A new man ... and a few
Kaiserslautern, 7th November 2010
One of the most remarkable attributes of a Dubliners' concert for a long-standing fan is the ever-present atmosphere of familiarity, and doubtless this "at home" feeling results to a considerable extent from the regular pattern that the gigs always follow. The same opening reels, for instance, the well-known banter and jokes on stage, certain songs that are a must for the fans – all these have become over the years an integral part of every concert. After all, it's no coincidence that one of The Dubliners' running gags is their quote from "Dinner For One"! Of course it goes without saying that this sense of familiarity is by no means the outcome of words and music alone – and the news that one of the lads is missing inevitably invokes disappointment. But The Dubliners have a distinctive loyalty to their fans, and the professionality to be only then satisfied at the end of a concert when the fans are the same. No mean feat to find a worthy substitute for Patsy Watchorn – but the choice they made turned out to be an excellent
Those who are familiar with the DVD "Luke Kelly – The Performer" (and which fan reading these lines is not?) are sure to recall the young guitarist who accompanies Luke on what is perhaps the most emotive version of "Raglan Road" ever to be recorded – the live performance on RTE's "The Humours of Donnybrook" from the year 1979. That young musician's name – Al O'Donnell.
Good 30 years later it's the same Al O'Donnell who is invited to travel with The Dubliners, standing in for Patsy during the first part of the German tour
2010 (and as it turned out, for the second wing as well). "Friends for forty years" as Al told us in Kaiserslautern, but "this is the first opportunity to be on tour together". And underlined how great it was to be on stage with them. Very moving that one of the songs Al chose to sing for us was indeed Patrick Kavanagh's "true story of unrequited love. He gave the song to Luke Kelly, who in turn, gave it to me." (Notes to "Raglan Road", from Al O'Donnell's CD "Ramble Away")
Needless to say, a change in line-up inevitably incurs a change in programme – and there were indeed quite a few surprises waiting for us! And although The Dubliners quoted Butler James and Miss Sophie twice in the course of the evening, there's no doubt that the concert in the Kulturzentrum Kammgarn was anything but "the same procedure as every year"!
The venue itself differs significantly from the conventional concert hall. The cultural centre Kammgarn (Kammgarn = worsted yarn) was opened in 1988 in the premises of a former spinning mill. The site, with its towering chimney and old factory buildings, is classified as a historical monument; consequently the exterior of the venue was preserved in the course of renovation in its original form while the interior was equipped to meet all the latest technical requirements. A combination which gives the venue its own distinctive character. This was not the first time that The Dubliners had performed here, and they obviously felt quite at home – a fact which is not at all surprising! After all, a place that was used for spinning yarn in former days must be the ideal venue for The Dubliners and their dear old salt and story-teller Barney McKenna!
The "new man", as Seán introduced Al, adding with a laughing glance to his left "so neu ist er auch nicht" (he's not all that new) had brought both guitar and banjo with him, along with a handful of songs that we hadn't heard from The Dubliners for many many years or which don't usually belong to their repertoire at all. He set sail with a wonderful song of the sea, well-known as he told us to sailors everywhere in the world, but he chose to sing what he called the Irish version: "Rolling Home – (to dear old Dublin)". There was also the lovely "Avondale", which we remember from Jim McCann days, with Al pointing out to us that the place itself in County Wicklow is well worth a visit, and another song penned by Dominic Behan, "Crooked Jack", in its message a counterpart to the same author's "McAlpine's Fusiliers", but by far not so familiar. Al also had a couple of so-called "children's songs" in store for us, "Henry My Son" and "Weila Waila", the latter of course always associated with Ronnie Drew – both of them, as Al explained, typical examples of medieval or traditional lyrics developing into songs for
Al even gave us a very short lesson in Gaelic too; to be exact he tried to teach us the chorus of "Limerick Rake", assuring us that he was no Irish speaker either – "the others here are all fluent" (murmurs of protest on stage!) but this is one line he knew and if he could learn it so could we! Well, there was definitely some response during the chorus, and it wasn't just coming from "the others" on stage, so presumably there were either a few native Irish or some language talents in the audience. As for me, I was helplessy lost with the pronunciation of "Agus fágaimíd suíd mar atá sé", but on looking up the lyrics later for this reason, also came across the translation of this one line: "and we'll leave that as it is". Perhaps a sign ...
