured the per diems from the sweaty palms of the day-trippers. How the locals, we imagined, must have feared the bumper days when The Northside, in it’s rattling fleet, rolled into town with it’s history, cocky young hurlers, loud-hailers and quotient of un-reconstructed tulls.

Decades later I married into the South Tipperary crowd and, for the last twenty years, I’ve routinely driven those roads through the same villages and towns deep within The Golden Vale, often over the hills into Kilworth and back home by stealth to Cork from my in-laws house in Ardfinnan. And every single time I drive the four-and-a half miles from Clogheen into Ballyporeen, a part of me is still fifteen years old, thick and back there with the Mon boys on tour, taxing the farmers. And another part of me is older but no less clueless, wondering which of the narrow by-roads around these parts could have inspired such wonder and magic in the songs of Gemma Hayes ?

Born and reared within a large family in Ballyporeen, Hayes remains a peripheral figure and real curiosity within Irish music circles and, even after nearly twenty years spent making records and keeping on, is frightfully difficult to pin down. Sitting neither in the fish bowl of the kooky left-field set populated by Lisa O’Neill and Julie Feeney or in the often ungainly mainstream of Imelda May or Sinéad, she’s long paid the price for her ambition and wanderlust and even more so for her indifference.

I’ll happily stand corrected but I’m still not convinced she’s been given the credit she deserves as one of Ireland’s most consistent, curious and captivating writers and solo performers, as engaging over long distance as Neil Hannon, Conor O’Brien and even Sinéad herself. So much so that, when I see Imelda May vamping it one more time for the cameras, the latest in line of national sweethearts, I wonder if Ireland just likes it’s contemporary story-tellers far better if they’re more malleable and just available ?

During the summer of 2015, Gemma did a short radio insert with Miriam O’Callaghan on RTÉ Radio One ;- she was plugging her fifth album, ‘Bones And Longing’ and, from a remote studio in London, performed a couple of numbers on acoustic guitar and gave her host a terrific if all- too-brief interview. During that exchange she revealed that Louis Walsh, the one-time Boyzone and Westlife manager and now a well-known figure on British television, once suggested he take her under his wing and manage her career. ‘He wanted to work with me at the time. He was saying to me, ‘Gemma, you need to play the game more. We need to get you out dating another celebrity, we need to get you on the scene and in the papers’’, Gemma told Miriam.

Walsh, who she described as ‘a brilliant businessman’, also suggested that Hayes stop writing her own material and that he employ a team to do that on her behalf instead. And kicking the corpse once more for good luck, he assured her that she did indeed have ‘The X Factor’ which, no doubt, thrilled her no end.

Walsh is a diverting, often creepy and always boisterous figure with a traditional view of the entertainment industry – ‘the business we call ‘show’’ – who’s long understood the enduring benefits of good teeth and the utter pointlessness of the creative process. Alongside a couple of RTÉ presenters, Walsh is easily the most available ‘well-known face’ in the country and, to this extent, is a world removed from Gemma Hayes who remains at a distance and tends to hold her whisht unless she has a record to perform or promote or something of interest to impart.

Which has it’s advantages too, of course. Because if Gemma was more visible and closer to hand, like all national sweethearts, would her terrific songs still carry the same degree of mystery ? Does unsung and distant give her more room to roam, more of a licence to take risks and distort her sound ? Either way, she had a lucky escape with Louis Walsh.

Hayes first made herself heard during the late 1990s when, around the fringes of the post-raggle taggle Dublin scene dominated by the likes of The Frames, The Mary Janes and Mark Geary, you’d sometimes see her with the Whelans and Mother Redcaps set, often alongside the cellist Julian Lennon. There have been five albums since, all of them flushed with the soft, acoustic touch of the old school folkies, the frenetic, shoe-gaze blitz of Slowdive, the up-beat pop swagger of The Bangles and the giddy eclectics of Kate Bush. And every one of which, kicking against convention, has been progressively better and more ambitious than the last.

Foremost among which is 2008’s ‘The Hollow Of Morning’, a terrific break-up album seeking both ‘order in the chaos’ [and indeed ‘chaos in the order’ too] in the aftermath of a split, whether that be from a person, place or thing. Or indeed all three.

