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The Dubliners in Vienna 
September 2012

There isn’t a place as intimate on the tour circuit as the Metropol in Vienna. That, plus the fact that the Vienna gigs usually set the standard for what to expect after the summer break, made us look onto the five, six or seven drunken nights very accurately for the past few years. And the year of the big 50th anniversary will be no difference. Still we tried to deliver a different view on these nights, focusing on a few highly interesting key issues, instead of penning a run-of-the-mill review. Your authors here will be trusted writers Enid and Renata, and yours truly, your webmaster, will tie the pieces together.

I have seen a couple of gigs in the past few years and I honestly never had the feeling that the band ever could lose its popularity; actually, The Dubliners are one of the very few attractions I’ve seen repeatedly that gave you the distinctive feeling that their fan base grows every year and that there is a stream of new, young fans pouring in. But not to take my word, let’s see what Renata had to say on that:

I only saw the audience in Vienna twice and I first saw The Dubs live in Munich in 2008. After that I saw them nine more times, therefore my experience of audiences isn’t that wide. On that first occasion in Munich I was sitting between a young woman in her twenties, who’d come with her parents and her boyfriend (and who drank at least five pints of beer all through the show) and an elderly man, probably in his seventies. The three of us sang and clapped and laughed and I was thinking, there can’t be many shows that attract such a variety of people. There were people of all age groups and what struck me most were the children. There are lots of children at every gig, even at Vicar Street where children are not supposed to be. And they enjoy themselves like mad. Patsy has a way of playing peek-a-boo with them from behind his bodhrán, and they love it. I don’t know if that is what Éamonn meant when he said in an interview that they were getting younger audiences… Jokes apart, there really are many young people at The Dubliners’ concerts. As the same Éamonn would say, not bad for a band of auld fellas!

This being a difficult year for the band, we were very interested to see how the audience would greet them. Most people knew Barney passed away, but I still saw a few white and shocked faces, and throughout the audience, I saw quite a few tears shared when he came up on the screen for “his” first song of the evening. Yet we want to concentrate on the very first moments of the show and let us hear what Enid remembered:

The opening minutes of the 50th anniversary concerts are rather spectacular: a series of short video clips collected from international television shows of earlier years and showing various celebrities introducing the former Dubliners on stage. It builds up the overall suspense in the venue, and increases your own excited anticipation as you wait for the present Dubliners to finally appear.

The Viennese audience is an extremely keen and exuberant one at all times, as I experienced last year on my first ever visit to the Metropol. And it was in top form from the very first moment after this very effective introduction. The last "The Dubliners!" had barely resounded from the screen, John Sheahan, leading the way, had hardly taken one step onto the stage, when the fans burst into thunderous, roof-raising applause and enthusiastic cheering.

Renata looked at it from a different angle, but the overall message is the same – The Dubliners are one of the most-loved bands in the business:

The audience in Vienna is one of the best (not least because I’ve three times been in it). Kathrin was saying on the forum that September wouldn’t be September without The Dubs in Vienna. The venue is relatively small (that’s one of the reasons why they have six or seven gigs there as a rule) and the stage is low and very close. The Dubs are there with you! The people welcome the band as old friends and they certainly don’t need any warming up… Especially this year they didn’t, as they knew it would be the first time without Barney and it was important to make the Dubs feel their participation. This year, on the Saturday, there was a group of young Irish people who - as I understood – were living and working in Vienna and had founded a Gaelic Football team. Their contribution to the gig was uproarious, especially when Patsy greeted them from the stage. But on the whole, the affection that the Vienna audience shows the Dubliners every time is extremely warm and very real.”

