Live Review | Howard Assembly Room, Leeds | Review by Allan Wilkinson
It was with a spot of unfortunate programming that I first experienced the gentle music of Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill, which happened shortly after the debut appearance of the Afro Celt Sound System at the Cambridge Folk Festival back in 1997. With ill foresight, the organisers of the festival had perhaps misjudged their expectations that the audience might sufficiently settle down after such an enormous explosion of sound. Before a feverishly ‘up for anything’ crowd, Martin and Dennis delivered a beautifully crafted set nevertheless, demonstrating that whilst they were not quite the right sort of act to follow the Afro Celts, they were indeed the perfect act to go on just before a solo performance by the festival headliner, Jackson Browne. Fast forward about twenty years or so and Martin Hayes could almost be considered a household name, especially on the Irish/American side of things, in light of his most recent award winning project The Gloaming, which has already secured two number one albums in his native Ireland alone. Martin’s latest project sees him team up once again with Dennis Cahill, together with New Yorkers Doug Wieselman on bass clarinet and Liz Knowles on Hardanger d’amore (fiddle with additional strings to you), each of whom arrived in fine fettle to perform material from the quartet’s blissful album release The Blue Room. I arrived in Leeds a few hours earlier, specifically to squander both time and money in one or two of the city’s ultra-impersonal record shops. I usually try to spark up some degree of small talk with record store staff, especially those who don’t look awfully busy, but not here. The best I could get was a grunt from a chap in the lower dungeons of Relics. It’s a city I told myself and if I were to meet the same person halfway up Kilimanjaro, he would definitely smile and say hello. I tried to convince myself of this at any rate. Between one record shop and another, I noticed three seemingly disorientated musicians appearing like meerkats, each looking in opposite directions along New Briggate – not that I have special powers of ‘musician’ detection to speak of, just the fact that they were each carrying an instrument case – and I immediately broke one of my recently adopted rules of avoiding musicians at all costs for fear of disappointment. I approached them and enquired “are you lost?” to which one responded in a familiar American accent “We’re looking for the Howard Assembly Room”. “No problem” I said, “follow me this way”. I escorted the three musicians to the venue, joking “does Martin usually arrive later by limo?” (he was actually parking the van). I could tell they were not in the mood for jokes as they swiftly disappeared into the warmth of the Opera North box office without another word spoken. “Bye then” I said, as I stood in the bustling street outside, with dusk fast approaching. “See you later”. After this brief encounter with the three quiet Americans, followed by a coffee in a nearby deli, Bob and Marcia’s “Young Gifted and Black” belting out over the house system, I warmed my hands and regained my faith in humankind by popping by the box office to collect my ticket for the concert. As usual, I was greeted by one of Opera North’s pleasant staff, only too pleased to hand over my ticket wrapped around a photo pass lanyard. Back in the street I passed someone who was busy having a conversation on his phone. “Just because he doesn’t go to church doesn’t make him a bad person…” I overheard him say as he passed. Now that’s the sort of conversation I was in the mood for and I would have loved to have joined in, but at this point, I feel that I’m unnecessarily digressing. Back to the Howard Assembly Room and the audience were now streaming in. The stage was simply organised with four chairs set in a semi-circle, each with a monitor in front – oh get with it man, we refer to them as ‘wedges’ these days. As the four musicians appeared to a respectable ripple of applause, their second concert of this tour began with an unbroken twenty minute plus suite that included such pieces as “Easter Snow”, “The Boy in the Gap”, “The Orphan” and Joe Bane’s “Unusual Key”, judging by one of the set lists I later recovered after the show. These tunes appeared to run the gamut between slow airs, hornpipes and ferocious jigs with the quartet finding their stride early in the set. The entirely instrumental set featured much of the material from the album with one or two other pieces included. The only voice we heard came courtesy of Martin Hayes, who introduced each tune in a whisper, with the exception of an introduction to the ten string Hardanger d’amore delivered by Liz Knowles, who pointed out that if it’s not sufficiently in tune, it makes for a miserable time. The last time I saw a bass clarinet in the Howard Assembly Room, was in the hands of Courtney Pine, who steered the instrument to Venus and back with no trouble at all. Tonight, Doug Wieselman’s treatment of the instrument was rather different; on the slower airs, it sounded delicate, breathy and fragile, a perfect companion to the fiddle and guitar, whilst on the faster, louder, galloping numbers, it took on the drone-like attributes of the didgeridoo, underpinning each of the dance tunes. With each of the violins delicately complementing each other throughout, Dennis’s guitar brought everything together, his nervous fingers trembling, yet hitting each note on cue, with both empathy and precision. Other pieces finding their way into the ninety minute set included “The Humours of Scariff”, “Brennans Reel”, “Port Sadbh”, “Tommy Peoples’ Reel” and “Mo Mhúirnín Bán” among others. There’s no question that the Howard Assembly Room tonight played host to a class act, with beautifully performed music from an equally beautiful record. The Blue Room is available now on 251 Records.