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2009-05-29 Sligo

reviewed by John

 
Sitting here in MISERABLE and relatively cold weather, it is difficult to imagine that one week ago yesterday I was in Sligo, in glorious sunshine, meeting up with long-standing friends from this club, anticipating another CT concert. And my anticipation did not come near to the experience, either, which is something quite rare.

I arrived in the beautiful city of Sligo mid-morning after flying into the airport at Knock and a one hour drive. I say airport, though the terminal building is very small. Knock is the site of a religious shrine, and its other claim to fame is that it boasts a runway large enough to accommodate a Boeing 747 jet – principally constructed to allow the Pope to visit the site. (And it is the only place I have visited in what used to be referred to as the developed world where I have been obliged to pay a departure levy – I assume to keep the runway maintained for the next visit!) I left home with the promise of a glorious sunny and HOT day, and arrived to mist, wind, and dark grey skies. However, once I had arrived in Sligo, the clouds opened to reveal clear blue sky, punctuated by a few billowing snow-white clouds and brilliant sunshine, and from that point on it just got better and better.

Sligo is a really beautiful town on the River Garavogue, which, as in many Irish towns, is spanned by a number of narrow and highly picturesque stone bridges. The river itself flows rapidly through the centre, down a number of small weirs, and its water is crystal clear and coloured a beautiful sepia, I assume by virtue of peat run-off upstream. It lends a beautiful backdrop to the brilliant green head feathers of the many male mallards which populate walls along the river bank or boats moored in the water. Jumping out of sequence a little, I walked along the river and out of town very early on Saturday morning, and the vistas literally yards from the town centre were utterly lovely. And there were numerous families of ducks and my special favourites, swans, all over the river.

But back to Friday. I knew that my friend Joyce Covington (from Maryland) was attending the concert (en route to see Niall Morris in fact), and lo and behold, she was sitting in my hotel lobby when I came to check into my room – the odds against choosing the same hotel must be pretty high. Joyce and I caught up on news since we last met (almost 2 years previously), and then went our separate ways prior to the concert. I then met Ali Poortvliet who had traveled from Holland, and was also in touch with Anja and Beate (from Germany) and Rianne (again Holland) – nothing parochial about this concert, trust me! Joyce, Rianne and I made our way and arrived at St. John's cathedral at around 7.45, whereupon Joyce realized that she had forgotten to bring something with her, so she hurried back to the hotel. St. John's is an impressive building, though it is somewhat overshadowed by the Roman Catholic cathedral which is right next door. It has suffered a little decay, but the good news is that work has started to restore and renovate those parts in need of it. Waiting at the church door was Basil Love, the heart of Kenya Build (who I am happy to report is shorted than I am, which always endears people to me – there are so few of them around) welcoming everyone who had bought tickets in support of his wonderful venture.

I think this is also an opportune moment to remark on the generosity of Matthew, Daryl, Colm (who is actually traveling to Kenya this time around to provide musical direction and support for James' and Maeve's fund raising concerts), and (ringleader) James, for the selfless and generous way in which they continue to give their time and talents in support of these needy Kenyan children. James actually made a short speech during the concert during which he praised `saint' Basil for his tireless dedication to the plight of those who need it most.

After a short introduction by the dean of the parish, the CTs arrived from the vestry and took position, with no ceremony, in front of the altar and started their set with the song which is certainly my joint favourite of their repertoire, `In the gloaming' (the other comes later). I simply love the delicate lyrics of this gentle, romantic song with oozes sentimentality and affection, most especially the final lines `It was best to leave you thus, dear, best for you and best for me'. The harmonies are matchless, and the final profound `hummmm' is the perfect ending to this gorgeous song.

Colm then joined them, and they burst into `Star of the County Down', which roused the assembled audience from the trance-like condition the first song had created. They then moved on to `The town I loved so well' which Daryl introduced. I have long been an admirer of Phil Coulter's song writing, and the deep and passionate lyrics to this song clearly come from the heart. Matthew's impassioned voice as the song reaches its climax is always one of the high spots of any CT concert.

This was followed by `Fionnghuala' (with the customary encouragement for everyone to join in – yeah, right!), `The Irish Rover' which I always think typifies the charm of Ireland in its own way, and then a German language version of `You are my heart's desire' (Dein ist mein ganzes herz), a bow in the direction of operetta (Franz Lehar, if I am not mistaken). Beate then got her personal serenade, `The holy city', which has assumed huge popularity in the past year or so since it started to be featured regularly. A wonderful piece which for me, certainly, evokes memories of my childhood, and especially of my paternal grandfather, himself no mean tenor, and many a Sunday morning listening to a religious broadcast (from Wales) on the radio.

Then we moved into another of those extra-special moments, as Daryl took to the piano and sang that glorious hymn, `How great thou art', which in turn he says reminds him of his youth (like he isn't still enjoying it!). His skills at the piano are phenomenal – he could pass muster as a gospel choir's pianist with no difficulty at all for my money. As it always does, it gained for him a rapturous and extended round of applause; and it was thoroughly deserved. (I sometimes wonder whether it might not be a good idea for the tenors to record an entire album of religious material – there is definitely something magical about the marriage of these classically-trained voices and the sometimes staggering beauty of religious music.)

