Friday 29 June 2012

Before The Deluge - Irish Echo Column 8-15-07

Black 47 played its first Irish festival in Rockaway back in 1990. It was a bare bones event, a simple stage with electric power diverted from a nearby streetlight. But it was a joyous affair, a getting together of the clans, a return to the old neighborhood.

By the next year we were playing the big Southside Chicago Fest and others in the old immigrant industrial cities that sit astride Route 80. It was an exciting time. Irish-America had been politicized by the death of Bobby Sands. There was a fire in the community and a determination that the British problem in the North be settled once and for all.

Irish festivals are now big business. I love them dearly and have been their champion over the last 18 years. Three and even four generations mix together happily, sampling the music, dancing, readings and craftwork. There’s something for everyone and, as a performer, it’s a thrill to see teenagers and grandparents come together on songs about James Connolly and Michael Collins. Some are there for the beat and attitude, the others for the history and memories, but Irish culture provides a common grid for both the Myspace and AOH generations.

Is there a chance of losing this? I don’t think so, as long as we maintain links to our history and to the old immigrant communities along Route 80. Some of those connections are fraying as the political and economic situations on both sides of the Irish border have improved. Still, Irish-America can ill afford to lose the idealism that caused so many to take to the streets, raise money, bring children over on vacations, and keep the heat on politicians until President Clinton initiated the historic breakthrough in Irish/British affairs back in the ‘90’s.

Despite the uplifting spirit of the Irish festivals, it is hard not to be saddened by the abandoned factories that litter Route 80. Sure, a small percentage of them are being converted into centers for the new info and digital technologies. And God knows, the service industry is booming. Blindfold me and put me on the outskirts of any town now and I couldn’t tell if I was in Toledo or Buffalo such is the similarity of malls, McDonald’s and other ubiquitous franchises.

But what does that say about the soul of this country and what does it portend? There was a time when people went to work, built something and were proud of it. Their unions protected them and guaranteed a certain standard of living. That’s all history now. But does it have to be?

There’s an underlying unease in the country that’s almost palpable. A feeling that things are out of control and that the system no longer works. We’re in the midst of an intractable war that’s draining billions by the month while our infrastructure crumbles, our children are receiving a sub-standard education and most of us dread illness for fear the insurance companies might pull a runner.

None of this is unfixable, of course; yet there’s an apathy abroad. Most college students could care less about the war since it doesn’t impact them; while, over and over, in my travels I hear from people that they feel powerless to effect any kind of meaningful change.
What’s all this got to do with Irish festivals? I’m not sure I know and yet I feel there’s a link. Maybe it’s time for a new idealism: a questioning of values. Where are we going and why? It’s time to take stock and make some choices.

In the meantime, support your Irish festival and if you don’t have one locally, then why not start your own? You’ll have the time of your life interacting with your own people while building a cultural grid for your children in their socially estranged world of ipods and game stations.

It will only take a small donation of time and energy but who knows, maybe it will reignite our idealism and set the machines humming again in all those deserted factories that litter the old immigrant cities along Route 80.

Tuesday 19 June 2012


I never walk down. 13th Street in Greenwich Village for fear of catching a glimpse inside the old Bells of Hell and routing treasured memories.

Likewise CBGB on the Bowery - though recently I allowed myself a gander from up the block. To my distress, the ratty club appeared to have been swallowed whole by a trendy clothes store.

CB’s was never trendy – it created trends. And I’m not even talking music. You know those ripped-at-the-knees jeans you wear; I first saw The Ramones sport those in the mid-70’s. Too destitute to afford new denims, they slit their frayed ones and a craze was born.

CBGB actually originated across the street from The Bells. Hilly Crystal and his wife, Karen, used to come over on breaks; not surprising, since their club was so small you couldn’t swing a cat in it. Eventually, they got a better deal - the ground floor of a flophouse on the Bowery and we Bells denizens dutifully attended opening night.

Hilly owned two of the laziest dogs I ever encountered. They looked like over-doped, longhaired greyhounds; he said they were descended from the menagerie of the Pharohs - that Tut and the guys entombed these hounds with them in the pyramids for company.

These two semi-comatose bags of bones lay in the shade of the pool table and were much tripped over, whereupon they would look up accusingly at you with big sorrowful eyes.