Sharply produced by David Odlum, one of the original members of The Frames and a member of Hayes’s kitchen cabinet for years, it’s easily one of the best Irish albums of the last two decades. And yet ‘The Hollow Of Morning’ rarely features on anyone’s list ;- another recurring theme of Hayes’s career. Unsurprisingly, the records that followed it – the excellent ‘Let It Break’ [2011] and 2014’s ‘Bones And Longing’, both of which, like ‘The Hollow Of Morning’, were independently issued – didn’t trouble the chart compilers either. Indeed despite a handsome cluster of terrific, guitar-fuelled albums, she is arguably best known fora cover version of Chris Issac’s ‘Wicked Game’, which featured on the soundtrack of the American teen drama series, ‘Pretty Little Liars’ and, to a lesser extent, for ‘Making My Way Back’, which sound-tracked the Lidl supermarket chain’s Christmas advertising campaign some years back.

But she remains one of my own favourite artists and I routinely return to Gemma’s songs ;- after a recent post here about Joe Chester, who’s collaborated with and featured alongside her for years, I’ve listened to practically nothing else since. And there’s a lot of material to suck in too, most of it determined by simple melodies and those gorgeous, breathy deliveries and smart, often arrant lyrics that have long been among her signatures.

Over the course of a random shuffle, she’ll divert and shift gear from the giddy, piano and plucked string staccato of ‘All I Need’ [from ‘Let It Break’] to the up-beat, guitar pop workouts of ‘Happy Sad’ [from ‘The Roads Don’t Love You’] and ‘Out Of Our Hands’ [from ‘The Hollow Of Morning’] to the introspective, fuzzy shoe-gazed tuning of ‘Laughter’ [from ‘Bones And Longing’]. And in spite of myself, I’m still suckered every time by the full-frontal pay-off in ‘Keep Running’, her 2011 single that, after a mildly-tempered rattle that name-checks some of the most interesting cities in the world in which the writer ‘might as well be lost’, proceeds to flail blindly, like a drunken uncle at an indie disco.

No one song captures the breath of Hayes’s ambition better than ‘I Let A Good Thing Go’, from her sturdy 2002 debut album, ‘Night On My Side’, which boasts all of her primary strike assets within it’s four minutes :- the carnal vocals, acoustic underlay and full-frontal thrashing that plays with skewed tunings and distorted lower ends. Ingredients she’s long favoured throughout her recording history, in which the most obvious variances have been in her increased use of beats, loops and dips ;- her most recent work is certainly infused with far more ambience and space. As if, almost, the more perceptive and confident she’s grown, the easier it’s become for her to pare her songs right back ;- on ‘Bones And Longing’ as if she’s often just corrupting the beauty.

A couple of summers ago, I produced ‘Saturday Night With Miriam’ for the RTÉ One television schedule and, with no little prompting from the show’s music booker, my old friend Caroline Henry, we invited Paul Noonan from Bell X1 and Gemma to come in and perform a live, acoustic version of ‘The Snowman’. Trading for the occasion as Printer Clips, a solo project of Paul’s, they fetched up in Studio Four without fanfare or fuss and, working the song through during afternoon rehearsals, had a core of us absolutely distracted as they did do.

Gemma had arrived bearing gifts ;- as well as her acoustic guitar, she also brought along her husband, who was also minding their first child, a little boy. And hours later, and in front of an audience of just over one hundred, Paul and herself delivered a mighty live performance, directed with her usual brio – in one shot only – by Niamh White and captured on camera in a single take by Gerry Hickey, a formidable and skilled operator. Once we’d downed tools for the night and repaired back-stage, Gemma told us that she’d successfully crowd-funded a new record, even if motherhood had given her far more pressing priorities and, as you’d expect, plenty else to occupy her mind and her time.

Months later she’d also delivered ‘Bones And Longing’, as absorbing a record as any and easily her most salient. And across much of the promotion she did in support of that record, she spoke about how becoming a mother had genuinely liberated her and about how music no longer absorbs her so intently or exclusively.

Life as a parent clearly suits her.

And her work.

PAT FITZPATRICK

The death was announced earlier today, after an illness, of the Belfast-born musician, arranger and producer, Pat ‘Fitzy’ Fitzpatrick who, although he never enjoyed a profile as a solo performer in his own right, was a highly-regarded musician and a much-loved figure on the Irish music scene since the late 1970s.

 

Having studied at the Royal College of Music in London, he first came to prominence as the keyboard player in Katmandu, the Belfast five-piece whose Roxy-inspired pop-art ambitions saw them move their operation down the road to Dublin, where they briefly captivated the locals. Also featuring Marty Lundy, Peter McKinney and Trevor Hutchinson, Katmandu issued one single, ‘I Can Make The Future’ and, although broader success eluded them, their smart, new-wave sound – of which Pat was a chief architect – certainly put them at a remove from many of their more direct, full-force contemporaries.

