His name is Luka

Luka Bloom performed for GLAS at the Collège des Coudriers in Geneva last Saturday and I had the honour of being his opening act. To sing my own songs for a crowd of around 250 – including many, many friends – while a musician of Luka Bloom’s stature waited in the wings was an exhilarating experience. My set went well, in spite of nerves and the fact that I was almost overcome with emotion on a few occasions.

And then it was all over and Luka himself came out to deliver a masterclass in storytelling and song.

In the minute or so we spent together in the wings between my set and his, he congratulated me warmly. He told me my voice reminded him of Neil Finn, which to me was high praise indeed. He repeated the same compliment when he went on stage and – at least according to George Leitenberger, who kindly took the photo below – called me “an incredibly talented young man”. Whatever about my talent, I think he was stretching things a bit with “young”, but I’ll take it nevertheless!

Eoghan O'Sullivan at Collège de Coudriers, Geneva, 1 April 2017. Photo by George Leitenberger

I had put the idea of being his support act to my friend Denis McClean, the brains behind GLAS, back in February; he in turn passed the request on to Luka, who, happily, said yes. And so, just like that, I was preparing for one of the most important performances of my musical life.

I put a lot of thought into the set. I’ve been writing songs for more than 15 years now and although I’m not very prolific these days, I have a bunch to choose from. Naturally I wanted to play what I felt were some of my best songs, but also to have a set that would hang together well.

I opened with Half-Hearted Love Affair, a quiet and bittersweet song that I hoped would draw the listeners in from the start. Then it was on to Have No Regrets, a more upbeat song that always gets a good response. I followed that with the two songs I’ve written for my sons, Declan’s My Silver Son and Robert’s First In My Eyes. (The boys were in the audience, which made it extra-special for me. I got the crowd to sing Happy Birthday to Declan ahead of his 3rd birthday the following day.) I rounded the set off with an “old reliable”, the Crowded House-ish I’ll Be Around.

Luka Bloom’s older brother Christy Moore was a musical hero of mine when I was growing up. (Indeed, my university thesis was about him.) But Luka himself was also an influence. My cover of his brilliant song You Couldn’t Have Come At A Better Time helped me to get gigs in Paris back in 2002, and of course City of Chicago has been a part of my repertoire since the beginning.

From the moment I walked into the venue on Saturday afternoon, when he greeted me with an enquiry about whether we shared a mutual friend (we did!), Luka Bloom made me feel very welcome. It was a privilege to spend an afternoon in his company, watching him soundcheck and chatting with him about this and that. He is a brilliant guitarist and a fine singer, whether of his own songs or of covers. His Swiss tour managers, Katha and Martina, and sound engineer Reto, were also most welcoming.

Thank you Denis; thank you Luka.

Luka Bloom, Denis McClean, Eoghan O'Sullivan, 1 April 2017, Geneva. Photo by Lars SolbergLuka Bloom, Denis McClean and me. (Photo by Lars Solberg)

 

Lisa Hannigan – Alhambra – 10.02.2017

It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost five years since I saw Lisa Hannigan playing in Lausanne. That gig was in a much smaller, more intimate venue, which is one reason I enjoyed it more than last night’s Antigel date in Geneva. But I think it was also because I have been finding it hard to get into her most recent album, At Swim. She remains a wonderful singer, a talented musician and a clever songwriter, but the newer songs feel a bit less immediate and somehow colder than those on her first two albums. I don’t think she played anything from her first album, Sea Sew, last night; and the songs from Passenger were among the best on the night.

Overall, as a musical experience it was really enjoyable. She was backed by drums, bass, guitar and keyboard, with all four musicians also contributing backing vocals. They created a really impressive sound together. While the newest album doesn’t have the hooks or gentle humour of the first two, it seems to be musically more complex. She does amazing things with her voice, riding over the top of the music and creating beautiful harmonies that sound almost dissonant at times. It was good, though, that she brought the set back to some of the warmer, more jaunty songs from time to time. It risked getting a bit too intense otherwise!

