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  • If Shane Should Fall From Grace With God by Dave Soyars

    Singer/songwriter and former Pogues leader Shane MacGowan is a successful musician and a highly gifted writer. Two recent polls in Ireland declared his Fairytale of New York to be the best Irish song ever. He has a good relationship with his parents, a sane, down-to-earth girlfriend who loves and nurtures him, and the satisfaction of knowing that he's making a good living doing what he loves. On the surface, at least, his life could be considered quite idyllic.

    He is also a physical and emotional wreck. Years of hard drinking and drugging have dulled his senses, bloated his once-skinny body, trying the patience of friends and family members, including his ex-Pogues band mates-who either did or didn't fire him depending on who's story you believe-and cost him, in his father's words, "billions of brain cells." While he's far from the first musician (or Irish musician) to fall so mightily, he's still occasionally bright, creative, and when he can force his words out, still a compelling interview subject. The question with MacGowan is not why he's so fascinating a character when he's such a wreck, but rather how somebody who's such a wreck can possibly be that good.

    This dichotomy informs Sarah Share's documentary, "If I should fall from Grace with God," premiering on the Sundance Channel on March 17 (the DVD version, also coming out in March, contains an hour of extra material.) Share wisely avoids traditional narration, letting MacGowan's story be told by family, friends, including girlfriend Victoria Clarke and songwriter Nick Cave (an ex-junkie who provides the most direct anti-drug commentary), and Shane himself (all interviewed by an off-screen Share). It's a powerful emotional experience watching the troubled soul that MacGowan has become, yet the telling is completely free of heavy-handedness. Share doesn't shrink away from showing MacGowan as he is, but avoids both preachy moralizing and naïve idolatry, letting the speakers provide the narration.

    The only Pogues member interviewed is Philip Chevron, clearly still in awe of MacGowan as a songwriter, yet equally weary of his mercurial nature. Yet MacGowan is still in many ways the heart and soul of the band that he helped form. His replacements, whistle player Spider Stacy and the late Joe Strummer, never really filled his shoes. Likewise, the Popes (MacGowan's current band) are no match for the camaraderie and musicianship of the Pogues. Archival footage of the Pogues' early years is another highlight of the film.

    The MacGowan Share encounters comes across as damaged, yet quite open and engaging when discussing his past, his family (his parents are both interviewed extensively), his love of Ireland and punk rock (another clip shows him pogo-ing at an early Sex Pistols gig.) Getting him to open up can't have been an easy thing, much of the time he talks at the rate of about a word a minute while watching the lit end of a cigarette burn down untouched. What does emerge is equally difficult and compelling. Share does a remarkable job of showing both sides of a difficult but charismatic personality.

    Here follows an interview with director Sarah Share

    Q: (What about Shane MacGowan captured your interest originally?)

    A: Well, the opportunity came my way because his manager is an old friend of mine. People said "you must be mad-you'll never pull it off-he's too incoherent and difficult." The appeal was to capture him for the future, because you do get the impression spending time with him that he could drop dead at any minute.

    Q: (Did you find him difficult?)

    A: He is difficult, he is sick. In some ways it's like being around an invalid. He does a lot of drink and drugs. On many occasions we sat outside his flat waiting for hours for him to answer the phone or the door. I'd arrive at 12 noon and finally get him out to do something at 12 at night. Plus he was frequently incoherent - I have hours and hours of incoherent footage. In the end it was best to just follow him around waiting to get a little nugget of something. My cameraman described it as being like wildlife photography. He is sociable-he does like going out at night and he'll stay up all night. Some of the interviews were done at 3 or 4 or 5 in the morning. Then at 6 in the morning he wondered why we wanted to go home.

    Q: (Is he conscious of his image?)

    A: I think there is an extent to which he hides behind his persona, which he adopted to kind of protect him from people. He's basically very shy, and frequently seems more out of it than he is. There are some interviews where he's perfectly coherent, and those are probably the ones where he's more defensive, more aggressive. It was when he was together and lucid that he'd argue with me.

    Q: (Did the Pogues fire him?)

    A: I think both their stories are true. They don't contradict each other. For years he hardly ever turned up. He physically and emotionally absented himself from the band. They did actually sack him, but they had to learn to make do without him. He'd only done half the gigs for years. It's like being sacked from your job when you haven't been there for six months.

    Q: (Do you get the sense he's still got good work in him?)