Though made of much sterner stuff Hilly tackled the world with much the same gaze. He rarely raised his voice, even when banning me from the club for being “too demonic.” But that’s a whole other story; and anyway he let me back in a few weeks later.

I was present for Talking Heads first gig at CBGB. David Byrne played an acoustic guitar back then. They were very strange and quite out of tune; to be honest, I couldn’t tell if they were having us on. Hilly felt much the same – just stood there scratching his head. Even the two Egyptian dogs looked up occasionally – baffled by Byrne’s earnest yelping.

Later on while studying the acres of graffiti in the men’s room I sensed footsteps behind me. The hair spiked on the back of my head – after all, this was the Bowery 1975.

However, I couldn’t have been safer. Mild-mannered David Byrne let fly in the urinal next to me. We exchanged pleasantries, as one does; I ventured to inquire what class of music had he just been playing.

“No particular style,” he murmured. “We’re trying to sound like everyone else, we’re just not very good yet.”

As we were trudging back upstairs I wondered again if he might have been having me on. Life was very mysterious back in the 70’s. One thing crystal clear, however – Talking Heads got better at each gig I saw them, though, I suppose, David failed in his stated goal for they never sounded much like anyone else.

Eventually, The Heads, Patti Smith, The Ramones, Blondie and Television would go on to change the music world. CBGB soldiered on without them for over 30 years; many the band graced its stage and not a few gained fame - if not fortune. And so it goes.

I had heard Hilly was very sick so I showed up the night the club closed. I hadn’t been there in over twenty years. It was like a class reunion. People I disliked smiled at me and I beamed back, unable to recall ancient transgressions. And anyway, we shared common ground - we were survivors, grateful not to be among the many ghosts flitting around the cobwebbed ceiling.

Hilly and I watched Patti Smith play. He was gaunt and we said little. It was like old times.

Finally he muttered, “Remember the night I banned you for being too demonic? What was that all about?”

“That’s a story for another day, Hilly.” I instantly regretted my words - we both knew there wouldn’t be one.

“Yeah, “ he scratched his head as we both stared at the spot where the Egyptian dogs used to stretch out beneath the pool table.

Wednesday 13 June 2012

Martin Hayes & Iarla Ó'Lionáird

Ah, musicians, they come in all shapes and sizes, and bearing all manner of ambitions. Roughly speaking, they can be divided into two classes – those in it for the celebrity, and those who got snared by the magic of music and have never figured a way out.

You have to wonder why the celebrity hounds get into it in the first place – they have less chance of success than Steve Duggan nailing eight winners on a rainy day in Belmont.

Come to think of it I don’t know why I got into the music game myself – I’d have made a better parish priest! However, there are consolations - one of them hosting Celtic Crush on SiriusXM - for it allows me to interview other musicians and get to the heart of their relationship with their craft.

I steer well clear of celebrity seekers who have basically little to offer except their Facebook and Twitter numbers. On the other hand, I had wanted to interview Iarla Ó’Lionáird and Martin Hayes for a long time.

Iarla was the singer with Afro-Celt Sound System, a groundbreaking group that melded Irish and African music with some formidable dance beats.

How would you describe Martin Hayes’ work? A multi-tasking friend once stood spell-struck and described it as the closest thing she ever heard to fairy music. There is, indeed, a very spiritual side to Martin’s playing but there’s an even deeper connection to the magical countryside of East Clare.

Both artists dropped by the SiriusXM studios when in New York recently to play the Masters of Tradition show at Symphony Space. Those studios have seen and heard it all but I don’t think they experienced time standing still before.

Though Iarla and Martin have graced major stages around the world there’s an unhurried quality to their presence; still, there’s nothing casual about their music. It’s deeply felt, well thought out and oozes a quiet, but unruly, passion.

It’s the sense of connection to the origins of their music that makes them so singular. Iarla was born and reared in Cúl Aodha in West Cork where Sean O’Ríada retreated to immerse himself in Gaelic culture.

As a boy he joined O’Riada’s local choir and witnessed first hand the creative strivings of our greatest musical innovator. As he talked about this experience it was as if Cork’s misty mountains closed in around us, and when he sang as Gaeilge a very old song handed down by a relative, all the questions I had planned about his years with Afro-Celt evaporated.

Likewise Martin draws from the deep well of music particular to East Clare. He is profoundly aware that he is channeling more than mere notes but rather a tradition created by people who saw and heard things differently than we do today.

