Colin H on Martin Hayes & Dennis Cahill
A number of people around here seem to be fans of The Gloaming. I wish Martin Hayes and Dennis all the success they can get, though the band, for me – just as a selfish punter – dilutes what they did/do as a duo. Here’s something I wrote for ‘The Independent’ back in, I think, 1997, based on a glimpse of their touring world over three days in Donegal.
Dennis Cahill is having a bit of a bad day. No, make that a week. “I think this is the first time I’ve convinced Debbie that touring isn’t one long vacation” he growls, in distinctive Chicago drawl. “I mean, you’ve all the aggravation with airports and none of the relaxation when you get there. I tell you, if I ever make a million I’m gonna give $50,000 to Debbie and Amy and send ‘em off on tour – see how they deal with it…”
The phrase ‘blistering barnacles’ comes to mind, and it’s hard to suppress amusement. Dennis is Captain Haddock to Martin Hayes’ Tintin, cavorting around the world having adventures, meeting faintly ridiculous people on a regular basis and dealing with episodic nonsense in notably different ways: Cahill huffs and puffs; Hayes deals with everything on a more conciliatory, cerebral level. Examples litter their conversation like a valve to the pressures of endlessly crafting a music of awesome fragility on the road. Here we all are, ‘on the road’ in Dunlewy, Donegal, on Tuesday July 14th and Debbie – a one-time Cahill ‘love interest’ from back home, it transpires – has turned up out of the blue for that night’s concert and subsequent wind–down at the local pub. Martin, the East Clare fiddle maestro who currently lives (or at least ‘picks up mail’) in Seattle and his partner Helen have gone back to the B&B. Amy Garvey, their gregarious agent-cum-European manager, up from Dublin, has run into some friends across the bar; Manus Lunny, a curiously reflective member of Scot-rockers Capercaillie who lives nearby, has joined us. The British Isles folk business is a small world. We find mutually informative small talk easily enough. “The feeling I get from the music business” he says, staring into space, “is like the feeling you get when you lean backwards in chair and know you’ve leant too far. All the time.”
“Boy, I haven’t had this much fun for two weeks…” says Dennis. The pub is admittedly short on atmosphere. We drink up and leave.
The business of touring can be fun, and sometimes it can’t. ‘Purgatory’ is the phrase musicians use, for those moments of down time when confidence ebbs away and they wonder what it’s all about: “You go very high with the musical experience” says Martin, the next day. “I’m sure it’s no different from drink or drugs, and sometimes it’s a big let-down without it. I definitely have times of feeling that what I do is absolutely useless and meaningless and the fact of the matter is ‘I have to do a concert tonight’. And there’d be me starting to think that I’m a fraud.” And yet nothing could be further from the truth.
The Donegal sojourn – three intimate shows and a couple of radio interviews over two days – has been designed by Amy as a rest cure in the middle of a longer tour to promote their first joint album The Lonesome Touch. They’ve been touring two years solidly now and in it the word of mouth expectations have been realised. The previous week was ‘Willie week’ – the eight day annual traddies’ pilgrimage for workshops, sessions and all-night revelries in Milltown Malbay in memory of piper Willie Clancy. If you’re anyone in trad, it’s the place where everybody knows your name – and when your name is Martin Hayes, ‘the master of silence’, increasingly on a par with Jehovah, that can be a bother. “There’s this guy making a documentary on me” says Martin, unnerved at the recollection, “and every time I walked out of a door, there he was. I’m telling you, more than once I felt like diving into the street and making a run for it…”
They may be ‘fried’ (Hayes and his longing for solitude; Cahill and his complicated love life) by the time they get to Donegal, but in a way it’s the very pressures of life that fuel the fragile magic they create with, bar inspiration, only three devices: guitar, fiddle and the instrument of silence itself. But however much one strives for solemnity and soul, one has to deal with the mundane and the frivolous. And at this, the first gig was a triumph. Tuesday 14th, a lunchtime recital at the visitor centre of Glenveigh Castle – Martin Hayes, ‘the lord of the trance’ in amongst the wall charts and stuffed otters, with an audience roughly equal in terms of die-hards and tourists with small children. There’ll be a lot of small children on this trip – they like Martin, he’s funny, he’s gentle and for all the Biblical fervour of his international press notices (to the extent where his record company have apparently started asking journalists not to use messianic metaphors) he has a mischievous grin. Kind of Robin Williams with a Marc Bolan haircut – the upshot of which means getting mistaken for Kenny G at airports.
Perhaps inevitably in the context this show never reaches full blown nirvana, but the effect is still stunning. “I’ve had a request” says Martin, “from a bunch of five year olds (grin widens, ripples of mirth all round) for a slow air…” Of course, this is a relative term – everything Martin plays is slow, or carries well the illusion of entropy as an art form. No fiddler and no guitarist in Irish music play fewer notes than Martin and Dennis, and absolutely no-one – past or present – comes remotely close to the sheer spiritual sensation they can, when the moment is right, create. That evening, at the main concert of the day in Dunlewy, the ‘mystical thing’ happens – certainly for me. For perhaps 20, 25 minutes in the middle of the show where the music has built continuously, in soaring, soul–penetrating tenacity it feels like a trance. At that same point, Martin tells me later, he felt it too. It’s not something he can conjure up at will, but it’s no accident either:
“There’s a kind of soulful experience that’s better than prayer or meditation” he suggests, “that’s more genuine – a space you can work yourself into musically. So you want to reach that space. I’d spent a number of years playing in quiet corners for myself, like I’m pouring music into myself. Somehow in my mid ‘20s the experience flipped about and I found that the only time I was getting this same experience now was when I was reaching out to someone else – like the giving is the receiving.”
