Analogue Catalogue Vintage Recording Studio
Some people do things, some people don’t do anything, and some people seem to have a knack for getting people in the first two categories to do things – for making things happen – while hiding their influence under a bushel somewhere in the Castlewellan area of County Down. Mrs O’Donnell – that’s who to blame: the sorcerer with the cauldron, stirring up cunning plans and cultural adventures while seeming on the surface to be a well-meaning, slightly disorganised lady in a coffee shop. It’s a devastatingly effective disguise, let me tell you. One is set on a path to writing books, doing tours, making albums on the basis of what seem to have been, in retrospect, throwaway remarks over a cappuccino (or a telephone).
Last Friday night, at a remarkable analogue studio that apparently nobody had heard of (set up as a venue for a select audience) down a dark lane a mile or so outside a one-horse town, coincidentally or otherwise not far from Castlewellan, Irish trad/trad-esque trio Ulaid (John McSherry on uilleann pipes/low whistle, Dónal O’Connor on fiddle, Sean Graham on guitar) and Duke Special (piano/vocals) performed their new joint compositions, collectively titled ‘The Belfast Suite’.
One of Mrs O’Donnell’s many recent projects had been the organising of a Pledge campaign for the album project, which hit its target a day or two before the event. Last minute triumph in the face of certain disaster is her forte. Some Pledgers were invited to attend the live recording, which was taking place over two nights down the dark lane, and to hang with the band and eat food provided by Mr O’Donnell – a culinary genius who, inexplicably, spends his time building roads, or something along those lines, instead of running a destination restaurant. His casually promised ‘bowl of curry’ turned into many bowls of sublimely spiced fare and industrial quantities of world-beating pavlovas and banoffee pies.
I was not a Pledger but had been asked along and, as it turned out, was phoned by Peter Wilson AKA Duke Special very late in the day to collect what was said to be Northern Ireland’s only demagnetising gadget from a man in Belfast, as something potentially catastrophic had just happened to the studio’s tape gear. I’ll come back to this.
Having belatedly got there with Mrs H driving and one of Mrs O’Donnell’s closest associates in the back, after an exasperating time messing about on unlit back roads without any bloody road signs at the ends of them (why is this? who in the local authority thinks it’s a good idea?), Pete and I chatted for most of the pre-gig culinary experience – as I destressed and as Mrs H decided that we’d have to give in and buy SatNav.
Peter – a svelte fellow but, perilously, a fellow connoisseur of Mr O’Donnell’s grub – was in danger of blowing the whole thing as a result of ending up far too fat to leave the room. Strangely, I seem to bump into Pete every two or three years, if that, although we live about five minutes’ walk from each other. I occasionally hear his music and though it’s not always quite my thing (given that I’m (a) stuck in the past, and (b) largely a listener to instrumental music) I’m a huge admirer of his will-power and artistry. As Ulaid master-of-ceremonies Dónal O’Connor mentioned from the stage during the show, time was (early 90s) when Peter used to play Saturday cabaret piano/vocal sessions downstairs at a bar in Belfast while the likes of Dónal and John were being similarly hired to run a trad session upstairs – and it transpired that both parties would spend their breaks listening to the other. From piano-bar work, Pete somehow had the vision to don some eye-liner, wear Victorian tramp clothing, totally embrace a persona and get a deal with Virgin Records, resulting in Radio 2 play-listing and all the rest of it, and running a large touring band with a flamboyant stage show for 15 years. That kind of thing isn’t a walk in the park.
Pete was telling me that he’s much happier now having reduced his touring to fit in better with a more stable lifestyle, which has had the added benefit of increasing his focus on his creative output. That said, he recently completed a run of three sold-out Duke Special & Friends nights at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre, one of which included the Ulaid, so it’s not like he’s become a recluse. Curiously, a couple of times during our gobbling and destressing, Peter brought up the subject of a garage band we were both in briefly in the late 80s – he was obviously a born musician even then – so it’s possible he may yet be considering a move into classic rock. But I think not.
