Winter has arrived on the west coast of Clare. After an unseasonal spell of sunshine and balmy weather, well into the second week of November, the wind from the Atlantic has now brought the rain, sometimes horizontal, and hail and with it the cold air. So situation normal really. But none of that matters. Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill played at Kilkee on Thursday night 12th November, about a half hour’s drive away and thanks to fiddling friend Yvonne, who solved my transportation problem, I found myself upstairs in Cultúrlann Sweeney staring with eager anticipation at two empty seats on the bare stage. Kilkee is not on the must-visit venues for international music stars but how lucky West Clare was to have enticed them this time. The theatre is located behind and above the local library and is a terrific space with capacity for 102 lucky patrons. The place was full of people and full of expectation.
I have heard Martin and Dennis a number of times in Australia but never in Ireland and never in such an intimate space. This was the perfect place for their music. You could almost feel it wash gently over us while almost in harmony with the rain and occasional rumble of thunder from outside.
A live performance of Martin and Dennis is truly a captivating, almost mesmerising, experience. He plays long sets which build slowly, generally with an air to start and then through a succession of slower tunes, which may be barn dances or jigs or slow reels, picking up the pace and the intensity, building excitement and usually finishing with feverish reels. An example from the first half started with the slow air, The Lark in the Clear Air and then a jig from Peter O’Laughlin (the name of which I missed) to Micho Russel’s version of The Boy in the Gap, which as Martin explained has had all the unnecessary notes stripped out, then Charlie Lennon’s Road to Cashel and finishing with Toss the Feathers and a truly wild, Wild Irishman.
All the way Dennis’ inspired accompaniment enhances the journey. He assists in creating texture and sometimes filling space and other times creating it. Always with great sensitivity. Less is more with Dennis and his ability to create mood and anticipation with a single chord or even one note and also to drive the tunes with a pulsating beat is extraordinary. At times you are not even aware he is playing as he just reinforces the internal rhythm that Martin’s virtuosic playing engenders.
I attended a workshop with Martin earlier this year at Feakle Festival and it was an experience I will treasure. His knowledge and understanding of the music is deep and he was more than willing to share his insights. I was particularly taken with the way he explained how he finds what he terms the ‘groove’. This was in ample evidence this night with both Martin’s feet moving in perfect synchronicity and creating an almost percussive base to the music. All the time his body sways and moves as the music appears to take him over. In contrast Dennis is a model of intense concentration. They sit angled toward each other and their eyes hardly ever leave each other reinforcing the extraordinary musical connection. Martin even joked about it on stage calling it telepathy. Indeed Martin announced what tunes he will do and then promptly does something else and unfazed, Dennis is there.
There were many familiar tunes to those aware of Martin’s body of work. It was especially exciting for me to see the links many of these have to Clare and to hear of the players that influenced him such as his father and Micho Russell and Patrick Creagh.
Martin was in a relaxed mood engaging the audience in a conversation, at times the sort of interchange you might have in the front bar of Peppers, in Feakle, between tunes. I loved his explanation as to how he ended up as a musician working for tough man Johnny Moloney from Carrigaholt which convinced him there was a better life. Dennis was quite happy to let Martin be the front man.
Audience response was vigourous. Excited cheers rang out after each number almost as a collective release of breath, which the audience held throughout the set. Perhaps the sound of breathing would put them off their music?
The lonesome touch that Martin is of course famous for was there however often his playing was feverish. But there was always that groove, that lilt and the ‘nyah’ in abundance. The playing of both was technically brilliant. Not one wrong note or one note out of place. This was as good as it gets and as a wannabe fiddle player truly an inspirational performance. He is constantly varying in particular with the bowing sometimes getting exquisite tone with just the slightest movement of the horse hair and then using long bows to provide dynamic variation. He is a magician.
A word on the sound. It was so good and so unobtrusive I was never conscious of the fact they were miked up. I really felt I was listening to a truly acoustic performance. That was quite an achievement.
The final set of the night kicked off with one of his signature tunes, Port na bPuca, played with intensity and passion with its invocation of the sounds of the wind and the ocean. This was followed a a haunting slow jig and then into another jig and then seamlessly into Lafferty’s Reel, but typical of Martin, almost unrecognisable at times, as he plays in unfamiliar keys and wanders in and out of the tune, and then another reel and then he brings it back with a slow march with a strong pulsating accompaniment from Dennis, then a slip jig with that lovely rolling rhythm and then he builds it up again into another reel and then into P Joe’s Reel, paying homage to his father, and then into Brendan McMahon’s Reel, an East Clare favourite, which he took into unknown places and then finished with yet another reel which I didn’t recognise, this time displaying full pyrotechnics. The crowd would not let them go and gave a prolonged standing ovation. A breathless Hayes returned for an encore asking what they would like to hear. Names came from all directions: “Sailor’s Bonnet”, “Morning Star”, “Farewell to Miltown”. So that’s what we got and a few others thrown in finishing, of course, with a spirited rendition of the Bucks of Oranmore. Another ten minutes!
And afterwards they mingled in the foyer making one lucky girl’s night by signing her pink fiddle. What’s left to say? A memorable concert that’s for sure.
All I could think of afterwards was that I had better get home and practice.