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.

JVAL Openair – Begnins – 27.08.2016

Fùgù Mango saved my evening.

The most remarkable thing about the JVAL Openair festival is its setting. The stage is set up in the front yard of a large farmhouse in the foothills of the Jura, entirely surrounded by vineyards that roll down to the shores of Lake Geneva, with the Alps looming up on the other side. After darkness fell on the last night of the festival, a swarm of Chinese lanterns were released from another courtyard somewhere below, as lightning flashed through the clouds over the distant mountains.

In the warmth of the late evening, this spectacular natural light show almost made up for having waited through a terribly boring set from Belgian singer Kris Dane. He was accompanied by a string quartet, drums, percussion, bass, organ and a backing vocalist. Sadly, even allowing for the clear problems they were having with getting the audio mix right, his songs were not strong enough to hold the attention of the audience, who chattered noisily throughout the set.

(While waiting for him to arrive on stage I read through a profile on his website. Alarm bells started ringing when I read the following: “He also admits that he doesn’t have a library of great music and if he ever attends a concert he will leave after half an hour since he knows exactly where it’s going.” Indeed.)

Fortunately the final act of the night were his fellow Belgians Fùgù Mango, whose music was billed as “indie pop and afrobeat”. They immediately had the crowd hopping (possibly with relief) with their happy melodies and joy-filled performance. The four members – three of whom sang – were lined up along the front of the stage, with guitar, bass, keyboard, drums and a selection of percussion instruments. Their sound reminded me of both Foster the People (of Pumped Up Kicks fame) and a slightly poppier Yeasayer.

They played a very solid hour during which the energy levels never dropped. For an encore the two vocalists climbed down into the crowd, handing out a selection of shakers, to sing one final song with the audience on backing vocals. After the energy-sapping experience of Kris Dane before them, it was a warmly wonderful way to end the evening. I’d definitely like to see them live again.

I can’t find a live video that quite captures their energy, but here’s one nice performance from earlier this summer:

I should mention that the first act of the evening was Pandour, a pair of DJs from Fribourg. They were accompanied by a couple of guitarists, but their music – described as “deep orientalist and electro-acoustic” – wasn’t my cup of tea. I hesitate to be too critical, as I know that I don’t really “get” a lot of what is done by DJs like this. I found it all a bit boring, but there were definitely people there who were really into it.

I’ll definitely go to JVAL again in the years ahead. It’s a cool little festival and even the 1 out of 3 hit rate for me on Saturday was enough to make it worthwhile.

Ben Folds & yMusic – Sage Gateshead – 18.06.2016

We left the kids with Nadine’s parents in Leeds last Saturday night and took the train up to Newcastle where we met up with David (of Mulled fame) to catch Ben Folds in concert. I had seen him live twice previously and was blown away each time. Both occasions were before I started writing about gigs on this site, so I don’t have any details to refresh my memory, but I do know that he played his most popular songs. This time it was quite different.

yMusic is a New York-based ensemble with three string players and three wind/brass players. Ben Folds has been making music with them for the last while, presumably with a view to keeping things interesting for himself. And it’s interesting for his audience too, if not quite as entertaining as his usual solo or piano plus drums and bass shows.

I didn’t know any of the material that he has written for this collaboration with yMusic (on the album So There) and it didn’t make a lasting impression. (The only exception was the song I’m Not The Man, which has a really nice list-based ending: “I used to be my father’s son, I used to be number one, I used to be paper and pencil, I used to be endless potential” and so on.) But I enjoyed listening to and watching them. Folds sits in the middle behind an upright piano, so all you can see is his happy head and shoulders most of the time – a bit unnerving. The players in yMusic are clearly very talented and the arrangements were impressive.

The evening only really picked up when they started playing “the hits”. The older songs he played were probably chosen based on being ones that could work well with the additional instrumentation. Steven’s Last Night In Town was perfect in this regard (a bit more lively than the version below); Song For The Dumped worked in an odd way; and the encore of Not The Same, with no piano at all and lots of audience participation, was great.

Folds played three or four songs solo just ahead of the encore and while it was good to hear him perform them live, they were not among my favourites. They were seemingly based on audience requests and included Boxing and Lullaby.

The venue is pretty great, although I wouldn’t normally choose to see a pop/rock artist in a seated venue. I suppose it suited the line-up he was playing with, but it didn’t make for a good atmosphere.

I was happy to see him live again. He’s a truly great songwriter and I respect the fact that he wants to experiment a bit and change things up.

By the way, if you’ve never watched him doing his song Army live, with the audience singing the brass parts, it’s worth checking out… see below, from a live session he did for MySpace (!!) . David and I tried this in Mulligans of Geneva a couple of times and it worked pretty well. Great buzz!

