The Music of Sligo

Unfortunately you won’t see video of the Fleadh Cheoil bands here, as my wanderings will take me to Dortmund just as that festival kicks off, but in the days leading up to the festival, the town has buzzed and hummed and generally jigged to the beat of bodrhans.  Here I have clips of some of the best music I’ve heard over the last two weeks -and many of these acts will be performing and competing in the festival from 10-17 Aug.

My first taste of trad came Monday night at The Harp Tavern, where a veteran guitarist led two teenage apprentices on fiddle and concertina.  He played reels and jigs, but Danny Boy was the one I had to record.

The Swagman’s Pub was a bit of a shock after The Harp.  I didn’t know that trad mixed so well with funk – nor with mindbending jazz chords and Hungarian motifs I’d more expect to find in Bartok or Mahler.  The Crackheads were cracking – here’s two snippets of two tunes.

My Yeatsian compatriot Brian Devaney holds a session at The Furey’s Pub every Sunday with his band The Out of Towners.  On 3 Aug. I thought the place was filled to capacity.  But after I fought my way to a spot by the door, where I thought I’d be able to film the band, I watched a dozen, two dozen, two score more file past and warp time and space to fit.  The Out of Towners are a funky foursome, drawing heavily on American blues and folk, with bodhran, steel and acoustic guitar, harmonica, cajon, and electric hurler, a bizarre and sometimes ornate instrument that one of the players handcrafts from hurling sticks.  Their soulful folk-blues interpretations made Beatles songs suddenly new, and their originals were startling, fresh, and funky.  But I loved their Bob Dylan covers best, and was moved close to reverie by Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright, Subterranean Homesick Blues, and One More Cup of Coffee.

The following afternoon the Yeats Memorial Building hosted a pre-Fleadh Fleadh with Daithi Gormley, Cian Kearins, and Caoimhe Kearins.  Sligo residents have been watching the trio win Fleadh competitions since they were pre-teens, and they hope to win again this year across several categories.  They played reels, jigs, and tunes from the turn of a few centuries.  Cian’s flute playing was particularly adept, while Daithi, a music scholar working toward a Masters, played some of the deftest whispering, barking, and humming accordion I’ve heard.  I was most captured when hearing Caoimhe’s singing – she has a lovely spring-pure lightly nasal lilting, and practices a level of subtle control I’ve never heard live before.  (Below is a video of her singing on her last North American tour.)

Some of my favorite music, though, came from the events surrounding the release of Joan McBreen’s The Mountain Ash of Connemara CD.  I’ve already talked about Glen Austin’s stirring new scores and the talents of the ConTempo Quartet, but I didn’t manage to catch those on film.  The a capella tenor performances, though, were unforgettable.

That said, the music that most surprised me was Katie Cassidy’s bluesy cover of Soundgarden’s Black Hole Sun.


A Quick Guide to Sligo, Ireland

I haven’t been in Sligo long, but I waste no time in getting to know a new city.  (At two in the morning after my first night in town, I took a wrong turn walking home and found myself a mile up the road to Ben Bulben, next to an unlit Esso gas station and very little else.  This is about my only qualification to write this piece.)

So, here it is, a guide for culture vultures, beer snobs, Yeatsians, jazz cats, and trad lovers.

