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)

 

A new website for GLAS

For more than a decade now GLAS – the Geneva Literary Aid Society – has been bringing theatre, music, poetry and prose to Geneva. I was at the first event in January 2005, when David Norris, a well-known Irish politician and gay rights activist, came to perform his one-man tribute to James Joyce.

Over the years since, GLAS has hosted more than 35 shows in Geneva, raising in excess of 80,000 CHF for a number of charities. Among my favourites were concerts by John Spillane, Luka Bloom, Moya Brennan and Maria Doyle Kennedy, a talk by journalist Robert Fisk, Conor McPherson’s play The Good Thief, and Ardal O’Hanlon’s stand-up comedy. (Glas is the Gaelic word for green; the organization was founded by an Irishman and most of its visiting acts have some connection with Ireland.)

I noticed recently that the GLAS website, which had at one stage been quite active, had been stripped back to nothing more than a feed from the Facebook page. I thought this was a pity, as it had built up such an impressive track record and deserved a better shop window. I helped the founder of GLAS, Denis McClean, to set up his mailing list in the early days; now that the kids are beyond the evening-consuming, sleepless night-inducing stage, I have the time and energy to get involved again. And so, late last year, I offered to create a new site and keep it updated as new shows are announced.

A shop window

The idea was to create a site that would give first time visitors an immediate impression of how active GLAS has been in the past, both in terms of the events staged and the charities supported. This will help to promote future shows and also, hopefully, can support efforts to identify much-needed sponsors.

Using WordPress is a no-brainer for projects like this. I picked the free version of a theme called Carton, as I was looking for one that used the Masonry layout. This automatically arranges blog posts into an attractive wall depending on the screen space available, which works really well where there is a featured image attached to each post. For GLAS it means the visitor gets a rich overview of what the organization does, while prioritizing the most recent post, which is where upcoming shows will be featured. It’s also fully responsive, so works well on smaller screens.

glaswebsite


Screenshot of the new GLAS site, available at http://theglas.org.

Populating the site with information about past events didn’t take too long, as I could pull text from Facebook posts, the mailing list archives and, particularly useful for the earliest shows, the Wayback Machine on archive.org, a super-useful tool that has snapshots of websites on random dates in the web’s history. (It’s very easy to disappear down a rabbit hole of looking up what favourite sites looked like in their early days.)

For the more recent shows there are photos and even reviews available, but unfortunately for some of the earliest events information is scarce. Hopefully in time we’ll dig up photos of some of the earliest events to add to the site.

I hope and expect that GLAS will be around for many years to come. For an Irishman in Switzerland it’s been a welcome cultural link with home, and one that I’m happy to support in any way that I can. The fact that it helps people in great need, most recently supporting the Edith Wilkins Foundation in their work with street children in India, is the icing on the cake.

If you’re in the Geneva area, I strongly recommend that you join the GLAS mailing list. You can, naturally, do so via the website: theglas.org/contact

 

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.)

 

Tale of the Gael – Collège des Coudriers – 15.11.2013

Attending GLAS events in Geneva is often like heading home to Ireland for an evening without any need for Aer Lingus (and their stupidly early morning return flight); and last night was one of those occasions. Tale of the Gael is a kind of collective of musicians whose centre of gravity is Catherine Rhatigan and her harp.They perform themed evenings with a line-up that changes from show to show.

Last night’s show was inspired by the music of Turlough O’Carolan and the poetry of W. B. Yeats. The ensemble featured uilleann pipes, flute and tin whistle, fiddles, bouzouki and double bass, along with a woman who sang and recited poetry. Catherine stepped out from behind her harp to introduce each set of tunes and words, with many interesting stories about the parallels between the lives of Yeats and O’Carolan.

The music was wonderful and at times quite moving. I was happy to close my eyes and let it wash over me for the most part, but I also had a great view of the piper, Micky Dunne, whose technique was impressive to watch. He also told a story about his link to one of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising. (His wife is a granddaughter of The O’Rahilly, who was shot by a British machine gun and, as described in a poem by Yeats, wrote his dying words in blood in a doorway on Moore Street.) It felt special to hear him tell the story but even more special to listen to his solo rendition of the lament Róisín Dubh, by Seán Ó Riada. I’m sure it got the biggest round of applause of the whole evening.

I was also really pleased that Yeats’s He wishes for the cloths of heaven was included. It’s a short, but very beautiful poem that I’ve loved since my schooldays. I think I would have liked to hear even more poetry and songs during the evening – the tunes were excellent, but I start to miss the lyrics after a while!

