Antwerp 2010 Report

A Joy Shared Is A Joy Doubled

An Escapade in Antwerp, 8th October 2010

Originally we had planned a kind of pilgrimage: a trip from Belgium and Germany to Dublin's fair city, visits to the resting places of those Dubliners who sadly no longer while among us, a tour of some of the historic sites we both love to read and sing of, a drink or two (or three) in the pub where it all started almost 50 years ago, having our photos taken on the Ha'penny Bridge and standing next to Dublin's famous fish-monger – our wish list was long! And the icing on the cake was to be our first ever Dubliners' gig together.

But health problems thwarted our plans in 2009, nor was luck on our side in 2010 to bring about a Dubliners' July gig at Vicar Street. So we had a choice – either postpone the whole idea until summer 2011, or choose another venue and at least make one part of our dream come true.

We opted for the latter! Even if the pilgrimage couldn't take place, at least 2010 should see us singing and clapping together at a Dubliners' concert! Choosing the venue was relatively easy – with a distance of well over 300 kilometers from door to door, travelling in October from Germany's Saarland to Belgium's Flanders definitely sounded more appealing than a trip in the opposite direction in November. One leg of the journey, namely from Luxembourg onwards, was to be made by train. Chemins de Fer Luxembourgeois (CFL), the national railway company in Luxembourg, offers a special low-priced ticket for travellers to and from Belgium. They call it "Escapade" ... and all at once our joint venture had a name! (Honi soit qui mal y pense!)

Even without a Dubliners' gig in the Koningin Elisabethzaal as the crowning finale of the day, the city of Antwerp is undoubtedly worth a visit for its own sake, and so we arrived there fairly early on the afternoon of the concert and spent several hours viewing some of the places of interest this lovely city has to offer. We reached the venue just in time to see Eamonn and Patsy as the last of The Dubliners arriving from Rotterdam, where they had played the previous evening. And with time enough before the concert for the two authors of this report to enjoy a drink in the bar next door!

After last season's successful tour with the technically ambitious and highly emotive "A Time To Remember", The Dubliners' programme this year reminds again of former concerts – no video clips, no tape recordings, no slideshow – simply five gifted musicians, somewhat more than a handful of instruments, and a potpourri of songs and tunes chosen from a vast reservoir that reaches back almost five decades. Over the years much of this music has become an integral part of their regular repertoire and, needless to say, the visitors of a Dubliners' concert – whether in Antwerp or elsewhere – look forward to hearing old favourites like "Black Velvet Band", "The Rare Auld Times", "The Rocky Road To Dublin", or "Dirty Old Town". But it is a refreshing change to hear the occasional song that is not so familiar to a live audience nowadays, or one that seems almost to have lapsed into temporary oblivion. One of these is "Dicey Reilly", inseparably associated of course with the name Ronnie Drew – but we don't doubt that he himself would have enjoyed Patsy's splendid rendition of it as much as the audience in Antwerp did! There is never a concert in which Patsy does not attest his admiration for the late Luke Kelly, and he did not fail to do so in Antwerp, before delighting us with a great version of "The Nightingale", a traditional song which, he elaborated, he had first heard sung by Luke himself.

"Fáinne Geal An Lae", which Seán introduced as "The Dawn", and as a slow air written around 1600, was very familiar to all, although not by this name. We recognised the melody immediately as that of "Raglan Road", but as Seán explained to us after the show, Kavanagh's words were simply set to the music of this much older song, "Bright Ring Of The Day", which is the literal translation of the Gaelic title. This was not Seán's only ballad of the evening. His rendition of "Night Visiting Song" was beautiful and very moving – and not only because it reminded us inevitably of that other great Dubliner who could fill these lyrics with such emotion.

Undoubtedly, their versatility is one of the factors that has made The Dubliners so unique, so outstanding, and even after 48 years on the road still capable of filling concert halls night for night with enthusiastic fans of all ages and nationalities. This versatility is perhaps even more evident when we think of the instrumental pieces, of which we heard a great variety in Antwerp. With what easiness The Dubliners can move from lively hornpipes in Belfast and Cork, to breathtaking reels in bars and on racecourses, and then to the serenity of Dublin's and John Sheahan's awesome St. Patrick's Cathedral!