P.S. On the journey up to Newcastle our train was overtaken by the Flying Scotsman pulling about 12 carriages. It was very cool seeing a steam engine up close like that. We got a chance to see it again at York station, which is where the photo below was taken.

The Flying Scotsman at York station

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.

Shearwater – Nouveau Monde – 28.02.2016

Fribourg’s Nouveau Monde is a very cool venue. The building is the town’s old railway station, with the bar in the main hall and the music venue in one of the wings. The room is a nice size, fitting only a few hundred people. There was a decent crowd for Shearwater, but it was far from full.

I drove up to Fribourg with my visiting brother-in-law for this Sunday night gig – it’s about an hour from home. It wasn’t ideal timing, but I’d been looking for an opportunity to catch them live for the past few years. Their 2012 album Animal Joy is one of my favourites of the last few years, and in particular the songs Animal Life and You As You Were.

Sadly they only played one song from that album in Fribourg. It was brilliant to hear it live and that alone made the journey worthwhile, but I was disappointed not to hear a few more songs from that or the only other album of theirs that I (currently) own: I think they played one, possibly two, from The Golden Archipelago.

They played a lot of stuff from their newest album, and it was generally very good. The band were tight – the drummer in particular was giving it everything. He had the look of a man powering his way to the top of a mountain, determined to get there first. But the lead singer’s voice is the centrepiece of their music. It annoys some people (e.g. my lovely wife), but I think even she would have enjoyed this show.

I may just be getting old (39!) but I found it all a bit too loud for the size of the room. For the first time at a gig I actually made us of the free earplugs. It felt weird and I didn’t feel like I was hearing the music properly thereafter, but I definitely don’t want to take any risks with my hearing.

For the first of two encores they played a couple of David Bowie songs from his album Lodger. I wasn’t familiar with either, but they worked well. The clear influence of Bowie on Shearwater hadn’t occurred to me before. (As usual I was annoyed by the whole rigmarole around encores. Why not just stay on the stage and play all the songs they were planning to play and then let us all go home. It’s all very silly. I still remember Laura Marling’s very sensible approach to this issue when we saw her in Amsterdam in 2010. I do hope she’s sticking to her guns on the no encores thing.)

The support act was another band from Austin, Texas. I suspect they might have preferred a less polite crowd: the people who were in the room for their set remained pin-drop quiet in between songs, aside from a gentle smattering of applause once they realized the song was over. It was very disconcerting. Their music wasn’t my cup of tea.

I’ve tried – and failed – to find a video of a live version of You As You Were that does justice to what it was like in the room last night. There is this one from the Amsterdam date on the current tour, but it’s not quite as good as I remember last night’s version. (It was the final night on their European tour, so perhaps they were giving it a little more oompf on the night.) So instead here’s the studio version. Enjoy!

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!

Tété – La Datcha – 05.02.2016

This was a special gig. Tété is a French musician, of Senegalese extraction, who has had a few hits in French-speaking countries with his clever and catchy acoustic pop songs. He has four or five albums under his belt and is currently working on a new one. As a means of trying out some ideas and recapturing the spirit of his early days busking in bars, he’s doing a tour “solo sans sono“.

He turned up at La Datcha, an unpretentious cross between a warehouse and a café on the edge of the Flon district in Lausanne, with three acoustic guitars and not a lot else. He unpacked his guitars and proceeded to play a set of about 90 minutes entirely unamplified. I guess there were around 150 or so people (just 15 CHF for a ticket – bargain!) in a room the size of a big-ish pub, but he easily held our attention with his stories and songs, his warm personality and humour, his dexterous playing and his big voice, full of character.

Tété at La Datcha, Lausanne, 05.02.2016

He made it clear that people could take as many photos as they wanted, but no videos were allowed. The cake – his forthcoming album – has not yet been baked, he said, but we shouldn’t worry as the cake mixture often tastes better than the cake itself. Certainly the first handful of songs he played were really good. They felt very much like classic French chanson to me, with flowing melodies and the usual intricate lyrics. (My friend Marc, who introduced me to Tété some years ago, says his lyrics are difficult for natives speakers to pick up, so I shouldn’t feel so bad if I only decipher bits and pieces here and there.)

He also played a bunch of more familiar songs, with plenty of opportunities for vocal participation from the audience, and finished the evening playing the Rhianna and Kanye West song FourFiveSeconds standing on the bar. The covers he did were probably the weakest parts of the set, but it was a great end to a really wonderful evening of music.

Here’s a nice example of him playing solo acoustic:

And this is probably my favourite of his songs, the opening one from the album Le Sacré des Lemmings.

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.)