David Heffernan, through that terrific music television series, ‘The Session’, introduced me to the music of Nanci Griffith. David Donohue remains one of my favourite acts from the Setanta back catalogue and the records he made as the heart and soul of The Floors shouldn’t be under-estimated. I saw both The Floors and Nanci play live in Dublin within a couple of days of one another during the early part of 1999 and saw fit to knock out an opinion piece for Muse, an on-line music and arts magazine edited by Jim Carroll.
Those performances have dated better than my cranky piece, I think. This one goes out to the two Davids.
This piece appeared originally in the on-line music and arts magazine, Muse, in February, 1999. We’ve made some minor edits to the original copy.
Last week a strange surge gripped me and, for the first time in ages, I got out and about to see two live shows within the space of four days. Nothing strange or novel there, you might think, but in the last two years I’ve developed an almost mildly paranoid fear of bad venues, cynical audiences and irrelevant bands playing with poor sound to sad bastards – and this from someone who was once a regular three times a night man, as it were. Last week, then, was monumental by recent standards.
Now before I begin in earnest, allow me to put another petty hang-up to bed. Namely that I have always hated the term ‘gig’ and, more often than not, refuse to use it when referring to live music, particularly live music played by those I admire and respect. It is a term that in it’s spelling, tone and construction is tailor-built for disc jockeys, general sycophants and the likes of Lorraine Keane and, as such, has become remarkably appropriate, given most of the shows I have endured over the last eighteen months. Hate to be so pedantic and all that, but its good that you know.
Anyway, the remarkable Donal Dineen, who has graced these pages on occasion, has a couple of great theories on the anointing powers of popular music. Indeed there have been times when I’ve sat back myself and swooned silly during those [very rare] kind of uplifting and invigorating shows one comes across usually in rock biographies. But sad to say that moments like this have become all too infrequent the older, wiser and more difficult I have grown.
It would be fair to say that, in the last two years or thereabouts, I have sat or stood through far more ‘gigs’ than I have done live shows. This I very seriously regret and hence my cynicism. But twice last week I ran the gauntlet and returned wittingly to the fray and to active live duty. And its not been so much the start of a rehabilitation for me as a minor relief.
I’ve been a fan of Nanci Griffith for years now, ever since I first came across her on the best music show RTÉ has ever involved itself with, Frontier Films’ excellent The Session. And while I know that her voice isn’t always to everyone’s liking and that her first instincts can invariably fall well short, there is a balm and a mystique to her that I find way too difficult to ignore.
In truth, I’m blindly devoted to her and when Nanci arches back, steels her hands, opens her soul and sings – be it Ralph McTell’s ‘From Clare To Here’ or Tom Russell’s ‘Outbound Plane’ or Richard Thompson’s ‘Wall Of Death’ or any one of a myriad of songs in between – then she’s absolutely up there with Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits and Paul Simon. Up where there ain’t no higher mountain.
So much so that I can forgive her her various kinships and collaborations with some of the most outrageous chancers ever to grace this country’s stages – stand up Sharon Shannon, Mary Custy and, particularly, Philip Donnelly – and her juvenile on-stage guff. Because live music, when it’s on the boil, is first and foremost about the power of song and Nanci is always worth the venture.
Similarly so Carlow collective The Floors, who have been knocking around in several guises for far longer than David Donoghue, their choice-cut singer and leader, would care to admit. Thankfully their progress hasn’t been stunted unduly. In fact their third elpee ‘Morphine Watch’ [Tongued ‘n’ Grooved Records] is a tribute to their own surreal sense of destiny and to Donoghue’s spectacular belief in himself and in his songs.
Their launch show last week at Dublin’s Funnel was only ever going to get better as it dragged on – shows like this are, by their nature, all about disconcertion and distraction and nerves, all of which clearly affected both the band and their following on the night. But good bands playing extravagently good songs and competing full-on with the standard elements – cramped venue, too many drunks and not enough desk boost – are a sight to behold, particularly when they move seamlessly into full throttle.
So when Donoghue moves The Floors up one last notch and rips into a sinewy ‘Slowly When She Moves’ close to the end, they’re impossible to stop. Once again, and for the second time in days, its all about the power of song. Against all of my first instincts and largely in spite of myself, I’m swaying awkwardly. A sure sign in itself.
There was a time when all I wanted from live music was a sense of validation and a suggestion that, however temporarily, I had escaped. But there really is only so much running anyone can do [especially when you’re running from nothing really in particular] and there are only so many bad bands any man can tolerate at a sitting.
It’s a cliche I know but the really great live shows are always about the connection between stage and stall. When, for those indefinible and indespensible moments, song touches heart and soul and spirit and head and feet. When everything Donal Dineen has ever preached about the sanctity of the art meets deep within a chorus or a leading bridge.
Even allowing for my own hang-ups and for the emotional baggage I still insist on carrying around with me, last week was far less awkward than it could have been. But then strangely, at both Nanci Griffith and The Floors, there were no disc jockeys I recognised. No empty platitudes, no recognisible liggers and no sell-out. It could have been my birthday.