Live Reviews: The West Awake
Cora Smyth (fiddle, low whistle), Breda Smyth (fiddle, whistles, low whistle), Pauline Scanlon (voice), Donogh Hennessy (guitar)
Ballina Arts Centre, Co. Mayo
17 September 2008
It was ten minutes before showtime when I arrived at the Ballina Arts Centre to find an almost packed house. In the small gallery room, around 100 people had squeezed in for the first night of the Music Network ‘The West Awake’ tour.
The combination of Mayo sisters Cora and Breda Smyth with Pauline Scanlon and Donogh Hennessy provided an interesting mixture between group performance and solo showcasing. What really stood out, however, was the contrasting dynamics of the ‘staged’ concert setting with the informal group arrangement. Through ‘The Blackberry Blossom’, ‘The Bell Table’ and ‘The Rights of Man’ the music flowed with the wonderful looseness of a session; beginnings, changes and endings seemed open to the moment. At first, this hint of uncertainty in their playing clashed with my memories of the highly coordinated recordings of the Smyth sisters and the atomic-clock synchronisations of Hennessy’s former band Lúnasa. The Music Network flyer, however, described how ‘for all four this tour marks a return to their musical roots’. This concert was not only that, but also a narrowing down of their musical self to that of an individual performing in a room: no special status, no intricate arrangements, no fancy lighting and no microphones.
As the evening progressed the concert began to feel more like a private gathering, with the interaction between audience and musicians becoming ever more free and familiar. The level of ease became such that as Pauline Scanlon began the final chorus of ‘The West’s Awake’ a gentle choir of voices joined her in a manner fitting to informal sing-songs. We were no longer merely an audience; we were neighbours ready to share in a musical event.
‘The West Awake’, or at least this particular concert in the tour, highlighted the strange contrasts that surround the performance of Irish traditional music in its dance between the concert hall, the pub session and the living room. When the encore was extended out from the song ‘Wearin’ the Britches’ into a rousing version of the ‘Foxhunters Reel’ it would have felt quite appropriate for the chairs to have been pushed back and for partners to have been lined up for a set.
Published on 1 November 2008