John Smith (who played guitar in her band) was the support act again, as in Lausanne, although I think he had less time than expected owing to an overrun by the opening act Melissa Kassab. (She’s a local lass, I think. She has a lovely voice and is a nice guitarist, but I felt her songs needed a bit more structure, or perhaps just some choruses. She played 8-10 songs, where 4-6 might have been more appropriate given the slot. Still, fair play to her for delivering a confident performance.) Mr Smith sounded a bit less like Ray Lamontagne than the previous times I’d seen him. He still has a powerful voice and plays the guitar beautifully. His between-song banter was entertaining but I would have preferred a bit less chat and a bit more music.

Coming back to Lisa Hannigan, here’s a nice performance of Fall, which is one of the best songs on the latest album.

The Libertines – Salle des fêtes de Thônex – 23.03.2016

This Libertines performance was raucous (but not as raucous as I expected), messy (but not as messy as I expected)  and a bit of a shambles at times (but not as shambolic as I expected).  That said, every now and then – and just often enough to hold my interest – their magical melodies shone through and the whole became greater than the sum of its parts. It was worth wading through the swamp to get to those golden moments.

I’m only really familiar with their eponymous album from 2004, and so my highlights were definitely Can’t Stand Me Now, What Katie Did, The Man Who Would Be King and, part of the encore, Music When The Lights Go Out. As I listened to other tracks that I hadn’t heard before, whether newer or older material, I couldn’t help thinking of The Kinks. There’s a very English quality to their music, with lyrics that evoke, for me, life in London and the surrounding towns, and of course those jaunty hook-laden melodies (when the songs eventually come together). And then there’s the famously turbulent relationship between Carl Barât and Pete Doherty which also echoes that of the Davies brothers.

Neither of the lead vocalists looked in great shape, which didn’t surprise me given the stories of drugs and excess. Carl looked marginally more with it than Pete and seemed to be the one holding things together, along with a very steady (and presumably long-suffering) rhythm section. They were unsurprisingly at least 20 minutes late starting and were off stage for at least 10, maybe 15 minutes before the encore. Doesn’t show a whole lot of respect for their audience.

The venue in Thônex is really nice, if a little old-fashioned. There are great sight-lines to the stage and it’s a good size for an indie-rock gig like this, big enough to have a good party atmosphere, but small enough to feel intimate. (Superb organization by the local commune too, with problem-free parking right next to the venue. Very Swiss!)

The support act was Reverend and the Makers. I’d heard of them before, but didn’t know their music. They were definitely a cut above the average opening act, but that was to be expected given that they’ve been touring at a high level for many years, including with the likes of Oasis. They’re from Sheffield and at times you could imagine that the Arctic Monkeys as youngsters must have heard their music. Everything was upbeat and catchy, even if it didn’t quite convince me to buy an album. The lead singer reminded me of a cross between Guy Garvey (of Elbow) and the comedian Peter Kaye…or just every larger-than-life northern bloke you’ve ever met at a party. An excellent start to the evening, and definitely a much tighter performance than the main act.

Here’s the Libertines at last year’s Glastonbury Festival.

And here’s a song that was a top ten hit for Reverend and the Makers some years ago.

Lynched – Eglise Catholique de Bernex – 12.02.2016

Three gigs in just over a week: I’m a lucky man! Having seen The Tallest Man on Earth in the city centre the night before, last night’s Lynched concert involved a trek out to the commune of Bernex where the local Catholic church was the venue. (Antigel makes a virtue of using unusual venues throughout the canton of Geneva – it’s a really great idea.)

This was another sell-out gig, making it clear that the interest in traditional Irish music is as strong as ever. I did recognise a few fellow Irish ex-pats (ex-Paddys?!) in the audience, but I had the feeling it was mostly Francophone.

I hadn’t heard of Lynched before my friend Chantal pointed them out in the festival programme. They’ve seemingly been making waves in trad circles in the last few years and I can see why. They turned in two really entertaining sets of ballads, folks songs and tunes, with a really nice flow to the evening overall. From rousing singalongs (Salonika, Daffodil Mulligan, Billy O’Shea) to more mellow ballads, and a smattering of jigs and reels, there was enough variety to hold everyone’s interest until the end.

When all four of them sang in harmony it really raised the roof; but probably the highlight for me was when Radie Peat (the only female member of the foursome) sang her spine-tingling unaccompanied version of Dig My Grave (if that’s the title of the song), about a father who finds his daughter hanging from a rope in her bedroom. A bit grim, but a haunting song. She has a great voice that repeatedly helped their songs to soar when she came in on a harmony.

