PLANXTY LIVE 2004
Amongst other things, the year 2004 will be remembered for the public re-assembling of Planxty for twelve concerts — two in Glor, Ennis, in the music heartland of County Clare, and ten in the plush confines of Vicar St, Dublin — their first live performances in twenty-something years. This an event of some considerable historical and cultural magnitude, rendered all the more pertinent given the seamless realignment of Dónal Lunny, Andy Irvine, Liam O'Flynn and Christy Moore.
Surreptitious rehearsals in Paddy Doherty's Spa Hotel in Lisdoonvarna the previous October had revealed to the Planxty players that the chemistry was alive and well and ready to blow. And so it did, as each night the music tumbled magically from their fingers, smiles stretched across our faces, heads bobbed, feet tapped, Christy 'hupped,' and we all set adrift on a musical journey that would sail us through the full gamut of emotions.
A cast of odd characters starred each night; lusty blacksmiths, murderous Lords and adulterous Ladies, mighty mariners, raggle taggle gypsies, and shillelagh-wielding latchecos. There was drama, laughs, slagging, jubilation, reflection, and love coming from every corner of the room. The songs and tunes came to us from decades and centuries gone, from 17th century harp music, to the singing of John Reilly, to the priceless pages of the PW Joyce Collection.
'The Starting Gate' eases us into the music with delicacy and intricacy, quickly introducing that building block technique that marks so much of Planxty's music; the blissful bouzouki-mandolin marriage, the otherworldly whistle, the drone, the raspy guitar, the thump of the bodhran. And in the middle of this melee is Liam O'Flynn whose knife-edge precision piping raises a roar from the audience and elevates the music to the high heavens.
On his solo piece, 'The Dark Slender Boy' a mood of pin-drop rapture cloaks the room as Liam bends yearning notes and stretches whirring drones into this profoundly mournful music. In contrast, on 'The Clare Jig' his pastoral whistle dances gleefully between the double-bodhran attack of Donal and Christy.
There are some fantastic stories told within the songs performed here. 'Arthur McBride' is an anti-conscription / anti-war song, and one which resonates as much with Planxty's virgin audience as it does with veterans of the 70s. Here, Andy Irvine calls upon his colleagues to back him up on a suitably rousing rowdy-dow-dow chorus. The nine-minute plus 'Little Musgrave' is a poetically written fable of love, lust, infidelity, jealousy, murder, and remorse — the words to which Christy Moore found on pages scattered on the floor of an auctioneers in the early 70s. This particular rendition captures the singer in majestic free-flow.
We rarely discuss Planxty without referencing the unusual new flavours, arrangements, and instruments they brought to traditional Irish music. In a demonstration of their peerlessly inventive verve, they stitch 'Blacksmithereens' (a tune based on Andy's first impressions of Balkans music) onto an old English folk song, The Blacksmith'. This fiery performance. is driven by Dónal Lunny's robust, rhythmic, bouzouki and underpinned by Liam's dramatic phrasing, which prompts another round of hollering from the congregation.
The loudest roar though is reserved for one of the most celebrated segues in traditional music — that invisible bridge from 'Raggle Taggle Gypsy' to, Tabhair Dom Do Lamh'. And who could deny Andy's 'West Coast of Clare,' a lament of unrivalled pathos that has heads bowed in contemplation right across the venue. It's rare to see an audience so possessed. It's little wonder they received standing ovations every night upon entering and exiting the stage. Nights like those in January and February of 2004 have been wished for, dreamt of, and fantasized about by thousands of Irish music fans for over two decades. We arrived excited, anxious, and downright nervous — there was a lot at stake; memories, expectations, and reputations. We left smiling, speechless, and wondering would we ever see their likes again.
It was a good start to the year.