  1. The Cafe Scene
    • Anyone accustomed to late night coffee joints in the U.S. or the streetside cafes of Europe – clean, well lighted places anywhere in the world – might panic in Sligo: most cafes close at six.  I don’t have some miraculous exception, unfortunately – local culture dictates that the cafe crowd shifts to the pubs, and if you need to do a bit or work or a little reading, or just want to enjoy a drink in relative quiet, Sligo’s rowdy pubs are no place for you.  One glaring, glowing exception is A Casa Mia in Sligo’s Italian Quarter, open late and serving light plates, wine, and coffee drinks at tiny work booths and one massive communal table.  The constant soundtrack of operas broken by the occasional (soft) bagpipe rendition of Amazing Grace is a definite plus, though the food, the hours, and the atmosphere should be more than enough reason to visit.
    • Honorable mentions include Osta Cafe & Wine Bar, however, which is open until 7 Monday-Friday and 8 Thursday-Saturday – although their hours are flexible and patrons often push them well past their schedule.  Aside from offering a decent wine selection, good coffee, and excellent, fresh, local food, the cafe also hosts Irish- and French-speaking discussion groups on Fridays and Mondays – anyone is welcome to join.  The best part, though, has to be the view: the Georgian Yeats Memorial Building on the left offering a noble counterpoint to the postmodern Glass House Hotel on the right, all above the Garavogue River bright with swans.  Meanwhile, just off Wine Street diagonally from the tourist office, the Cafe Fleur offers quite good espresso drinks and a salad bar with an array of imported meats and cheeses.  The salient con of the Cafe Fleur is its popularity, as it’ll be crowded at lunch time.  And through the wifi is good, there are no electrical outlets in sight.  I encourage you to visit Oscars Cafe on Wine Street just before the entrance to the Quayside pedestrian street and shopping center, which has the best croissant in Ireland. Sean, the proprietor of this 20th-century film-themed cafe, moved from his old Cafe de Paris this year.  In his new location he peddles standard coffee, a variety of cakes, and the best damn croissants you can have outside of Gay Paree.  The recipe is a closely guarded secret, but as one of those poets would say, gather ye pastries while ye may.
    • osta sandwich
  2. The Trad Scene
    • Traditional Irish music is alive and well in Sligo, Ireland: walking past the pubs on Teeling, Quay, or Wine Street, you’ll sometimes hear it as early as five o’clock.  Some of the best players have come out of Sligo; and in turn the city brings the highest class of performers to its coziest venues.  The Harp Tavern on Quay St. offers trad every Monday night, buoyed up on free-flowing Guinness (as well as the other standard beers of Ireland – Carlsberg, Heineken, and, inexplicably, Coors Light).  The Snag, just a quick walk down from Osta Cafe, also offers trad and folk bands in Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, and Shoot The Crow off O’Connell St. hosts good bands most nights of the week.
    • Trad fans should book their tickets for Sligo now: the Fleadh Cheoil (the world’s largest Irish folk festival) is coming to Sligo 10-17 Aug., and will likely double the town’s population.  There must be half a dozen excellent folk sessions going on seven days a week already – once the festival starts you won’t be able to escape it.  Prepare to be humming and jigging in your sleep – and (so I’m told) say goodbye to sobriety.
  3. Jazz, Punk, and All the Rest
    • While trad’s all well and good, Sligo is home to so many young jazz cats with heads full of syncopation and seventh chords that the fiddle-and-concertina set have to share space with a modern and decidedly global jazz scene strong enough to support the annual Sligo Jazz Festival and a permanent school of bebop acolytes and generally hip cats.  People come to Sligo just for the jazz: case in point, America’s Christian Scott, the Congo’s Tropicana Musica, and a host of students from continental Europe and the Americas in for last week’s festival.  5th on Teeling is the first club I’d head to for jazz and blues, but my favorite music pub has to be The Swagman.  This bar explodes backward from the front door, with plenty of high secluded booths and a parallel beer garden lit in jolly yellows and perfect for taking a bit of air or nicotine or a girl.  The bar also has the city’s widest selection of craft brews on tap – one of my favorites was the Galway Hooker IPA (that’s I for “Irish”), but visitors should grab at least one pint of the Swagman’s homebrew, Shtuff.  But I’m drifting off course: the Swagman’s best feature is its music.  On a Tuesday night, I found The Crack Heads, a bass, fiddle, electric guitar, and cajon/bodhrán band self billed as “Irish folk wi’ a bit of the funk.”  Actually, they played jazz-funk filtered through Irish trad and even incorporating Hungarian motifs.  The bar has music every night: on a Wednesday, I found a DJ mixing W.A.R., A Tribe Called Quest, and Led Zeppelin.  (And Parliament-Funkadelic, when I asked.)
    • Fureys is worth mentioning, if only for their Sunday night band, the Out of Towners.  This bar is packed on Sunday nights, such that moving, sitting, drinking, standing, and sometimes talking prove difficult.  But the music is worth it – the Out of Towners are a funky, bluesy, deeply original band, with new material as well as a host of covers that will surprise and delight.  (I’m talking Dylan’s “One More Cup of Coffee” here.)
    • The Swagman Pub

      The talented Crack Heads on a Tuesday night at The Swagman’s Pub.