 

 

But it was as an adjunct live member of many established Irish rock bands – like Something Happens, Aslan and The Blades – that Pat was most frequently seen and heard. Apart from his humour and his general affability, he had a serenity and a beautiful touch – that he deployed in both regular conversation and in his music – that endeared him to all of those he encountered. And he was helped too, of course, by his magnificent ability as a player, a fact not lost on the late Beatles producer, George Martin, who name-checked him as his favourite Irish musician. And lost neither on the array of Irish and international artists, across numerous genres – from Van Morrison to Mary Coughlan to Colm Wilkinson – who routinely availed of his services as a session player, arranger and producer and who invariably reaped the benefits.

 

It was through my numerous postings as a producer in RTÉ television that I worked directly with Pat over many years. Because throughout his colourful, varied and ultimately all-too-short career, he was a frequent visitor to the national broadcaster’s television and radio studios. He led the house band during the early years of the Saturday night entertainment strand, ‘Kenny Live’, and later worked as a musical director on the Brian Kennedy light entertainment series, ‘One To Remember’, most notably.

 

But the tape archive in RTÉ is flush with his numerous performances alongside a host of visiting artists and musicians, primarily on the high-profile chat shows, bookings that often took us into all manner of bizarre territory. My friend, Caroline Henry, diaried many of those acts – local, national and international – over the years and, when the going got heavy, as it frequently did, and when we’d worry about some act or other’s capacity – or, often, lack of ability – to deliver a decent turn during a live television broadcast in front of an audience, Pat was our regular fall-back. When the going got weird, we’d turn to a pro.

 

And he’d fetch up in standard rock attire replete, more often than not, in a leather jacket and snazzy, well-kept shoes and calmly take control of any situation, over-seeing the storms as they passed and then, quietly and without fuss, pull his kit together and make his way home. He was a vital comfort to us.

 

It was as the fifth member of Something Happens, during that phase in their career – between 1990 and 1994 especially – when they more or less owned contemporary Irish music, were a constant television and radio presence and were as good a live act as any, that Pat’s face – and the magic in his hands – will have maybe registered most. Buttressing their formidable live shows from around ‘Stuck Together With God’s Glue’ onwards, he routinely belted out the opening bars of ‘Parachute’, still the band’s signature piece, while decorating the body of their sets unfussily and with no little brio. He was an imposing musician and player, a real stylist, but he knew too how to play as part of a team.

 

 

Outside of his regular session work in studio, in theatre and on the road, Pat latterly featured as a member of The Blades’ live retinue, the socially-sussed, mod-infused outfit that, earlier this year, released it’s second album in thirty years. In July, 2014 and, I guess, for no other reason than we just couldn’t see why not, we booked them to perform a live version of one of their best known numbers, ‘The Last Man In Europe’ on ‘Saturday Night With Miriam, a prime-time RTÉ television chat and entertainment show I’d been assigned to. And, as always, Pat was in studio early for the afternoon rehearsals, ready to go before anyone else. But once The Blades had closed out the show later that evening, he politely conducted his constituency work in the green room afterwards, carefully assembled his kit and then quietly made for home.

 

Three weeks ago, knowing he was unwell, he played live one last time with The Blades, this time in Whelan’s in Dublin where, as he’d routinely done all throughout his career with numerous others, he punctuated their songs, old and new, with his usual finesse and discerning hands. He brought to that band what he long brought to all those who were lucky enough to have worked with him or known him :- style, substance, spirit and savvy.

 

He leaves a long and mighty legacy. And he is already sorely missed.

 

HOLY JOE CHESTER

One of the many memorable passages in Johnny Marr’s recent autobiography, ‘Set The Boy Free’, recalls a visit the author made to Matt Johnson’s London flat in 1982, back when he was still in his teens and his band, The Smiths, had recorded what would become it’s first single, ‘Hand In Glove’. Johnson was a couple of years older, just twenty-one, but had already signed a significant deal with a major label and, writing and recording as The The, had released two fine singles. The pair had crossed paths in Manchester the previous year and had formed a fledgling friendship.

 

Johnson’s girlfriend, Fiona, answered the door. ‘She showed me into the flat’, Marr writes, ‘where Matt was crouched on the floor, wearing headphones surrounded by equipment that was strewn all over the carpet. A Casio keyboard and a black Fender Strat and drum machine were all plugged into a little four-track cassette recorder, and there was an electronic autoharp lying around and some microphones, one of which was plugged into an echo pedal. I hadn’t seen anyone working this way before. It struck me as incredibly modern and innovative’.