    A: I doubt it. I do think he's very sick. Plus record companies and agents are fed up with him, he'll book tours and then not show. But I don't think Shane has some huge problem with that. He reached a peak and produced so many great songs. I do believe people will be singing his songs in a hundred years time. He doesn't see himself as a tragic figure. He thinks he's had a good life.

  • The Return of Johnny Boy by Andy Wilkinson

    It was a Saturday afternoon in Ireland's 32. Sunshine streamed in through the front windows, spotlighting the high tables and shadowing the dark corners.

    Outside, Geary Boulevard went about its weekend business. The GAA finals were in San Francisco that year and the contingent gathered with a purpose in the 32 that afternoon were in town for the games. At least half were Welsh residents of Florida (interesting story, but a different one, sorry). The pints flowed and the accents mingled until, inevitably, as the afternoon light flattened and yellowed, the singing started. After a few loosening, ensemble efforts from both sides of the Irish Sea, a retired prop forward stood up and sang. His rich valley baritone rang around the now-silent bar as the song we should be sick of stopped another show.

    So Glyn from Bethesda joined Elvis, Bing, Sinéad and the rest of the first-name famous singers to cover Danny Boy. The lyrics sung at a million weddings and wakes were written in 1910 by Fred Weatherly, an English lawyer. Two years later his sister-in-law in America sent him the score to The Derry Air, an obscure traditional tune, and the Danny Boy we know and love (or hate) was born. The search for the source of the tune is a tale in itself-check out Michael Robinson's terrific website (standingstones.com/dannyboy)-but it's the lyrics which are the key to the song's popularity.

    It's the story of a young man leaving his valley to go to war. The singer anticipates that by the time Danny returns, "dead as I may be." But who is the singer? Over the years it has been argued (by people who worry about this sort of thing) to be Danny's father, mother, wife, girlfriend or (ooh, controversial), boyfriend. The right answer is of course that it's all or any of those. The writer intended it to be ambiguous and the themes-home, departure, love, death, return-are similarly universal. A 'theological consultant' to the Providence (RI) Visitor in 2001, disagreed. Explaining why the song would no longer be allowed at funerals, he called it "emotionally manipulative." At which the universal themes "pot," "kettle" and "black" spring to mind.

    Now I know that many of you out there would no more buy a CD with Danny Boy on it than you would wear a "Kiss Me I'm Irish" hat on March 17. I feel much the same about Desperado. Unfortunately they are both on the best album of last year Johnny Cash's The Man Comes Around.

    There are four Cash originals, a whole bunch of weird covers and an acoustic guitar sound that will have you inspecting your CD or record to find what technological trick makes it seem like guitarist Randy Scruggs is lying under your coffee table. And then there's that voice. The man must be about 105 by now, and every year is in that voice.

    Cash's Danny Boy first appeared on his 1965 album Orange Blossom Special. Here, recorded in two hours at a Los Angeles Episcopal church, with only a cathedral pipe organ for accompaniment, he breathes new life into the old chestnut. Even he can't save Bridge Over Troubled Water, however, sounding like he's about to keel over in the middle of the second verse (which does add a bit of dramatic tension).

    It's not all karaoke night at the VFW club, the title track is probably the best song Johnny Cash has ever written. Half-lifted from the Book of Revelation it's a rollicking, messianic promise that when it all comes down, all music will sound as glorious as this. And will have curse words. Equally masterful are covers of Depeche Mode's Personal Jesus and Nine Inch Nails' ballad of addiction and self-loathing Hurt.

    The first line of Cash's 'Hurt'-I cut myself today/Just to see if I still feel-echoes with the pain of those who had to prove they meant it: Kurt, Curtis, Richey. Johnny came close, but he's still here. In the beginning, when the white man first decided to steal the black man's music, Sun Records had three singers-Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. Now, from the shadows, near the end, Cash has made the record the others didn't get to make-the sound of a man who's won it all, lost it all, and finally made his peace.

  • Paul Carr reviews A Clare Conscience - Traditional Irish Music from County Clare by Aidan McMahon & Anthony Quigney

    Flute and fiddle together make a fine combination, especially when it's from two seasoned musicians with the common heritage of a rich County Clare childhood. Aidan McMahon is from the famous north Clare village of Kilfenora, while Anthony Quigney is from Clooney, further south.