  4. The Arts
    • There’s too much going on in Sligo’s art and theatre scene to mention in a single post.  Suffice it to say that the Hawk’s Well Theatre‘s schedule is the first place any visitor to Sligo should turn to (or perhaps the second, after grabbing a pint and a local to fill you in).  The theatre offers a diverse mix of events, including lectures, plays, and trad concerts from acts too big for the local pubs.  The plays presented here won’t be as stylistically avant-gardeas the fare in Galway – but this is one of the only places in the world you’ll get to see Yeats’ plays, which are often too minimalist and stylistically challenging for art directors and dramaturgs elsewhere in the world.  Last week the theatre hosted jazz trumpet stylist Christian Scott; this week they present lectures from world-class Yeats scholars, a sold-out performance of The Man in the Woman’s Shoes, and a tribute to the late poet Seamus Heaney, led by his friend and contemporary legend Michael Longley (who’ll also have a book launch in the Hawk’s Well Monday at 7).  For visitors coming to Sligo in the next few weeks, the theatre will put on Yeats’ The Dreaming of the Bones followed by an octet of concerts from top artists across the entire spectrum of the trad scene, from Michael Rooney’s harp suite to the trad “supergroup” Máirtín O’Connor Band, much of this part of the Tread Softly Festival running through 8 Aug.  Poetry fans shouldn’t be dismayed that they missed Wednesday night’s Ciaran Carson, Ciaran Berry, and Andrew Jamison reading at the Wine Street Methodist Church: there isn’t a dull day in the festival, and the schedule is here.

[Click here for my Flickr album from Sligo.]


Yeats Society Summer School, Two Days In

Graffiti kitty corner to the Sligo Cathedral

Graffiti kitty corner to the Sligo Cathedral

I’ve been in Ireland almost five days now, and I’ve barely had time to answer my emails.  I spent the first two days in Carrowduff, County Clare, visiting what’s left of the old Ryan farm, and a day in and around Limerick and Ennis – but more on that later.  For now I’ll skip to the good work of the folks behind the International Yeats Society Summer School in Sligo, Ireland.

Edinburgh’s hopping, getting ready to hold arguably the world’s biggest literary festival; hep cats are cooling their heels in Copenhagen; Glasgow just said goodbye to world class actors in for its own arts celebration; but I can’t think of a single European town that rivals Sligo in per capita hipness.  It seems like nine out of ten people here are semiprofessional actors who moonlight with trad bands in the local pubs and write poetry as a hobby.  Everyone’s preparing for an exhibition or a reading; and of course everyone reads W. B. Yeats.

Last week Sligo played host to Christian Scott, headliner of this year’s Sligo Jazz Festival.  He anchored a week of nightly concerts, daily masterclasses, and many, many midnight jams.  The whole thing buzzed, banged, danced, and howled to a close Sunday night at 5th on Teeling, a cool little joint with two stages and an embarrassment of craft beers.  (I didn’t order a Guinness the entire night.)  By chance, Sunday also marked the official start of the Yeats Society International Summer School.  After a bus tour and opening ceremony (which I missed) and a dinner at the Sligo City Hotel (which, of course, I caught) the students – a group of undergraduates and newly minted PhDs, scholars and critics and dilettantes (like myself), from Ireland and the UK, the US, Hungary, Italy, Spain, Japan, and the Philippines – found their way to 5th on Teeling, where one of their number, also a member of the Sligo Jazz Project, was taking part in the Jazz Fest wrap-up party and jam.  The Yeatsians watched from a cozy wood-paneled room, pocked with ineffectual and entirely superfluous wall lamps, as Tropicana Musica, a smooth Afrobeat band visiting from the Congo, got everyone dancing on the floor below.  The space seemed made for such cultural cocktails: the dark lounge stepped off into a bright purple dance floor, in a room lined with flat and ocular mirrors and covered in a dusty shag fur.  Septuagenarian tattooed Irishmen shuffled next to slick women in pixie cuts and halters that halted at the navel.  There were roving packs of local adolescents well below Ireland’s alleged drinking age of 18, and as many languages bubbling and percolating as one might hear in Grand Central Station.