James, Matthew and Colm then rejoined Daryl as they featured the first of the songs from the current album, `Hard times'. This was followed by `Four strong winds' (which drew a number of `aawwwws' from the audience), Shenandoah which was MAGNIFICENT (and which always for me evokes memories of the delightful Kathy Kauffman and Culpeper, Virginia, when her part in its inclusion in the CT repertoire was publicly acknowledged), and then James made a short speech acknowledging the tireless efforts of Basil Love of Kenya Build, which was benefiting from the funds raised from this performance. The first half closed with `Remember me', another Coulter song of special significance to the tenors.

The second half opened with `Granada', which as we all know now was written by a Mexican who never visited Spain – though he certainly captured the feel of the place. `Bring him home', which its perfect `o' vowel notes, followed – there are certain syllables in certain songs which truly touch on perfection, - the word `home' in this piece is certainly one of those moments. Perfect writing, when perfectly delivered, is stunning, and I found myself stunned more than once during this song. This was followed by a homage to Roy Orbison, one of the acknowledged great popular tenor singers of the last century, in `A love so beautiful'.

We then moved into contemporary political territory as Matthew introduced the next song (again from the `Hard times' album), and dedicated it to the ruling government party in Ireland. Ireland has had its share of fallout from the current economic crisis (as has my own country, along with corruption charges and numerous government resignations this week) – `You ain't going nowhere' got the biggest laugh of the night.

Then it was time for James to be left alone on stage with the piano to sing the priceless `Come what may'. For those who have perhaps not heard the story surrounding its inclusion, the composer, David Burwald, visited the recording studios where `Hard times' was being recorded. Whilst not unhappy with the `big' treatment of his song in the movie `Moulin Rouge', he indicated that the song had actually been written as a lullaby to celebrate the birth of his son, and he asked that the recording revert to that gentleness. He played guitar on the session, James sang, and acoustic spun gold was created. To those who have not had the honour of hearing a live performance, can I recommend that you heckle at your next concert – the embarrassment will pay HUGE dividends.

`The mad lady and me' followed, after an explanatory introduction by Matthew, during which he admitted that, like me certainly, he sometimes cannot fathom the meaning of Jimmy McCarthy's lyrics, but it never matters because they just sound so absolutely right. Certainly he is in my opinion one of Ireland's finest contemporary (and enigmatic) composers.

We then went back to `Hard times' for a song which I was sure I should hate when I saw it listed on the album, but which to my great surprise I find one of the most appealing. I think my apathy towards country music coloured my opinion too strongly, but the wonderful `howling' (in the best possible sense) harmonies of `Rambling Man' have served to completely convert me. This was its premiere performance live in Ireland, and it went down a real storm. `Ave Maria' followed, followed by the precipitate `I'll tell me ma' with its almost whispered unaccompanied final chorus.

Then we moved on to my other joint favourite track, `Caledonia', a song to remind travelers of their roots. This song, reminiscent in its sentiments of `Anthem', remains my all-time favourite live performance and recorded track. The incidence of the tambourine on the recording is perfection, and the contributions of each performer as they sing their solo verses are as good as it gets. Daryl weaves new emphasis into his lines compared to the recorded version, Matthew continues to charm with his sweeping inclusive arm gestures, and James' delicate and hushed verse are all unique in my musical experience. Add to this the intermissions of the wonderfully harmonized chorus (including perfect low register notes as opposed to those high ones for which tenors are renowned) and you have a piece of entertainment which is more or less unmatched, I believe. I hope this number is never dropped. Ever!

It was then time to say goodbye with `Time to say goodbye' (and it is perhaps worth mentioning here that the delectable Donna Malone was part of the congregation, and was biting her lips to stop herself from joining in – she was looking as drop-dead lovely as she always did, and with behaviour to match). Donna, incidentally, hails from Ballina (people will tell you that it is pronounced Bal-in-ar, whereas you can take it from me that Bal-een-a – trust me, I KNOW these things) which is between Knock and Sligo, hence her appearance there).

The applause at exit was enough to bring the CTs back for the no-surprise encore, `Nessun dorma', with standard audience participation. However, there was a new twist to this performance. Rather than simply berating those who continue when they should have ceased from the stage, Mr. Nelson thundered down upon one poor lady who transgressed (there were no obstacles, of course) and she was mortified to be singled out as well as beside herself with mirth. She may carry permanent psychological scars to her grave, I fear.

Then it was all over, and time for meet and greet outside the cathedral and a car boot sale of CDs by Anja and Beate in the parking lot outside.

A wonderful evening for a superb cause. It actually made me realize that it is only a matter of days before I leave for Nairobi to try to do my own little bit. I think being given flight details was the catalyst for the full realization.

Now I have to venture back to the English county from which I originate for two family celebrations, both involving the number 50. The weather there is about as bad as it can be at this time of year, and I think I shall have to console myself with photographs of a far more conducive day out in verdant Ireland.

Great weekend, everyone. (I confidentally expect to find at least 5 typos as I read the posted version).