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The Irish Sea Sessions 2 - Philharmonic Hall

Lew Baxter is still trying to get his breath back. Pictures: Mark McNulty

Published on October 23rd 2011.

The Irish Sea Sessions 2 - Philharmonic Hall

YEARS ago, when I lived in China, I introduced - via the now increasingly ancient medium of CDs (and the odd tapes - remember them?) - cohorts of Chinese chums to the frenzied sounds of Irish “hooligan” music. 

They responded wide-eyed and with, for them, unusually unrestrained fervour as we clumsily tackled a couple of Riverdance-style routines in the confines of an austere apartment built by melancholic Russians. 

We cheered, we roared and some wept
at what was another Sessions triumph

The Chinese clearly loved the fiddles, the uilleann pipes and the bodhrans and, I fondly imagined, the private unfettering of their social chains. 

I have long been persuaded of a “Bloodline” swirling between Oriental and Celtic music, the very nature of both performance and sound bearing many similarities (aka the Chieftains, et al, and their sorties into cross cultural liaisons in China). 

So, as I took my seat for the second of the Irish Sea Sessions with bursting, almost gleeful, anticipation, having been fired to the furies by the first last year, I was bemused to see a rather distinguished Chinese lady sitting in the row in front. Wow, I thought, the conversion is complete.

However, unlike most of the wildly enthusiastic sell-out audience at the Philharmonic Hall, she remained stoic throughout the gig, even remaining seated while the rest of us rose to our feet like an erupting volcano to holler and whoop, as though greeting conquering heroes (and heroines), as the combined talents of 14 performers ripped into a set of tunes laced with such glorious, spiriting, boosting energy and verve that surely could give the very Sirens themselves a grand run for their airs.

That the extraordinary bassist, and the evening’s informal master of ceremonies, Dubliner Bernard O’Neill can already wax lyrical about the “tradition” of the Sessions is testament to how this seemingly anarchic gathering of musicians, singers – and, heaven forefend, let’s not omit dancer Mary McGuiggan who set a corking pace herself - has become part of the fabric of folklore in Liverpool. And the “show” has also been unleashed on Belfast and Derry.

In truth, the first sessions, some 12 months back, felt at times as though the performers were winging it by the seats of their pants, were overjoyed at the seamless flow, and were even themselves taken aback at the sheer exuberance displayed by the audience. This time it gave the impression of being just ever so slightly more considered and rehearsed. But this did not affect the fizz and the passion one jot.

Jennifer JohnJennifer JohnYet, when Jennifer John, lynchpin of Liverpool’s Sense of Sound organisation, sashayed towards the microphone and admitted her own Irish antecedents were a bit thin but that she would like to offer up Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey, some might have thought it an unusual ingredient. To the contrary, her emotional, soaring blues-stained voice stunned the audience. It was little short of a tour de force that suited the mood perfectly.

The Liverpool Irish Festival is celebrating its ninth birthday this year and has stamped such a mark on the city’s cultural zeitgeist that it feels as though it’s been around since the Irish Diaspora first landed here when fleeing the Famine. It continues throughout this month with music, plays, films, talks…and laughter.

And the much talked – and raved - about Irish Sea Sessions, a creative inspiration from the festival’s champion Simon Glinn, is now almost the flagship event with the line up this year featuring some stalwarts from the first gathering; such as acclaimed singer Niamh Parsons, guitarist Graham Dunne, the irascible bodhran sage and singer Gino Lupari, Merseyside’s singer-songwriter Ian Prowse and one of Liverpool’s most highly regarded traditional musicians Terry Clarke-Coyne, a former Garva member whose dad was in the legendary Liverpool Ceili Band.

The remaining “veterans” - guitarist and singer Londoner Alan Burke, astonishing button accordion player Dave Munnelly, who will no doubt one day be nominated for sainthood in Irish traditional circles, and Dublin singer-guitarist Damien Dempsey - were joined by a trio of equally nimble fingered young musicians whose playing could set heather aflame.

The latest recruits were all strikingly of note, if you’ll pardon the expression, with John McSherry, from the new generation of uilleann pipers, a man worthy of listing alongside the likes of the fabled Liam O’Flynn, Davy Spillane and others of that ilk.

And Belfast’s Stevie Done is a banjo player whose skittering along the strings dazzles while alongside him on the Philharmonic stage his skills were matched by the quietly confident fiddler Meabh O’Hare, another Belfast export, who conjured up sheer magic with her bow.

It was obvious from the opening song, Prowse’s Does This Train Stop on Merseyside - made famous by Christy Moore, that the ensemble were up for the craic and ready to answer the call. They swept through two sets of songs and tunes that had an appeal for everyone, and included many familiar lyrics and choruses that had the audience teasing their own tonsils; in particular Brendan Behan’s paean to prison life, The Auld Triangle.

In between songs of love, turmoil and torment – oh, and a singalong shanty Go To Sea No More - the ensemble engaged in a powerhouse of jigs and reels that could blast the breath out of a marathon runner but didn’t faze Mary McGuiggan or Niamh Parsons as they frolicked in carefree abandon about the stage; as indeed did Jennifer John on occasions.

Like Liverpool Confidential said last year: “One day people will brag about being at these early Sessions, sporting that experience as a badge of honour.”

Naturally, the finale was that lachrymose anthem to the host city that had both performers and audience joined in one thunderous welling tide of emotions as many, many hundreds of vocal chords tackled the Leaving of Liverpool. We cheered, we roared and some wept at what was another Sessions triumph.

As the house lights rose, the inscrutable Chinese lady in front of me, stood up, gathered her coat, glanced around puzzled at the still-stomping crowd, and quietly left.


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AnonymousOctober 24th 2011.

Great review, Lew

Simon GlinnOctober 24th 2011.

Thanks Lew, brilliant ...

Star dudeOctober 24th 2011.

Excellent yarn, makes me wish I'd been there

Will NevilleOctober 25th 2011.

It was indeed a very good night out!

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