Naturally, I joined the action.  While Tropicana Musica hummed steadily away in the back room, local and visiting musicians assembled in the front room for one last jam.  A jerry-rigged drum kit, a couple congas, a piano and a stand up bass stayed on the small stage, while the cats came and went carrying their own horns, harps, and gitfiddles, breaking often to take a craft brew to their friends in the booths.  Because of space constraints, a Swedish man played the trumpet from his seat in a booth by the stage, smiling mildly to wild applause.

Brian Devaney, an actor and fellow student at the Yeats School, beckoned to me from his congas on the stage.  I hopped behind the kit for two songs, what one Irish pianist shruggingly dubbed a “slow, slow blues … wi’ a bit of funk,” and the night’s second rendition of “Sweet Home Chicago,” led by a searing harmonica.

Somehow I made it to the first lectures at the Hawk’s Well Theatre at 9 the next morning.  Immediately I was impressed.  Margaret Mills Harper and Matthew Campbell, Director and Assistant Director of the summer school, opened with lectures that brought all present into close communion with the poet, a spiritual-intellectual state that will no doubt sustain through the next two weeks.

Seminars followed, mine led by Herbert Tucker, who told us to abandon metaphor and theme and imagery and even historical or biographical context in favor of metrics – the charms woven through the warp and woof of Yeats’ poetry.

After so much close reading (which I have to say I haven’t practiced to this extent since Jack Kenny’s and Tom Zabawa’s classes at St. Joe’s) I had to relax with a Syrah (and my homework) at the Osta cafe on the banks of the Garavogue, with a view of the stately, subtly dilapidated Yeats Memorial Building to the right of Hyde Bridge and the aggressively modern Glass House Hotel thrusting itself like some deconstructed postmodern Titanic through the old buildings on the left.

Left, the Yeats Memorial Building.  In between is the Hyde Bridge over the Garavogue River, and the Glasshouse Hotel on the right.

Left, the Yeats Memorial Building. In between is the Hyde Bridge over the Garavogue River, and the Glasshouse Hotel on the right.

Later that night the Young Yeats division of the society hosted a social at The Harp Tavern, on Quay Street, in easy view of Ben Bulben on a clear enough day.  The bar provided finger foods while we Yeatsians spread out and acquired the requisite pints of Guinness.

The trad band was supposed to start at 9, so naturally they all found their way to the stage at about 10 to 10.  Sean, the guitarist and bandleader, had been forced by some snafu to recruit two exceptionally talented (and exceptionally young) girls from the local pool to play fiddle and concertina.  As with seemingly everything in Sligo, the performance was collaborative – Sean invited a fiddler from D.C. to take the stage, and thrice called on a large group of reelers and jiggers to whirl in madcap fashion before the stage.  They, in turn, sucked an Austrian undergraduate by the name of Elizabeth into their circle.

I, likewise, found myself pulled in by irresistible charms, in this case the charms of a vacationing family from Charlotte, N.C.  Quite by accident the patriarch, a lawyer, had run into a colleague and a friend of mine, who happened to be studying at the Yeats School.  For over two hours the band played and every time I tried to rise to buy a round of drinks, the patriarch waved me down and bought the round himself.  Southern hospitality, it seems, knows no borders.

A group of dancers joined the trad musicians at The Harp Tavern on Monday night.

A group of dancers joined the trad musicians at The Harp Tavern on Monday night.

 I don’t plan on getting much sleep for the next two weeks.  Unrelenting 9 a.m. lectures follow on the heels of evening reading bleeding into loud and cozy mornings in the pubs.  A night not spent listening to “The Rose of Tralee” and “Finnegan’s Wake” is a night wasted.  This morning I listened to Lucy McDairmid give a lecture blending Yeats’ revolutionary poems and the memoirs of women close to the 1916 rebels, followed by Wim Van Mierlo on Yeats’ Creative Impulses, drawing on the Romantics and the often indecipherable early drafts of W.B.’s poems.  I ended the afternoon again on the banks of the Garavogue, committing to memory “No Second Troy,” – a homework assignment – before heading off to the Donal Ryan reading at 8.  Then, of course, music in the pubs, maybe The Swagman this time, where, so a colorful cartographer named John the Map informed me, I can find an even wider selection of craft brews.

Two days I’ve been in Sligo.  I know already it isn’t a town you visit once.

[Check out my Flickr Gallery of Ennis, Ennistymon, Limerick, and Galway here andmy Sligo gallery here.]