All in all another superb evening of entertainment thanks to Denis McClean, the driving force behind GLAS. Music and poetry, stories and songs, and Micky Dunne wearing Finbar Furey’s shirt. (A long story…)

(I will admit that the one little disappointment for me on the night was the final song, Van Morrison’s Moondance. It’s a great song and the performance was musically good, but it was such a leap from everything that had gone before that it kind of broke the spell a bit I thought. I hope Catherine didn’t mind me saying that to her later on in the evening back at Charly O’Neill’s pub! She told me their next show will be based on the life of Brian Boru, another interesting character from Irish history. Maybe Denis will have a good reason to invite them back to Geneva for that one.)

Maria Doyle Kennedy – Collège des Coudriers – 24.05.2013

I was lucky enough to be able to attend another GLAS concert in Geneva last week. This time Denis McClean moved heaven and earth to bring Maria Doyle Kennedy to town for what was another memorable night in the Aula at the Collège des Coudriers. There’s something about the setting that seems to bring the best out of the artists that I’ve seen there. It’s quite intimate and the audience tend to make the artists feel welcome.

Maria was accompanied, as usual these days, by her husband Kieran Kennedy. He’s a wonderful guitarist who really can make an acoustic guitar sing, using the full range of sounds and rhythms available. I felt that on one or two songs he used a little too much of the effects pedal when it wasn’t really needed – the songs and his playing could easily carry the day. But it’s a just a small quibble.

MDK has a really great voice. Anyone who heard her sing in The Commitments will have known that already. These days she’s more like a contemporary folk singer, with bits of country creeping in around the edges. Her strong, warm and sometimes husky voice fits equally well with the original songs written by her and her husband, as with the old Appalachian bawdy folk songs she drops in here and there.

I had heard none of the songs before – but I heard many that I liked. The one that sticks in my mind now six days later was a humorous song she wrote for Kieran where she rejects a number of famous hunks in favour of her “baby”.  She also sang in Irish now and then… there was a Siúil a Rún close to the end that was almost spine-tingling.

She chatted with the audience between the songs, invited us to sing along here and there to great effect, and I hear the night ended with a bit of a session down at Charly O’Neill’s that I was sorry to miss.

Here’s a song that’s on her latest album, Sing.

Moya Brennan – Collège des Coudriers – 06.12.2012

From start to finish this was a thoroughly enjoyable evening of songs and music that left me feeling supremely relaxed, nostalgic for home and for my childhood, and just a little bit Christmassy. Moya Brennan, the lead singer of Clannad, they of the haunting harmonies and Celtic melodies, led her band in a beautifully balanced set of old folk songs (in Gaelic, English, Scots Gaelic and even a bit of Cherokee), Irish tunes and contemporary folk rock.

Moya was accompanied by her daughter Aisling on guitar and vocals, Sinéad Madden on fiddle, whistle and vocals, and a keyboard player (whose name escapes me now). Together with Moya on harp or bodhrán they made a warm and engaging sound together. The three voices blended together as well as you’d expect from a heavily Clannad-influenced band. Some of the almosta capella harmony singing was magical – real goosebumps stuff.

It was the GLAS Christmas Concert for this year, so there was a good smattering of seasonal songs. Despite not being religious, I’m actually a big fan of this time of the year. They played some really unusual arrangements of popular carols like God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and Deck The Halls. The encore of Oíche Chiúin/Silent Night was the perfect way to bring the concert to an end, giving those of us in the audience a chance to sing along, and not for the first time that evening.

One of the standout moments for me was a haunting performance of Down By The Sally Gardens, the WB Yeats poem. Hearing it brought distant memories flooding back for me, maybe even as far back as when my family lived in Gweedore, Moya’s own hometown. I was pleased to have a chance to talk with her after the gig down in Charly O’Neill’s. (Besides talking about Gweedore I was able to remind her that I had accompanied her on guitar myself about 15 years ago at a DCU Christmas event. She said she remembered the event, but she may just have been being polite.)

I finished what had been a very pleasant evening overall by taking the opportunity to sing a couple of songs myself. There was a jam session on stage in Charly’s for the birthday of a friend of mine. With the Donegal contingent in the house I  decided to sing City of Chicago, followed by the Christmas song myself and David Graham wrote together. I thought it was a good chance to give it an airing: you never know what connections Moya might have!

She didn’t sing this one, but just being at the concert made me think of it – this Robin Hood series with its haunting theme tune by Clannad was an essential part of Saturday evening viewing when I was…I’m guessing…around 10 or 11 years old.

Clannad – Robin Hood par Mongol20PL