The Dubliners without Barney was impossible to imagine – still they went on. Grudgingly we have to admit that the fan generation before us had to accept the fact that one earth-shattering day, there wasn’t Luke anymore in the lineup, that Ciaran passed away, that Ronnie or Paddy left for new ventures. The fans from Day One have experienced that several times before, for many of the younger people it was a new experience. Still the band waltzed on, so to speak. Until now, there never has been any departure of any kind that stopped the band. But let’s give Enid ample space to elaborate what it meant to miss Barney and how the gigs since that day have developed:

My first Dubliners' concert without Barney was in Paris, five weeks after his death. The folk music world was still mourning the sudden passing of one of its greatest musicians. Fans and friends everywhere were still numb with shock. And it was an inconceivably difficult time for The Dubliners themselves, who had decided to fulfill all commitments planned for the 50th anniversary, and to continue the tour in Barney's honour. On that evening they demonstrated once more their respect for their fans
- no matter how adverse the situation, no matter how sad the circumstances, no visitor should be disappointed, no visitor should leave the venue without a smile on his lips. And indeed, at the end of the concert in Paris one could see only happy faces in the audience.
For a few hours The Dubliners' own sadness had taken a back seat, their unfailing loyalty to their fans had once more come to the fore. Nonetheless, for a vigilant observer, especially one near the stage, it was obvious that it had been anything but easy for them.

Several months have passed since Barney's death. There is a lot of truth in the saying "Time heals all wounds". Of course Barney will never be forgotten - his spirit is still present, and always will be, just as the legacies of Luke and Ciarán and Ronnie will always be an integral part of The Dubliners' concerts. But the terrible shock and sadness have been overcome. I experienced it myself in Vienna - the video "Fiddler's Green" no longer moved me to tears, as it had done in Paris, but to a pleasant feeling of gratitude, to have heard this wonderful musician live so often, and to have had the honour of meeting him in person. And I saw the same change on stage - The Dubliners had recovered much of their accustomed easiness, they appeared much more relaxed, light-hearted and good-humoured. Some of the well-known banter across the stage had returned ("just wanted to make sure we're all playing the same tune"), and John, as well as adding his very touching poem "Banjo Barney" to his repertoire, had at least one amusing Barney anecdote to tell every night. He had even taken over the role of creating Barneyisms ("Gerry O'Connor is probably one of the best banjo players in the world - if not in Ireland!") As to the new man - although introduced as their guest every night, it was more than obvious that in the meantime Gerry feels entirely at home with The Dubliners, and enjoys every minute on stage with them.

Enid’s closing comment directly leads to the most burning question regarding the “show” itself: How will the new kid on the block do? Renata sums that up in a few precise words:

Gerry O’Connor was Barney’s disciple and Barney thought the world of him. I was very curious to see him in action – it must be incredibly difficult, psychologically speaking, to replace a legend on stage, and one you knew well.

The first thing I thought when I saw him was, “That’s good, he’s very different from Barney!” Because there will be people who make comparisons, and his resembling Barney too closely wouldn’t have been a good thing. Gerry is very tall, for one thing, he plays standing and is never still (which makes it hard to take pics of him, as he’s been told!). Then his banjo is electric and the sound is different. Gerry is perhaps a little less traditional in style and more dynamic. And he’s very, very good. The Dubs couldn’t have made a better choice. And Gerry and Éamonn’s tribute to Barney has become part of the legend.

Enid is nip and tuck (or neck to neck, since the first term changed its meaning a bit in recent years) with the above observations:

Barney McKenna called him his "best pupil", for John Sheahan he is "one of the best tenor banjo players in the world - if not in Ireland!" Indeed, Gerry O'Connor is a brilliant musician and a banjo virtuoso.
Admittedly, the very first time I saw him perform, being so accustomed to Barney's gentle, composed manner of playing, I was for a moment distracted. Unlike his "hero", as Gerry describes Barney on his website, he generally stands on stage, and is constantly in motion. Something which both my camera and I took a while to adjust to!
But joking apart, Gerry O'Connor's banjo-playing is fantastic and a sheer delight to listen to. Remarkably versatile
- with what ease he combines traditional Irish music with elements of American bluegrass. And vice versa. Skilful - he possesses an amazing and breathtaking dexterity. And extremely creative - now and then he surprises in the middle of a well-known tune with a sudden and unexpected improvisation.”