Lynched in Bernex, February 2016

The church was a pretty good venue. A little chilly, and apparently the sound wasn’t as good as it could have been for those sitting further back. But it was certainly atmospheric. Some of the song lyrics might have raised the eyebrows of the parishioners had they fully understood them, but the band were mostly on their best behaviour in the house of the God.

(I should also mention the clapping. There were a number of people in the crowd who were determined to attempt to clap along with every song that was even moderately upbeat, and even some of the slower ones. I don’t know whether they thought this what one does with Irish folk music or were just very excited, but, whatever the reason, it was excruciating. They were out of time with the music most of the time, sometimes dramatically so. It must have been really annoying for the musicians, but they didn’t say anything about it. Perhaps they should have.)

Here’s what you missed

The Tallest Man on Earth – Alhambra – 11.02.2016

I had seen Kristian Matsson live twice before, both times in Amsterdam and both times solo. This full band gig was part of the wonderful and eclectic Antigel festival and took place in Geneva’s recently refurbished Alhambra. The venue is lovely: great acoustics and comfortable seats, although the lines of sight aren’t great from the sides of the first balcony.

The best parts of this mixed bag of a concert were definitely when he was left alone on stage to perform (mostly) acoustic versions of songs from his earlier albums. He’s a really talented guitarist with a powerful voice that is sounding much less nasal and whiny these days.

Sadly, however, for much of the time when he played with the band it just felt a bit flat. The older songs, which were previously played solo, didn’t translate well to the full band arrangements. (King of Spain was a notable example here.) The material from his two most recent albums, which feature full band arrangements, mostly didn’t stand up as well live as it does on record.

There didn’t seem to be any chemistry at all between the musicians, as if these were just a random bunch of (admittedly talented) session musicians that he hired to accompany him on the road. There was no spark, no feeling of spontaneity, no interplay between the main man and his backing group. In fact the only time there was any feeling of synergy between musicians was when his support act (and apparently best friend) The Tarantula Waltz joined him on stage for one of the closing tracks.

After seeing him in 2011 I wrote:

We also got some insight into what must I guess must be a difficult process of working out where he should go next. He’s not quite a one-trick pony, but after two albums there’s probably not much more he can squeeze out of the Dylanesque folky thing without sounding repetitive. So it was that he was joined by a drummer and bassist for three songs.

It turns out I was at least partly right. His subsequent album There’s No Leaving Now, which I like a lot, features more instruments and more variety. But with this particular band, at least in Geneva last Thursday, the songs just didn’t fly. One exception was 1904, which is one of the best songs on that album and came across well in the Alhambra.

(The flat atmosphere “you’re all very polite” he said might have been partly due to it being a fully seated gig. I think they can remove the seats from the ground floor of the Alhambra, which would have helped greatly and also allowed more people into what was a fully sold-out gig.)

Here’s the version of King of Spain that I would like to have heard:

He did play this one, I won’t be found, solo on Thursday and it was great!

Playing to the crowd

Three weeks, three very different gigs, three very different audiences.

Eoghan O'Sullivan singing at the Little Green House crèche

One Tuesday morning in late November I finally delivered on a promise to bring my guitar down to the crèche that Robert and Declan attend, the Little Green House in Gland, to join in song-time. I had an enthusiastic audience, none more so than Robert, who took his place right next to me.

The set list was improvised on the spot, but included such classics as Old MacDonald Had A Farm, The Wheels On The Bus and Incy Wincy Spider (in both English and French). I tried to push things a bit with The Rattlin’ Bog, but it was probably a bit beyond them. Nothing a bit of Baa Baa Black Sheep couldn’t rescue.

Eoghan O'Sullivan singing at Le Box (photo: George Leitenberger)

On Friday 27 November I was thrilled to have a chance to perform some of my own songs in Le Box, a really nice venue in Carouge, just outside central Geneva. I was part of an acoustic showcase evening with a duo called Zepless at the top of the bill. I was one of two support acts.

It was such a pleasure to play to an audience that was there to listen to the music. There were 40-50 people in the room, candles on small tables and a small stage. The atmosphere was intimate and warm.