 

And to an ambitious but wide-eyed young musician taking his cues from a pointedly traditional view of the industry, basic home recording might well have looked peculiar. Because even allowing for the legend of Brian Wilson’s ability to record his own group, The Beach Boys, using sophisticated techniques on unsophisticated machinery as far back as the mid-1960s, self-sufficiency was still largely regarded as a delinquent form. And while Johnny Marr was having his head turned and his eyes opened in Matt Johnson’s flat, Duran Duran were busy pressing the flesh in support of ‘Rio’, the record that, in terms of the hoopla that surrounded it, become yet another by-word for industry excess. Another snapshot from a period during which record companies couldn’t spend quickly or recklessly enough, both inside the studio and outside on the tiles.

 

But while it took many years for the process and the technology to fully develop into the commonplace, the core conceit behind home-recording – doing it, literally, for yourself – was marking another important line in the sand for the music industry. Removing, as it could, many of the impediments – some of them fanciful – that surrounded the recording process and making it far more democratic, in theory at least.

 

Reading those paragraphs in ‘Set The Boy Free’ I thought, rightly or wrongly, of Joe Chester, the Dublin-born musician and songwriter whose most recent album, ‘The Easter Vigil’, has just been released and who, on any given day or project, can work as sustainably or efficiently as the best of them. His five solo albums – and they are, to all intents, entirely solo projects wherein our hero takes on the bulk of the creative lifting – are but one aspect of a wide and varied career spent as a musician, writer, producer and collaborator. Joe has long been as comfortable working alone as he is as part of a broader group ;- I first saw him in action many years back as one of Sunbear, an angular guitar band that regularly lit up many a dank evening in the belly of The Rock Garden in Temple Bar during the early 1990s. Someone who, depending on circumstance and mood, can pare it right back to the muscle too, as is certainly the case on ‘The Easter Vigil’.

Interestingly enough, my own copy arrived in the post after I bought it on-line from a record label based in Dublin 3, never previously regarded as a stronghold within the international music industry. Eight songs long, and softer and more spartan than much of Joe’s previous output, ‘The Easter Vigil’ is simply another chapter in a body of work that’s as impressive as that by any contemporary Irish artist. And the fact that he remains, outside of a small coterie of anoraks, fans and friends, a largely acquired taste, only adds to his lustre, of course.

 

Tall, thin and unlikely, he trades in uncomplicated, blue-chip songs that borrow their strokes from the best in show. His first album, ‘A Murder Of Crows’, for instance, features both Gemma Hayes on harmony vocals and a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Bleed To Love Her’ that, by so doing, pretty fairly reflects the crease into which he pitches. In every conceivable respect, he’s as far from Duran Duran as it’s possible to get.

 

I met Joe once, very briefly, back when I was producing a tidy music television series for tweens called ‘Eye2Eye’ and onto which we’d invited Gemma to play a short live set to an audience of forty twelve year olds and to answer some of their questions. And she was as decent and elegant as usual, unfussily accompanying herself on acoustic guitar while Joe, to her right, camera left, played her reluctant foil, buried deep in the half-light and uneasy anytime he was caught unwittingly in the glare. They populate each other’s work freely but even so, I was still struck by the ease with which they so instinctively sat in concert.

 

 

It’s a rare and remarkable gift, this, and one I’ve been fortunate enough to see close-up over the years in pairs as diverse as Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill, Conall and John from We Cut Corners and Christy Moore and Declan Sinnott. And that Friday afternoon we spent in Studio Two in Montrose was every bit as visceral as it was heart-lifting :- my abiding hope was that, beyond the smoke and mirrors of television, the performers’ alchemy had rubbed off on some of the kids and that they left the campus more rounded than when they entered.

 

I’d been turned onto ‘A Murder Of Crows’ the previous year by Tom Dunne, the Something Happens singer who, back in the mid-2000s, hosted an excellent early-evening music show on Today FM. And not only was he wearing the record to within an inch of it’s life but he was using the title track – with it’s chintzy keyboard swivel – as a regular ident throughout his programme. My wife and myself had recently become parents for the first time and, on those many evenings spent stuck in the slow torture along The Coast Road in Sandymount and over onto The East Link, Tom’s impeccable play-lists would help me home to Dublin 3 and back to the general gormlessness that tends to be family life for first-timers. And for many months thereafter, I’d drive my daughter to crèche in the mornings to the sweet, sweet sounds of ‘A Murder Of Crows’ ;- it became an unlikely soundtrack and vital mental support to life as a bewildered new parent.

