It takes a master’s touch - The Gloaming in Boston

by David Smith 

Saturday, April 22 at Berklee was a fascinating preview of the Celtic music barrage we are lucky to get here in Boston around St. Patrick's Day. But Saturday night’s fare was quite a bit more than the usual jigs and reels. The Gloaming is a contemporary Irish music supergroup formed in Ireland in 2011, consisting of some of Ireland’s finest musicians, including fiddlers Martin Hayes and Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, American guitarist Dennis Cahill, Irish language singer Iarla Ó Lionáird, and American pianist Thomas Bartlett (aka Doveman).

This is a VERY impressive lineup on its own, and many have individually, or in pairs, been through Boston at other times. Hayes and Cahill especially are well known here for their uniquely improvisational approach on fiddle and guitar. But this particular collection of five musicians has taken the basic rubric that is “Irish Traditional Music” and, at times, stood it on its ear.  Many of the Irish tunes we heard last night are pretty commonly known, but were played in a way as to almost make them a bit unrecognizable. And for me, that provided an extra kick to this wonderful show. 

With two fiddle players ripping away, it was an opportunity for each fiddle to stray from the main melody - usually not encouraged in Irish music - but which, in this context, was happily encouraged and very successfully achieved. And with both a pianist and an organist, there were also several other opportunities to explore shifting melodies. At times, with Mr. Bartlett, head down on his piano as he played sparse notes, it almost felt like Stockhausen meets Diddley-Dee! I have listened to a LOT of Irish Traditional Music in my lifetime, and have even taught courses on its structure, but this was truly a unique presentation of a very old art form - even to my ears. Teaching a very old dog new tricks? 

I call it a 'Deconstruction of Irish Music' because it looks at the root forms of the music (a basic melodic line with ornamentation of that melody building), and then just ever so slightly shifts the melody a bit over from one of the two fiddle players, or one of the two keyboard players, and the result is really something either jarring, or unique and special, depending on your point of view.  The result of such a relatively small change with the melody is quite dramatic, and beautifully demonstrated by the musicians in The Gloaming. I would venture to say this is not undertaken by the faint of heart. It takes a master’s touch. The musicians in the Gloaming have been on tour a while, and have all of the fine tunings needed to make this delicate balance work. 

A MAJOR bonus for me in this show was the inclusion of Iarla Ó Lionáird, truly one of the finest of all sean-nos (singing in Irish, unaccompanied) singers alive, and a native of the West Cork Gaeltacht - a place where the native language and customs are kept alive against the creeping modernism. Ó Lionáird has a tone and breath to his singing I find totally captivating, and his use of ornamentation with his voice is unmatched. Combined with some sensitive and sparse backing on piano and fiddle, his feature pieces were a highlight for me. 

The Gloaming have 2 CDs out - both highly recommended.