I have learned to be intrigued by anything Iarla Ó Lionáird is involved in. That might not be obvious. I am from the most British part of Ireland, its north east corner and Ó Lionáird is from the opposite south west Cork Gaeltacht end. He is a Sean-nos singer and in the Gaeilge language. It is not what I am used to. Indeed though my Church denomination (Presbyterian Church in Ireland) played a significant role in keeping that very language alive I was actively discouraged to have anything to do with it. We are a confused and often hypocritical little people!
For me I needed to seek beyond the confines our sectarianism has imprisoned us and open myself up to all of my island’s rich soul. So Horslips led me into a rich seam that eventually led to Afro Celt System out of which Iarla Ó Lionáird via Peter Gabriel came onto my radar. Ó Lionáird’s album I Could Read The Sky had my attention as he took the traditional Irish fiddles and mandolins and blended them with industrial loops and guitars and distorted vocals. I am not a great fan of Irish trad played straight. I like it when it is blended it into something more contemporary which is why I so loved Horslips!
Anyway, what I have come to expected from Iarla Ó Lionáird is something innovative, fascinating and beautiful. So, when I watched him perform with The Gloaming at the Royal Albert Hall celebration of President Michael D Higgins state visit to the UK I downloaded the record before the performance was even finished. Another imaginative leap from Ó Lionáird as he again conjures something fresh and new from the old traditions.
This time it is not just Iarla Ó Lionáird though. This is more super group with maybe the world’s best fiddler Martin Hayes, guitarist Dennis Cahill, Caoimhin Ó Raghallaigh on the Norwegian hardanger fiddle, and pianist Thomas Bartlett. If Hayes and Cahill lay the trad foundation, then Ó Raghallaigh’s drones tint shades and moods and Bartlett brings his modern New York piano to really mix the cocktail. That Bartlett has worked with David Byrne and Laurie Anderson will tell you it is indeed a shake up. Of course Ó Lionáird’s soulful vocals overlays it all! Gaeilge is such a potently poetic language and Ó Lionáird is its greatest living proponent. That this wee Ulster Prod is unable to translate matters as much as not understanding whatever language Sigur Ros use!
Indeed I have always felt that Ó Lionáird is the Sigur Ros of Ireland and therefore should be able to take Irish folk to new territories. That Necklace of Wrens, Freedom and the sixteen minute Opening Set all feature Bartlett suggests where my ear is leaning on the album but whatever your ear this is a work of world beating musicians stretching their art to new vistas of gorgeousness and achievement. If you could put the Irish coastline on a clear summer sunset evening to music then this might be what you would get. Maybe they did!