    Both men grew up with a shared love of Irish music. Eventually they played together in the esteemed Kilfenora Céilí Band. McMahon has since moved on to other musical responsibilities, but Quigney still plays with the band, and appeared on it's latest CD.

    This music is mostly traditional, although it is not "pure drop," as there is some guitar accompaniment. While the guitar strumming detracts from the natural flow of some of the tunes, it is more subtle or carefully placed in others. For example, Garrett Barry's jig set has a catchy, bouncy feel to it that works well with the guitar.

    The Bellharbour Reel set is a lovely rollicking tune set, clear and clean. The flute with piano accompaniment is a great combination. Glory Glory Corkscrew, a slow air written and played by fiddler McMahon, somehow captures the slow twists and turns of the road down Corkscrew hill, near Kilfenora. The guitar comes in about halfway through, adding beautifully with individual notes, in the style of Dennis Cahill, the musical partner of another Clare man, Martin Hayes.

    My Fair Tara, written and played by flute player Quigney, starts with spare, haunting help from Donncha Moynihan on guitar. The flute then comes in and the tune begins to unfold further. McMahon's fiddle is added later, further rounding out the sound. Lovely.

    In the detailed liner notes that accompany the CD we learn that it was partly accomplished thanks to the work and talent of people like flute player, lilter, and fellow Clare man Garry Shannon, also of the Kilfenora Céilí Band.

    This CD is available at Celtic Grooves. celticgrooves.homestead.com/CGhome.html

  • Paul Carr reviews Tráthnóna Eile, Music and Song from Northwestern Donegal

    Since getting this CD a couple weeks ago, I must have listened to it at least 100 times. It is an addictive blend of slow, ethereal singing in Irish, and the odd tune set. But it's the songs here that really capture the true blue range of the emotional rainbow.

    That's not to say that every song here brings out "Yer Blues", as John Lennon called them on the "White Album". The first song, "Cad é sin don té sin?", is a slow, slinky song about an unapologetic rake who says he enjoys "spórt", or merry-making of every sort, and what's that to anyone? This song appears with minimal accompaniment on Skara Brae, but here, along with the stunning singing of Aoife Ní Fhearraigh, it's produced with a smooth, seductive sound that's somewhere between Clannad and Daniel Lanois. Ceol galánta atá ann.

    There's also an uptempo a cappella duet from the Breathnach sisters, who sing together so perfectly you're hard-pressed to find any space between their voices. Their duet is as lively as it is silky smooth. There is also a lovely duet from Anna Ní Mhaonaigh and Altan's Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh. Still pure a cappella, but this time pure sorrow and dark longing, is "Loch Aoidh" from Nóra Ní Dhuibhir. It's a song you can listen to over and over, and then just begin to really hear and feel. Like the soaring "Coinnleach Ghlas an Fhómhair" from Manús Lunny, it brings out a sense of sorrow as powerful as it is personal.

    There are several other unforgettable songs on this follow-up to the popular "Trad Tráthnóna". It features studio recordings and live performances from Ionad Cois Locha, a wonderful visitors' center and concert venue at the foot of a lake, as the name implies. The lake in question is near Dún Lúiche, at the foot of Mount Errigal in northwestern Donegal.

    Ar fheabhas ar fad. Utterly magnificent.

    This CD is available at Celtic Grooves.


  • Dave Soyars Reviews Into the Arms of the Sea by the Black Irish Band

    This five-piece Irish-American band based in California gold country has long specialized in historical concept albums such as this one, the subtitle of which is Maritime Ballads (stories of romance and tragedy). It may well be their best record yet, with musical invention the equal of the narrative, and even the cover art (including two oil paintings of ships by guitarist/singer Patrick Michael Karnahan) an integral part of the overall theme. The fact that four of the five band members are capable lead singers is impressive as well. Many aspects of sea life are covered, with songs on a variety of themes, from Whaler's Cove,about the final days of a whaling ship, to traditional songs like The Night They Stretched Larry and Donegal Danny, the story of a lone survivor of a shipwreck. Instrumentals like the Karnahan-composed Rounding Cape Horn, and a set of hornpipes, also fit the mood well. Their line-up (guitar, banjo, mandolin and standup bass) is that of a typical bluegrass band, and American traditional music does indeed influence their sound, as do the whaling songs of at least three countries (America, Ireland and Canada). Informative liner notes are provided, and the music is classy, and an easy listen with acoustic textures and strong vocal harmonies.

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