Seán proved that Al's remark was of course true when he sang for us in Gaelic another of those songs which we remember from Ciarán Bourke, the lively "Peggy Lettermore". But not just that – in Kaiserslautern Seán demonstrated once more his amazing musical versatility, be it in his light-hearted "Banks Of The Roses" or the more emotional "Night Visiting Song", while telling us Tommy Sands' rousing immigration story "When The Boys Come Rolling Home" or taking us on his almost breathtaking trip along the "Rocky Road To Dublin". Not to forget Ewan MacColl's memories of Salford – "Dirty Old Town" is of course always Patsy's song of late, but we heard a splendid rendition from Seán in Kaiserslautern. And he made us all laugh out loud with the "Sick Note". (Donkey's years since we last heard this – could it be he performed it because Patsy had one?) The audience loved every minute of it, including Seán's hilarious intro – we all know that he speaks excellent German but he explained what happens in the piece alternately in English and German, or to use his own words in "a bit of esperanto". The final applause was tremendous, and despite three broken ribs and a broken left arm Seán obviously very pleased: "Thank you for your Verständnis (understanding) and Mitleid
Barney's melodeon always accompanies him on stage these days, and this part of the concert is always one of my personal highlights. It's a surprise every time, almost a kind of guessing game for the audience, because Barney seldom announces exactly what he is going to play. More than likely he doesn't even warn Eamonn in advance either, but after so many years on stage together these two brilliant musicians complement each other perfectly without communication. In Kaiserslautern, and with Christmas not so very far off, they began with "Mary's Boy Child", following on with what is known here in Germany as "Die Süßesten Früchte" (the sweetest fruit), but is actually of Italian origin and also familiar to the English speaking world as "Poppa Piccolino". Barney's squeeze-box continued with the "Haushammer-Schuhplattler" (not that anyone dances a Schuhplattler in this part of Germany, but the audience in Kaiserslautern loved it just the same!) before rounding off this international potpourri with the lively "Cork Hornpipe".
For once John Sheahan recited none of his wonderful poetry, which admittedly wasn't exactly a pleasant surprise! But together with Barney and Eamonn he delighted us with some of those instrumental pieces that the fans never tire of hearing – tunes like the "Belfast Hornpipe" and the "Swallow's Tail", or their medley of reels "Cooley", "The Dawn" and what Barney titled the "Mullingar Pferderennen" (horse race). The three of them had hardly crossed the finishing line here before the applause and the cheers raised the roof!
Not to forget John's own beautiful "St. Patrick's Cathedral", which is always a delight to listen to. In connection with this, Barney came up with a new gag for the German audience (or at least I don't recall ever hearing it). As John was explaining to us how the medieval atmosphere of this impressive building had inspired him to put his thoughts to music, Barney interrupted him in perfect German: "selbst geschrieben?" (you wrote it yourself?) At John's simple "yes" Barney gave him a very impressed look and started to applaud, encouraging the audience to follow his example. And he involuntarily stole the show again shortly afterwards when someone in the audience happened to sneeze very loudly while Al was introducing one of his songs. Barney called out equally loudly "Gesundheit", which is the German equivalent of "Bless you!" Everyone laughed, including Al, who was obliged to start his introduction over
There was one more surprise in Kaiserslautern that I've kept to the end for the simple reason that it came at the end! It turned out that not only Patsy had stayed at home for the first part of the German tour – someone else was missing too! As The Dubliners came back on stage for the final encore, they brought with them not the cockles and mussels that all had expected, but instead blooming heather and "Wild Mountain Thyme". Of course McPeake's beautiful song has been sung and recorded by so many artists over the past 50 years, but it is always a pleasure to hear it again live, and the visitors in Kaiserslautern visibly and audibly acknowledged Al's rendition as the grand finale of a wonderful evening. And undoubtedly, the lyrics of the chorus are more than appropriate at the end of any concert: "Will ye go lassie go, and we'll all go together ..."
But one thing is sure (and no surprise) – this lassie will be back again next year! The same procedure as every year!
Photographs by Enid and Helmut