I did a 45 minute set, which was recorded by the sound engineer, Alan Fosman-Starkman. I think I sang pretty well on the night, even if my voice wasn’t in great shape. The guitar playing isn’t too bad, although I’m not anywhere near as fluid as I have been in the past when I was playing more often. I’ve made seven of the ten songs available on SoundCloud. I particularly like My Silver Son, with the audience singing along…that feels really amazing when it’s with a song you wrote yourself!

(Thanks to George Leitenberger for taking a few photos on the night, by the way, including those used above.)

 

View from the stage in Mulligans Geneva

And finally, it was back to the familiar surroundings of Mulligan’s of Geneva on Saturday 5 December, where David Graham joined me for our now (almost) traditional pre-Christmas Mulled gig. There was a great crowd in – even busier than in the above photo at times – and a really fun atmosphere all night.

We “only” played A Perfect Christmas three times on the night, with a smattering of other Christmas songs, along with a variety of acoustic covers: from Toto and the Bangles to Weezer and Wham, with lots more along the way.

The true star of the night was probably David’s new Christmas jumper. Having left his Rudolph jumper behind in Ireland I had to go out and get him a “flashy” new one. He’s never had so many people eager to feel – and hit – his body.

David Graham and Eoghan O'Sulilivan in Mulligan's of Geneva

John Spillane – Collège des Coudriers – 05.12.2015

John Spillane has, on the strength of this one concert, become one of my favourite songwriters. Before last Saturday I was familiar with him mostly by name and reputation, with Christy Moore’s very nice version of Magic Nights In The Lobby Bar being the only song of his that I could name. I had a quick flick around YouTube last week and liked what I saw, but seeing him in the flesh brought it to a whole other level.

He plays his well-travelled nylon-stringed guitar beautifully, picking out melodies among intricate finger-picked patterns. And while making his guitar sing, he sings on top, not always keeping to the same pace or rhythm, but somehow always getting to where he needs to be in the song. (Does that make sense?) He can also give the strings a good bashing for the upbeat songs – it’s a wonder that he doesn’t break more strings.

I liked every single song he played on Saturday. I think I could name them all from memory; I won’t do that here, but will mention just a few. The Dance of the Cherry Trees is a song full of joy and optimism:

Let me tell you ’bout the cherry trees
Every April in our town
They put on the most outrageous clothes
And they sing and they dance around
…Well done everyone, well done…

Magic Nights in the Lobby Bar becomes an even better song in the hands of its composer. Like the Cherry Trees, it’s uplifting and joyful, but with a deep seam of nostalgia. One line that passed me by in Christy Moore’s version, really hit me on Saturday:

We were children and our mothers were young
And fathers were tall and kind.

The way he sang those lines really hit me somewhere deep inside…like looking at old family photos and remembering childhood holidays. And, as my friend David observed, you’re half expecting fathers to be “tall and strong” or something like that, but in fact they are, in his memory, “kind”. It’s a very lovely line in a lovely song.

Other highlights: The Ferry Arms is a very funny song (with a funny video); hearing an audience in Geneva singing An Puc ar Buile and Séamuisín was magical; and his 19 second encore of a jingle for “Martin’s Mad About Fish“. And I need to spend a bit of time looking up the songs he wrote for the TG4 series An Fánaí, where he travelled around Ireland writing songs about the towns he visited. Saturday’s song about Fethard was really excellent.

And on top of all that he comes across as a lovely man, full of positive energy. His on-stage patter is very funny. I know that he probably uses the same lines all over the world, but that doesn’t make it any less funny, and as he settled into the gig I felt that he opened up a bit more.

This was another GLAS (Geneva Literary Aid Society) event, with Denis McLean at the helm. They raised CHF 6,000 for the Edith Wilkins Foundation for Street Children in Darjeeling. As John Spillane would say: fair play, well done everyone!

(Actually John Spillane was one of two acts on stage last Saturday. The other act was The Voice Squad, but I can’t say much about them as I barely caught two songs before having to rush down to Mulligan’s where I was playing myself that same evening. What I heard sounded great – as someone on Facebook said the following day, they were like three auld fellas standing at a bus stop who suddenly start singing in glorious harmony.)

