For those of you who don’t plan your years around the seasonal work prospects of jobbing folk, function, rock and indeed classical musicians, 17th March is St Patrick’s Day and a date on which pretty much everyone who can play something Irish has a gig (especially on years when, like 2018, it falls on a weekend).
This year, it not only saw a very unseasonal snowfall care of the Beast from the East part II, The Russian Empire Strikes Back (apparently part III, Return of the Global Weirding, is set for Easter weekend), but also Ireland winning a Grand Slam in the Six Nations at Twickenham stadium – approximately 5 minutes’ brisk walk from where I live, and only about 2 miles further from the Kindred Spirit Duo pub gig in Isleworth.
Unsurprisingly then, by the time I arrived to set up (after some tangling with changes to the bus service – a necessary coming of age process of my first major match day as a Twickenham resident), the Swan Inn was already crowded with very cheerfully sozzled Irish of all ages and sexes (though mostly men from about 20 to 60). And indeed the music had already started, including the most rowdy, drinking-song-like rendition of that melancholy anthem of oppression ‘The Fields of Athenry’ I have ever heard.
I’m not going to give a blow-by-blow account, but here are my salient experiences of playing to a mostly actually Irish crowd at their most uninhibited (and therefore probably most authentic):
- They love music. For sheer response to no more than a recognised intro, few or perhaps no other crowd I’ve played to could match this.
- The Irish knowledge of their own traditional culture puts the English vastly to shame. Most of the songs they were singing along to and requesting were either actually ‘trad anon’ or songs written into that idiom and style and long since absorbed away from their individual recorded / written original versions. Not a single request for Sex on Fire, Mr Brightside, or ‘any Ed Sheeran’ all night. And every time I play a gig to a really Irish crowd I’m astonished by the way ordinary punters – not musicologists or even musicians – know which county specific songs hail from, their lyrics tie them to, or they are generally associated with. Maybe it just speaks to rivalry and fiercely local identity, but it implies a startling depth as well as breadth of knowledge.
- In case you hadn’t noticed, music is a totally participative experience for the drunk Irish. Probably the only (rock/folk) gig I’ve played where the crowd were louder (and specifically singing louder) during the band breaks than when we were playing!
Turning up to start playing viola in Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony in a conducting workshop at 10:30 the following morning was one of those simultaneously refreshing and bewildering shifts that characterise my musical career!