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.)