Peter has long been a serial collaborator with other artists, and it was funny to hear about the origins of this project with the Ulaid from the stage. Introducing the show/recording, Mrs O’Donnell explained that, having organised a joint tour for them last year, she had broached the idea of collaboration with both parties, separately; both had said, ‘Yeah, that sounds great, I’m sure it would work…’ As Dónal explained a few minutes later, after the first couple of numbers, it transpired that each party had really thought, ‘Yeah, nice idea, but I’m sure this won’t work…’ You see? I told you about Mrs O’Donnell and her schemes: you think you’re just having a coffee with someone, who’s fielding phone calls and running late for five other things, and yet three days later you’ve written a rock opera, climbed Mount Everest, or cloned a toadstool.
I mentioned that demagnetising thing… Was I alone in wondering why an analogue studio didn’t have such a tool already? And was I surprised that it was that very day, with John McSherry in the vicinity, the machines had given up? On one of my first trips in a car with John during our book-writing project a couple of years back (coincidentally, to visit Mrs O’Donnell in Castlewellan) we had got lost before we had even left Belfast. And we both live there, for heaven’s sake. I’m convinced that there is some kind of cloud of chaos that follows John around, like a lump of lead causing compasses to go awry and machines to fail. I recall pointing this out a couple of years ago to Mrs O’Donnell and she said, ‘Yes, but it’s always an adventure, isn’t it?’ Well, I suppose it is.
Suitably replete, we all made our way to the studio’s live room, on the first floor of a wonderfully converted barn (with the studio desk below, on the ground floor). There was an audience of around 40, a grand piano, an electric piano, several microphones, guys with gaffa tape hanging from their belts, and some video cameras. Rostrevor/Manchester Julie, who runs the place, surfaced briefly from a side door at the stage, looked like a rabbit in headlights, apologised to everyone for being there, and dived swiftly back into the tape burrow. Then the Duke marched up the hill.
Peter played a solo number first, with some guitar I think, from Sean, and then the rest of the Ulaid came on and played some tunes from their debut album of a year or so back. I described them as ‘trad-esque’ earlier because it’s not accurate to say ‘trad’, as they don’t play any traditional music. Instead, they play self-composed instrumental music in the Irish trad idiom in terms of its structure or shape. It’s amazing that no one has felt the need to find a new descriptive word for artists that do this. It’s not trad, so what is it?
There were three or four of these warm-up numbers, to get everyone settled into the situation. What was noticeable, though, from the start was how much commitment and intent Peter invests in every performance of every piece he performs. His warm-up rendition of a song called ‘Digging an Early Grave’ (or something like that, from one of his previous albums) set the mood brilliantly. He manages to be relaxed, deferent to all in the room, gently self-deprecating in his banter, while also explaining a little of what the songs are about, but this is no knockabout, knees-up session – his artistry shines through when he starts to sing and play, and I felt that the three other musicians quietly accepted that gauntlet and brought their best to the performances. And their best was world-class – playing very much as an ensemble, decorating Peter’s text-settings with well-constructed arrangements while Peter, on the instrumental pieces, became a fourth member of the chamber-trad team (for wont of a better expression), adding a wonderful touch on piano that was somewhere between the jazz-glissando lightness of the guy in The Gloaming and the stirring bass heft of the old-school céili band piano. Long out of fashion in trad circles, there is nevertheless *something* about the sound of an acoustic piano, played right, with a violin, pipes and the kind of inventive, slightly left-field guitar light-touch picking that Sean Graham brings to the table, quite distinct from the usual DADGAD strumming of many players in the trad. It’s a magic combination.