 

Sufjan Stevens – Théâtre du Léman – 20.09.2015

(I usually try to get these little reviews published in the days immediately following a gig but last week was a busy one. Got to keep up the habit though!)

This was not an easy gig to sit through. I had fallen out of touch with Sufjan Stevens’ music over the past few years, but I now know that his most recent album was a tribute to his late mother, whose death clearly affected him greatly. The main set of this concert was drawn entirely from the album, and while the songs are full of the gentle melodies and striking images you expect from him, the lyrics are dark and at times very depressing. That said, I actually enjoyed being there for the most part.

I think on another evening I might well have decided to leave early, particularly during the 15 minute extended noisy jam at the end (which Nadine reckoned was meant to be creating a kind of meditative space). As it happened, quite a lot of people did leave from about halfway through the concert onwards, so there were empty seats dotted throughout the sold-out theatre by the end. On the other hand, those that stayed seemed to really love it all, particularly if the almost universal standing ovations at the end of the main set, and again after the encore, were anything to go by.

The encore was certainly the highlight for me, featuring – as he said himself – “older happier songs”. There were tracks from both his Illinois and Michigan albums. Most beautiful was his solo rendition of the opening track from Illinois, Concerning the UFO sighting…, and the closing rendition of Chicago was pretty good too. He is a very, very talented musician and composer and I would go to see him again, but perhaps only if he was touring with a more varied repertoire.

For Chicago he brought his opening act, Basia Bulat, back to the stage. She was really great. Performed a selection of odd instruments and sang beautifully – there was a Tracy Chapman-esque quality to her voice. Here’s a video of her in action…

P.S. Basia Bulat’s set was made much less enjoyable by the click-clack of the hostesses heels as they showed latecomers to their places using flashlights that had unnecessarily wide and bright beams. Very annoying, particularly given how expensive the tickets are for gigs in the Théâtre du Léman.

Iain’s Acoustic Jukebox

Last night in Mullligan’s of Geneva I was joined by friends, old and new, for The Acoustic Jukebox, an evening to remember Iain Twigg and raise money for The Brain Tumour Charity. What a night!

The idea was that I would play any and all requests received, as long as they came with a donation. There was a minimum of 10 CHF, with higher sums required to skip the queue or to join me on stage to sing. I was a bit nervous about how it would work out, but in the end – and with particular thanks to Andy Andrea for managing the requests and the cash – it went really well. Couldn’t have been better in fact.

IMG_0001 (2)

As you can see, it was an eclectic selection of songs, from Van Morrison to Right Said Fred via Daft Punk, the ding-dong song and The Stone Roses. Thanks also to Pete for loaning me an iPad loaded with the Ultimate Guitar app, which meant I could pull up chords or lyrics for songs I didn’t know. In the end I needed it for about a third of the songs.

There were many I knew well and had played often before, but I played a number of songs for the first time last night: Ash’s Girl From Mars, Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi (excellent job Lizzie!), or Oh La La by The Faces.

A few people gave me advance requests for songs to learn (again with a higher donation attached). The most difficult of these was the Grateful Dead’s Box of Rain, a song that really got under my skin over the past week as I listened to it over and over again trying to get to grips with a melody that has subtle variations in every very and chorus. As Esbjorn (the requester) explained, it was an apt choice for the occasion, having been written for the father of the songwriter when he suffering from terminal cancer.

“…such a long long time to be gone and a short time to be there.”

The most special moment of the night for me was singing Shed Seven’s Chasing Rainbows. It was one of Iain Twigg’s favourite songs from one of his favourite bands. He suggested to me six or seven years ago that I should learn it. I did, but I never got around to playing it for him before we and they left Geneva. Sadly by the time I finally got to sing it for Twigg he was no longer with us: singing it at a memorial event we had for him last January was an emotional experience to say the least. Last night was easier but still moving, as together his friends raised their voices in tribute.

Everybody had a laugh and then went for an early bath, did you?

Twigg’s favourite band was Oasis, who also featured last night, including a gutsy performance of Wonderwall by my brilliant wife Nadine. It was very much a family affair at times, as Nadine’s dad Jeff was also in the house and delivered a rousing performance of Delilah. He brought the house down and people were soon chipping in with donations to bring him back to the stage later when he sang Love Is In The Air.