He cut his teeth playing in the Tulla Céilí Band, co-founded by his father, P.J. Hayes, and we spun P. Joe’s Reel, a track by this venerated dance band; then he played the same piece in his own inimitable, graceful style.

I’ve always loved to watch him play for he seems to lose himself, not just in the music, but in the place and time from where it originated – much like the old bluesmen. When he opens his eyes at the end of a piece both you and he have traveled a long way in a very short time.

The commitment of Hayes and O’Lionáird to their music is stirring. It has little to do with money, fame or celebrity. They’ve been lucky enough to receive a gift and they’re conscious of their duty to share it.

If this modern world is beating you down take a listen to Foxlight by Iarla Ó’Lionáird and Welcome Here Again by Martin Hayes and his gifted musical partner, Dennis Cahill. Both albums will prove a tonic for the soul and will transport you to a misty West Cork mountainside and the magical country of East County Clare.

That’s what great music does for you – it blocks out the babble of an intrusive world and leaves you at peace with yourself.

Wednesday 6 June 2012

Culture of Connectivity

I recently participated in a conference at Missouri State University entitled Culture of Connectivity.

Nice work, says you, if you can get it. But what the hell was it all about?

Well, I too had much the same thought as I arrived in Springfield, MO fantasizing that I might down a few pints with Springfield’s most famous son, Homer Simpson, in the course of my four day visit.

I had little time for socializing, however, before jumping onstage for a solo show and then braving a question and answer session that ranged from the ideals of Bobby Sands to the current state of Irish-America’s soul.

From the next morning on I was immersed in a grand stew of ideas about the nature of modern life, and the changing manner and sheer variety of ways that we connect with each other.

Springfield is an old city, a Civil War battleground and scarcely an oasis of peace in the various social and economic wars now raging for the soul of America.

On my first panel I was quite rightly taken to task for assuming that the US was intended to be a democracy. Anything but, I was informed, the founding fathers were terrified of the anarchistic influence of the mob.

Their ideal was a republic governed by the educated, propertied class. This prickly revelation led the discussion to the current elevation of the American Constitution to a status as revered as the Ten Commandments.

But how wise can this noble document be, questioned a panelist, if it excluded the rights of women and condoned slavery?

Because, another postulated, the constitution has been amended down through the years to encompass current and more wholesome ideals.

Shouldn’t this then be an ongoing project, remarked an audience member; for instance, why should the Second Amendment be deemed sacrosanct when more Americans are annually killed by legal weapons in the US than in the worst years of the war in Iraq?

Lively stuff for a first morning session, and the pace never let up!

One of the main thrusts of the conference was how we’ve all been intrinsically changed by modern means of communication.

Many complained that the ubiquitous cell phone has rocketed the level of rudeness, while the “yap factor” has driven them to distraction. I overheard a particularly irate scientist predict that the descendants of Homo Erectus were slowly morphing into Homo Crick-in-the-Neckus from staring down into hand held screens.

Another common theme - does Facebook have any redeeming values? Is it merely a vast time-waster?

At first the constant brainstorming was a bit overwhelming for how often nowadays do we allow ourselves the luxury of unbridled thought, much less have time to question our own preconceptions and shallow media-influenced notions?

Around the third day, though, the following ideas began to take shape for this participant.

There’s far more to democracy than just having a vote. In fact, democracy itself is destined to failure unless it adapts to the challenges of the times.

And our times and democracy are dominated by a rapacious corporate culture that is reaping huge profits on the backs of those lucky enough to be granted the right to work. Ask anyone who has a job – hours are longer, benefits fewer, and inflation-adjusted wages are lower than ten years ago.

But our new culture of connectivity has provided us with weapons. Just as Facebook and Twitter were employed by the youth of North Africa to topple their corrupt governments; so too with the threat of boycott can we force our new corporate masters to bring back jobs from overseas and spend a portion of their profits on retraining the workforce.

Our world is changing ever more quickly; social and economic pressures are increasing with the tempo. Reflection can often seem like an unaffordable luxury. Missouri State froze the clock for four days and allowed me to see that democracy is an ongoing experiment that functions best when people use today’s tools to renew it from the ground up.

Now if only I could have run into Homer Simpson.

For more on Culture of Connectivity and a Rock & Read show by Larry Kirwan go to