I often think that what Andy Irvine needs to do is ditch all the mopey tunes and Balkan influences and instead re-brand himself as a one-man boy band. I often think this – when I have synthesising my own ersatz crack cocaine out of household cleaning products. When I saw Irvine play a concert just before Christmas such thoughts were furthest from my mind. Annoyingly, I missed the very start of the concert, thanks to the annoying practice in Whelan's of making gigs start and end early so they can have some kind of disco for the young people on afterwards. This gets me every time. It seemed to get a lot of other people too – the place was not that full when we arrived, but became considerably more so later in the evening. Still, we were pleased to discover from friends Lisa and Brian that he was only on his first song when he arrived, so no problem.
Irvine has a lot of songs, and he played a lot of them. He did play a few of his "and then we/I beat the shite out of them/him" repertoire, one in particular being about this guy who beats a Scottish cop to death for making fun of his Irishness. Such other key Irvine themes as regret and nostalgia also reared their head. It is funny for me, I am not *that* familiar with Irvine on record, but from seeing him live I have become quite familiar with many of these songs, so that when he starts playing one I go "Oh yeah, that one". At the same time, it is not like he plays the same songs in every set – the one about Woody Guthrie did not get a look in this time, but he did play the one about the unfortunate gold miner* (never recorded, as he feels that would kill this song for him). He closed the set off with the one about how he started off in music by hanging out in O'Donoghues, played as a tribute to the late Ronnie Drew (though a somewhat backhanded one – this is the song that reveals Ronnie to have not actually been a true Dub**).
There are a couple of things that make Andy Irvine such a compelling live performer. He is an impressive raconteur, someone whose between song anecdotes merge effortlessly into the songs themselves. Talking between songs is something a lot of singers do, and most of the time you wish they would not. But with Andy Irvine, it is no problem. Another astonishing feature of his live performances is his playing – he has a mesmerising skill with the guitar, bouzouki, or any other such instrument, much of which comes from his exploration of Balkan musical traditions. One could happily sit there forever listening to him playing away. For all his skill as a singer, sometimes I wonder if he should not sometime record an instrumental album. The third strength of Andy Irvine is the songs, both the ones he writes himself and the ones he takes from other people. He neatly mixes the jollier tunes with the more introspective ones that are perhaps his forte.
One song I enjoyed greatly was 'The Highwayman'. This is some 19th century narrative poem (about a highwayman) set to music by somebody. I gather that everyone in Ireland except me studied this in school, with friend Brian having previously extolled its lack of virtues. It might not be up to much as a poem, but as lyrics to a narrative song it was most excellent, being an exciting story in which the evil authorities lay a cruel trap to ensnare the bold highwayman. Another was the song 'The Girl I Left Behind', a wistful number in which this guy who has married this seemingly quite nice woman (with bags o' cash) is nevertheless spending his time moping about some other woman back in the village he came from; 'Love the one you're with' it is not.
As I was leaving, I reflected on the strangeness of a world where Andy Irvine plays Whelan's while the Kings of Leon play the Dublin Enormodome. I also bought an Andy Irvine album, Rain on the Roof. If has two total classics on it that I know well from live performances, these being 'The Plains of Kildare' (about a horse race; Andy Irvine can make anything sound great) and the one about Woody Guthrie. I'm not certain about the record's production, but it is great to have those two songs on record.
* He comes into town to sell his gold, but drinks himself into unconsciousness in the company of an attractive young lady of easy virtue. You can guess the rest.
** Foreign readers may not be familiar with Ronnie Drew. He was one of popular Irish folk group The Dubliners, and very much played on being the most heart-of-the-rowl person imaginable, but, according to Andy Irvine, he was actually from Dun Laoghaire. He died earlier this year, after a battle with cancer that saw him lose his hair and celebrated beard to chemotherapy. In his own words, this left him looking like "fucking Nosferatu".