It's not difficult to guess at least one reason why The Dubliners appear so regularly in Antwerp, and why they obviously enjoy every minute they're on stage – the audience there simply loves them! Not that audiences elsewhere don't do the same of course, but there's a special link between Flanders and The Dubliners, and that link is Barney McKenna and his affinity for Flemish music and musicians. He underlined this more than once in the course of the evening, the first time quite early in the concert as he, after greeting the audience in Dutch, introduced us to the protagonist of his first song – Jock Stewart. He depicted him as a land-owner, perhaps one of the last of the Scottish chieftains, a master of the Scottish pipes, but above all a very generous man, and added that the lyrics "I'm a piper by trade" always brought to his mind another musician he had much admired, not only for his playing of the "doedelzak". And so he was singing "I'm A Man You Don't Meet Every Day" in memory of his good friend, the late Wannes Van de Velde. (Flemish musician, artist and poet, born in Antwerp 1937, died ibidem 2008)

Needless to say, the audience was thrilled! But this was not the only present Barney made to the visitors in the Elisabethzaal. He also dedicated his second song of the evening, his love song for young and old, to all his friends from Flanders, and as a special treat had an extra bonbon – or rather, a delicious Belgian praline – in store for us. He played an instrumental version of the traditional Flemish song "De Vagebond", which he had learnt from Wannes Van de Velde, and dedicated the tune to him and to his friend from Leuven, the late Dirk Lambrechts. (Flemish musician and art historian, 1944–2006)

You get a wonderful "extra bonus" at a Dubliners' concert – and it undoubtedly belongs there like the banjo to Barney! We mean of course the gags from the stage ("we're going to slow the programme down with a few reels" ... "if I talk too fast and you can't understand my English, it's not your fault"), the banter between the five ("the same procedure as every year James" ... "my younger friend Eamonn, when I say younger I mean younger than St. Patrick's Cathedral"), and the lovely explanatory notes to the songs and tunes. For instance Patsy informed us in Antwerp that "I'll Tell Me Ma" actually is a skipping-rope song and Seán gave us a very explicit description of what happens before and after the "Night Visiting Song", adding that "the song explains what happens in the meantime".

But the master in story-telling is of course Barney McKenna, and in Antwerp he excelled even himself, obviously having the time of his life in his much-loved Flanders! After Patsy had given up digging ditches and pulling switches and the rest, apart from Eamonn, had "abandoned ship", Barney picked up his squeeze-box and announced an "Irish" solo together with Eamonn's guitar. But first he told us how he came to learn this instrument – that his father had played the melodeon when he, Barney, was a boy ("a good few years ago"), that nowadays young people don't have the time to learn musical instruments, but in the 40's and 50's when people had neither television nor tape-recorder they had made their own music and from generation to generation taught the younger ones how to play, dance and sing. And that they had played not only traditional music but also what was the modern music of that time. What then followed on the melodeon was indeed a delightful potpourri of tunes that might well have hailed from the McKenna living room of the mid 50's – we heard the traditional "Cork Hornpipe", "True Love" from the film "High Society" (1956), and "Mary's Boy Child" (1956). The latter of course a Christmas song, and that in October! But the audience in Antwerp loved it, and started humming the tune immediately. And we found it not at all out of place, bearing in mind that shortly afterwards John pointed out to us the merchandise stand with its many potential Christmas presents ...

Well, after the gig the authors of these lines had the honour of experiencing a special performance of "Mary's Boy Child". Barney sang it for us – which was something like the cherry on top of the icing on the cake!

We hadn't made the pilgrimage to Dublin, but our escapade in Antwerp turned out to be by no means second best. The pilgrimage is not forgotten though – after all, postponed is not cancelled! Perhaps we'll manage it in summer 2011. Our health, and The Dubliners willing ...

Article by Enid & Ria
Photographs by Enid

© 2000-2014 Rare Auld Times Entertainment, Dublin, Ireland