Sometimes in the trad world there can be a kind of ‘professional looseness’ or entertainment-led approach to public performances, with everyone – onstage or off – seemingly encouraged to shout ‘Hup!’ ‘Yeehaw!’ ‘Wayhey!’ and the like whenever someone changes key or a new instrumental voice comes in. Thankfully, there was none of this on Friday night. There was intensity and energy, without doubt, but there was also music that was presented as art, that was demanded to be listened to without distraction or disrespect. And it was. At least until the tape needed to be changed, and we all – band, punters and hangers on (me) – stepped outside to drink beer and huddle around a very welcome brazier that someone had lit in the courtyard. Ten minutes later we were all back in the zone.
There was a gamut of emotions explored in the eight pieces that comprised the ‘Belfast Suite’, with a deft line between poignancy and absurdity being followed in some of it. Peter’s setting of an 1888 poem by a man who had lost his dog to poisoning could easily have been played for gallows humour but I found it moving and profound, and this was the response intended. More clearly, ‘Burn The Sun’ was goose-bumps on the back of the neck stuff. I didn’t quite grasp its subject on one hearing but it was a gripping torrent of imagery, possibly to do with ‘the Irish question’ of the 19th Century. Indeed, most of the texts and inspiration for the ‘Belfast Suite’ came from the Francis Joseph Biggar collection of documents in a Belfast library, Biggar having been a keen antiquarian in the late 19th Century, and influential in the revival of piping in the North.
The final piece in the Suite was a setting of ‘Londubh Loch Lao’, a 24-syllable 9th Century poem that hosts the earliest known occurrence of the word ‘Belfast’. A recent TV performance of this piece from the quartet is below, which gives a good idea of but doesn’t equal the power of the performance on Friday night for those ‘in the room’. Peter’s use of dynamics and of the full force of the grand piano was exhilarating.
I’ve talked of Peter a lot here, but don’t read anything into that – this really was an ensemble effort and everyone was crucial to the whole. I wasn’t taking notes and this isn’t a professional review: it’s a bundle of recollections two days later.
After the show we all gravitated to that brazier again, and Rostrevor/Manchester Julie appeared, relieved, beside it. Having heard a few minutes of the tape through a door playing for the band straight after the show, I can say that it sounds magnificent. Dónal O’Connor, normally the coolest of customers, did testify around the post-gig fire to a few nerves and foibles during the performance. It had been basically live – a whole new set played in sequence with an audience for the first time, with only one false start, as I recall – and the technical set-up for the musicians had been unusual, with people playing in different proximity to each other than would normally be the case, and with various stands and microphones impeding easy movement. Dónal had felt unsure if their best had been delivered although, to my ears, and anyone else who voiced an opinion, it had been sensational. I mentioned that lump of lead business to John McSherry, but he seemed blissfully oblivious – which is a way of going about life that has served him well.
The following day, I understand, the first-night nerves and technical issues had been dealt with and an apparently even better rendering of the music had been delivered, with safety takes also put down, before the audience had arrived, that afternoon.
‘The Belfast Suite’, in happy convergence with Duke Special’s new ‘who-cares-about-Radio-2’ approach to life, will be released in due course solely on vinyl and as a download. Maybe they’ll add some of the extra pieces to the download, but this really felt like a suite of music that deserved to be heard over the course of a slab of high-end vinyl, with effort being made to put it on the player and change it over halfway through. And while it’s absolutely no business of mine it was a pleasant surprise to see that the Duke has ditched the eyeliner. It was never a good look. Although, of course, many thousands would, and did, disagree.
I’m hoping that Mrs O’Donnell’s next project will involve Mr O’Donnell’s cookery. I don’t care what it is or where it is or what the point of it is: just start a Pledge thing and put me down for fifty quid! I’ll car-share with the Duke and we’ll have Satellite Navigation by then. We’ll find you.
well-wishers, people who had pledged money to make it happen. A wide demographic, I think.
It made me think..
Why do so many country roads have no roadsigns? Why isn’t Mr O’Donnell a celebrity chef?