The generosity of those who came last night was remarkable. Apologies to anyone whose requests I missed. In particular to Frode and Valentina for failing to get to their 50 CHF request for Love Me Tender before they had to leave. I did sing it, but about five minutes too late. Apologies also to Andy for not managing I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles; to Mike for failing to spot the broken string request; and to Marc for not stepping up to the “Göddligulgufúr” plate! There were also a few requests in absentia, with generous commitments from Simon and Mairéad if I performed the two songs below.


The other guest performers on the night all deserve a mention. Lawrence delivered a memorable Get Lucky and was back again later on to add some sweet harmonies to I Can See Clearly Now. A woman called Namilah gave an unforgettable performance of Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, and Paul, Nadine and Tonya reprised their 2007 hit The Final Countdown. (They’ll get it right eventually…maybe February 2017.)

 

Tonya, Nadine, Paul and Eoghan - The Final Countdown

Two broken strings during Springsteen’s The River brought the curtain down on a memorable evening. I can safely say I’m unlikely to ever again finish up a gig with A Boy Named Sue, but it was totally in keeping with the surprising spirit of the night. Huge thanks to everyone that came along and to those who supported it from afar. Twigg would have loved it. And I’ll be sending just about 1,900 CHF to The Brain Tumour Charity in the UK in the coming days.

(If you took any good photos or videos on the night, please get in touch…)

90 reasons why I’ve enjoyed my first year at Ecolint

It’s just about a year since I took up the post of Alumni Officer at the International School of Geneva (or Ecolint, as it’s commonly known). In those twelve months I’ve met hundreds of our alumni in person and interacted with many hundreds more electronically. Looking back, I think the part I’ve enjoyed the most so far has been my role as a story-gatherer. Certainly the familiar territory of tidying up the website and the planning and delivery of events has been as satisfying as ever, but it’s the people and the paths they’ve taken that has really made the difference for me.

Among the various projects and initiatives with which I’ve been involved, the one that best exposes this treasure trove of stories is the 90-9-90 Project. Having spent the quiet summer months getting to know the alumni as data (and creating our first “Alumnographic”, which I’ve written about before), I faced into the new school year knowing that the 90th anniversary year offered a great opportunity to reach out to the people behind the data.

The idea was a simple one: get 90 alumni to answer a 9-question survey to mark the 90th anniversary of the school. I put a lot of thought into the questions. They needed to be relevant for alumni of just about any age; to be phrased in a way that allowed both shorter or longer responses, depending on the comfort zone of the responder; and to generate enough variety so that the project would remain fresh right through to the end.

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We reached our target of 90 just before the Christmas break, with probably about half of them having been directly invited to respond and the rest being submitted spontaneously. If the website stats are anything to go by, it was a huge success. The project, presented in a blog format, was far and way the most visited section of the website throughout the three months it was running, and it remains very popular with site visitors even now.

The questions took alumni from when and how they arrived at the school, to the teachers and places that meant most to them, and on to their lives today and their thoughts on the school and students today. Of course some put more thought than others into their responses, but the quality was generally very high. Those who responded (perhaps obviously, given the nature of the project) demonstrated a real pride in the school, often balanced with constructive criticism, with intelligence, wit and wisdom shining through regularly. The diversity of the career and life paths “the 90” have followed gives you a sense of the truly unique nature of Ecolint as a school.

From my point of view, it couldn’t have turned out any better. This simple idea generated three months of content that attracted people to the website. Posting updates via our social channels was very effective, as alumni were naturally interested to see whether anyone they knew had responded. It also served to kick off many interesting conversations that are already leading to other projects to help involve alumni more in the life of the school. (Exhibits A and B.)

In an effort get maximum value out of the content and to increase the awareness among current staff and students of the rich resource that our alumni community represents, with help from our in-house graphic designer I created a poster (below) that now hangs in strategic locations around our three campuses. The hope is that anyone lingering in the relevant spaces will take the time to dip into a selection of the responses and perhaps think more about how they themselves could engage with our alumni.

I’ve kicked off a couple of similar initiatives in the meantime, one focusing on entrepreneurs and another dedicated to former staff. They’ll both take a little longer to find their feet for various reasons, but it’s a format that works really well for mining the rich seam of stories to be found in the Ecolint alumni community.

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