 

I’ve kept a keen eye on Joe’s various activities in the years since. And, as our family increased in size along the way, so too did the ambition and the wonder of his records. And it’s been onwards, upwards and varied ever since ;- in between various stints working as a hired hand with Sinéad O’Connor and The Waterboys, or as a producer du jour for practically every Irish act worth it’s salt, Joe would infrequently fetch up and quietly leave out another essential calling card of his own.

 

And by any stretch, ‘The Tiny Pieces Left Behind’, ‘She Darks Me’ and ‘Hope Against Hope’ represent a formidable decade of work, carefully hand cut, delicately produced albums that wear their influences openly and boast their impacts clearly. Each of them made, for the most part, by one man and his help, working discreetly to small budgets, off-Broadway, cost-effectively and without the fanfare.

 

It’s been five busy, varied years since he last released a long-player and ‘The Easter Vigil’ finds Joe in a reflective and sombre humour ;- in part a concept album of soulful reflection and mature observation that, thematically, is back-dropped by the Easter tenets of sacrifice, re-birth and renewal.

 

To anyone with even the most passing interest in the emotional power of music, religion can often be a bountiful – if unlikely – source. The Easter Vigil itself is one of the staples of the Roman Catholic calendar and, as a drama, is a remarkable affair, big on pomp, staging and imagery. The single most important celebration within the Christian faith, Easter’s third act sees Jesus Christ rise from the dead hours after crucifixion on a cross on Calvary on Good Friday. And as such, it has provided numerous writers and musicians with ample symbolic ammo over the centuries.

 

Even as a non-believer, I’ve long found the use of music during the Easter ceremonies to be particularly impactful and just as interesting as the narrative it supports ;- as with most great films or stage shows, the soundtrack bulwarks the storyline and delivers several key punctuations and sub-texts across a week of ceremonials. As of Holy Thursday night, for instance, all instruments are de-commissioned and put beyond use and all music, until the resurrection during The Easter Vigil on Easter Saturday night, is plain and unaccompanied. Good Friday ceremonies, like The Stations of The Cross, are stark and wistful, powerful performance pieces played out in churches that stay dark and unadorned until faith is restored after the resurrection of Jesus Christ. After which, in simple terms, normal service[s] resume.

 

And in several respects, Joe’s album endures a similar catharsis using the same sort of dramatic tension. Only in reverse. From the peppy opener that takes place on ‘Spy Wednesday’ to the magnificent closer, ‘I’m Not A Christian Anymore’, located on Easter Sunday, the record’s central figure concludes a passage from confident believer [‘I know that my Redeemer lives’] through self-doubt, uncertainty and onwards into disbelief. When, over the album’s concluding bars, Joe sings ;- ‘that night in the sleeping house of God, I was a phantom walking in the corridor. I was a Christian then, I’m not a Christian anymore’.

 

But it had all been so different back at the beginning, seven songs earlier. ‘Spy Wednesday’ has an innocent Waterboys feel – appropriately enough, it could sit easily on ‘A Pagan Place’ – that springs to its capstone off of a saxophone solo by Anthony Thistlethwaite. Another packing considerable Waterboys history, Steve Wickham, lends the violin and viola parts while cellist Vyvienne Long decorates the room with deeper tones throughout. Elsewhere, ‘Dark Mornings’ – a first-class graduate from the Matthew Sweet/Ryan Adams/Lindsey Buckingham finishing school – is still the closest concession to the all-out, Cars-inspired finish that’s distinguished much of Joe’s previous work. And after that it’s just the magic of the soft hush ;- and it’s beautiful. Because for all of it’s allegory and bespoke references [‘the feast of Corpus Christi’, ‘Swastika Laundry’ and ‘the valley of tears’], Joe still finds the real wonder in the smaller, far less abstract moments.

 

The first single, ‘Juliette Walking In The Rain’ is about exactly that, a chance encounter with the French actress Juliette Binoche as she makes her way across Meeting House Square in Central Dublin. While for all the swagger on ‘Dark Mornings’, the song ultimately – and maybe invariably? – finds itself dissecting matters of the heart as Joe points out that he’s ‘just looking out the window, waiting for you to wake up’.

 

And that’s where his gift lies. The devil may indeed always lurk amidst the detail but it takes the confidence of a master to allow the magic flourish deep inside the quiet.

 

CODA :- ‘The Easter Vigil’ is available in decent shops and on-line via Bohemia Records.

http://www.bohemiarecords.ie/#/joe-chester/

 

Joe is playing a handful of live dates in Ireland in support of ‘The Easter Vigil’. Róisín Dubh in Galway on April 23rd, The Unitarian Church in Dublin on April 28th, The Spirit Store in Dundalk on May 4th and Crane Lane in Cork on May 27th. So do yourself a favour.