The crowd, like all three Donegal shows packed to the rafters, is explosive in appreciation as each set of tunes ends. Almost anything Martin says, in his soft-spoken, near apologetic tones, in between will get a laugh simply because it punctures the tension, resolves the silence. If his music is a key to the soul, silence is the torch to find it:
“I remember reading in the back of one of Arvo Part’s recordings where he said that music was the space that silence had chosen to abandon. I liked that. I think that silent moment is the moment in which the audience subjectively creates for themselves, in which they’re actively participating. You make people aware of the silence. It’s a challenge every time.”
Just as Part, the Estonian ascetic, has created his own ‘tintinabulli’ style of composition from deconstructing renaissance music, so Hayes has effectively created a stripped-down, purer form of Irish music – one that reaches back to, he believes, to a time before the ancient airs and marches were grafted on to the imported structures of jigs and reels. He’s pragmatic about it; he’s loath to be held aloft as a champion of anyone’s cultural agenda. His music, traditional Irish “by accident of birth I suppose”, is simply a vehicle in the search for the soul. Even an Irish Times reviewer who couldn’t, in a surfeit of received wisdom on ‘the tradition’, comprehend what he’s trying to do compared Hayes, in a truly impenetrable metaphor, to Jesus. And, true to form, he’s not going to kick ass with today’s equivalents of the Romans or the Pharisees or anybody else.
“But it is like a missionary thing” he says. What, like the Blues Brothers – you’re ‘on a mission from God’? “Yeah, that’s it!” he grins, ambiguously. “I’ve actually played in that theatre, with my dad’s band – the one in the last scene…” His dad’s band, The Tulla Céilí Band, at 50 this year is the most venerable in Ireland. But seriously…
“Look at it like this, the evangelists today speak to more people than Jesus ever did and they’ll have an minimal effect by comparison. Like, I was reading this interview with someone who was saying ‘I’ll always be known as the bass player from Kajagoogoo…!’ Now, that sounds kind of strange to me. You could be popular for 12 months on a mega level and touch millions of people a little bit – or you could touch a few thousand people a lot. That’s more valuable to me.”
Playing hundred seaters and really communicating to those people, and paying his way through life are all he wants. Both he and Dennis have been through the rock’n’roll mill before and now they’ve found where, for them, it’s at: soul music. Without trying, without the push and shove of global hype, Martin Hayes has been compared to Bach, Hendrix, Miles Davis and God. He draws influence from classical minimalists like Part and fusion pioneers like The Mahavishnu Orchestra; he is erudite, humble and constantly re–evaluating himself, his music and his goals like no–one else in the industry. He is a once in a lifetime – and he’s also very funny. “The muse has no interest in press cuttings” he notes, wisely.
The next day, at a radio interview for the local Gaelic station (he barely speaks a word of the stuff and can’t understand why broadcasters consistently refuse to believe this) the presenter, in between phone-ins on the subject of ‘Batman agus Robin’, chirpily enquires what they do for a living. “Hey, it’s all we can do’ says Dennis, with a facial expression that says he’s heard this kind of ill–informed rot a million times before. They play a tune. It’s staggering, and entirely new. Sort of. “Something I heard my dad play when I was six, I think. It just came to me…” says Martin, in the linguistic safety of the car park. On the way out, the presenter turns to myself and Helen – the one scribbling observations, the other taking photos. “So, are you all here on holiday?” she says. Again. Did anybody ever put this to Jimi Hendrix, or Miles Davis, or Bach? Over her shoulder, Martin chuckles silently, which seems entirely appropriate. “No” I say, firmly and clearly, and in English. “Martin is one of the world’s leading traditional musicians in the commercial arena, Dennis is his accompanist and I’m writing about them for a national newspaper. We’re all in pursuit of wealth.”
We go to lunch, we come back for a link–up with a national show and Martin falls about in further silent revelry when it becomes clear, on air, that Dennis’s dark past in cabaret is out (“I sang some songs and made sarcastic remarks. Hey, I made a living”). Behind the screen Amy fields calls on her mobile from people who’ve heard about a ‘secret gig’, that night, in Dublin. It’s so secret nobody’s told Martin or Dennis. They’re off to Glencolmcille, birthplace of St Columba – the edge of everywhere, the beginning of nowhere.
That night there are no lights, no amplification and the show is unbelievable. We repair, all of us this time, to the best of three pubs in the village. We discuss what he’s going to play on Later With Jools (an appearance is imminent), the processes of music and the state of our souls. Perhaps, he feels, he’s done all he needs to do – he’s touched a few people, said what he had to say. He doesn’t need to be a star “but everybody wants to be loved, to be acknowledged for what they do.” He is unquestionably the best in the world at what he does. And he makes a living at it. He’s a lucky man. An hour later we discover that like all pubs there is a chip van outside – yes, even here. We consume the food on the way back to this night’s guest house and even Dennis is back on form. “You know” he says, “I’ve only met two guys from Northern Ireland who don’t have a problem and you’re one of ‘em.” Thanks. I think.