I knew Gerry from seeing him perform in Dublin, so I knew what I was about to experience. For me, he was always the quintessential “banjo player of today”, firmly rooted in Irish folk but comfortable wherever you put him and quick at doing his wizardry in every musical frame you challenged him. And it was remarkable how Gerry, overflowing with admiration for the “master”, told us and almost “insisted” that Barney was so much more than we have witnessed at a Dubs gig - being at home in so many musical styles, eventually doing an album with the Carter family as his last solo project ever.

Of course we wouldn’t have a Vienna report without talking about the music. Enid gives us a wonderful overview over the repertoire:

The Dubliners have gathered an immense repertoire of songs and tunes over the past 50 years. A considerable challenge to choose the perfect "mixture", to find the right balance in every concert - bearing in mind that, although certain pieces remained an integral part of every gig, the setlists at the Metropol were to vary to some extent on each of the "Seven Drunken Nights".

Furthermore, due to the eight videos that are included in the 50th anniversary tour, the number of live songs was significantly limited.
But the mix was perfect! As a contrast to the lively "Peggy Lettermore", from his native County Galway, Seán included one of his beautiful Gaelic ballads in his programme each night ("Fáinne Geal An Lae", "Cill Chais"); the subject "emigration", which has always played a significant role in Irish history, was represented at least once in each concert ("When The Boys Come Rolling Home", "Shores Of Americay"); on the occasion when Seán performed his great rendition of "Back In Durham Gaol", he gave the even more fast-paced and breathtaking "Rocky Road To Dublin" a miss, and sang instead of "Eileen Óg", the pride of Petravore.

In keeping with the motto of the Vienna concerts (and although the subject was well represented in the videos) a couple of "live" drinking songs were indispensable!
Reminiscing about past times: a frequent theme in folk songs, always an important part of The Dubliners' music, but particularly appropriate in their anniversary year. This was Patsy's domain - his own "Dublin In The Rare Auld Times" was a must of course, as well as "The Ferryman" which he exchanged on one evening for "The Town I Loved So Well".
And because, as Seán explained, there just wasn't enough time to perform all the other songs and tunes they would have liked to, they included their little medley of some of their most popular pieces: "Black Velvet Band", the song which rocketed them for the second time in 1967 into the UK single charts; the popular Dublin drinking song "Dicey Reilly"; John Sheahan's own famous composition "Marino Waltz"; and last but not least "The Irish Rover", their great success with The Pogues in 1987, the year of their 25th anniversary.”

There was, like a few years before, a strong multimedia component to the show, but it just wasn’t a repeat of it – they took care that the “on screen program” saw changes too. But we ain’t talking about a rock or pop group, so we had to let Renata ask (and, thankfully, answer) one question:

Is the slide show and the interaction between The Dubliners on video and The Dubliners on stage a bit too much for a rough and tough folk band?...

This “technological” addition to the show has only been used for two tours – The “A Time To Remember” tour and the 50th anniversary one, two very special occasions. It has always worked very well. It’s a way to have the deceased members of the band on stage with the present line-up and a way to show the passing of time, the changes, and at the same time the unvaried quality of the performance. Sometimes (in Paris, for instance) the slides were projected right over The Dubliners themselves and the lights played eerily on the bodies of the performers. In Vienna, the slide of Barney playing the banjo by his fireside appeared next to Gerry and Éamonn so that it looked as if the three of them were playing together. Sometimes the choices are, perhaps voluntarily, a little funny. The first time I saw the group play and sing “Maids When You’re Young” on the background of Luke in his thirties singing the same song I couldn’t repress a smile…

The band may be, or may have been, rough and tough, but the slide show is an effective scenic device, and a very useful one when it comes to telling a story that has been going on for fifty years…

We didn’t touch on favorites until now, but with two prolific writers at hand, it would be foolish to neglect their very own impressions. When it comes to listening, Enid goes back a few years and could tell us if her listening habits and likes have changed and how the Vienna nights compared to that:

I have always loved the "music" of The Dubliners - the jigs and reels and hornpipes that involuntarily take control of your hands and feet, and make sitting still utterly impossible. That hasn't changed in the (almost) five decades since I first heard them on the radio way back in the 60's - even after so many years and innumerable concerts, I could listen to the "The Belfast Hornpipe" and "The Swallow's Tail" until the cows come home. The set of reels ‒ "Cooley's, The Dawn, The Mullingar Races"
- which has become an integral part of their present programme in recent years, delights me every time I hear it, and I always look forward to the moment when each of The Dubliners pulls up a chair for this medley. But the Vienna concerts held for me one additional musical highlight: the brilliant bluegrass/Irish duet for banjo and guitar - "Billy In The Lowground" and "The Moving Cloud" - a masterpiece from two virtuosos! With what obvious pleasure Gerry and Eamonn performed together, their enthusiasm was virtually contagious, and what fun it was to watch and listen to them!

Out of The Dubliners' vast repertoire of songs there are always a few of my own personal favourites in every concert. Vienna was no exception. One particular song will always retain a special place in my memory: Seán performed "Back In Durham Gaol", which was written by County Durham's own folk singer and song-writer Jez Lowe, and recorded by The Dubliners on their album "Further Along". I have always loved this humorous song, since it reminds me inevitably of my own roots (the county of course, not the prison!) but this was the first time I had heard it live in a Dubliners' concert.
But there were other highlights. The combination of a fascinating language and a fascinating voice
- you don't need to understand the lyrics, to be mesmerised by Seáns emotive rendition of Gaelic ballads. In Vienna I had the pleasure of hearing two of the most beautiful: "Fáinne Geal An Lae" and "Cill Chais". And I was equally mesmerised by Patsy's wonderful version of "The Town I Loved So Well", Phil Coulter's heart-rending lamentation on the changes and troubles in the beloved Derry of his childhood.

Asking Renata what impressed her will generate a quick response, focusing on the current program played every night:

“To Barney” played by Gerry and Éamonn is high on my list this year. It’s actually the combination of two tunes, “Billy in the Low Ground” and “The Moving Cloud”, a kind of mix of bluegrass and Irish traditional. Your feet and hands start moving of their own accord, you can’t stop them! The two performers tackle the tune with energy (Éamonn standing again like in the old days) great skill and no apparent effort. The audience goes crazy. I go crazy. And we all feel it’s a great choice, something cheerful to remember Barney as he was, an optimistic, happy-go lucky fellow.

I always like the way Patsy “conducts” the audience over “Finnegan’s Wake”. This year, during the second gig I was at, Éamonn and Gerry started bickering over which side of the audience was doing better. Somebody on Éamonn’s side kept getting the clapping wrong (on purpose, one would think) while on Gerry’s side everybody was doing well, and Éamonn pretended to get angry every time “his” side of the audience didn’t prove up to standard (that is, every time the refrain ended). In the meantime, Patsy was keeping an eye (and an ear) on the audience in front. The other two went on arguing even after all the others had sat down and were waiting to do “Cooley’s Reel”, “the Dawn” and “The Mullingar Races” so that John said at one point, “Well, I’m starting… when you’re ready, at your convenience, you can join me…” I love the banter and jokes between songs. They’re part of the show and such a good part.

I also enjoy John’s own compositions, very much. “Farewell to Harstad” that John plays in memory of the young people who were murdered in Norway, is always very moving, but I also like all the others. And I like John’s hand on the fiddle – I’m no expert, but I’ve seen many fiddlers and I can tell when somebody’s a class of his own. John is.

Still discussing the repertoire we had to take a look at the closing of the show. While Molly Malone has earned hymn-like status over the years, was it a good choice as the finale of the night? The answer – I don’t expect anyone to be surprised – is a clear yes, and we all know that, but we finally had to put our finger on it and ask “Why”. Renata took a pragmatic approach that is untouchable in its logic:

“Molly Malone” is Dublin’s most famous song and The Dubliners are Dublin’s most famous band, therefore a gig without Molly Malone would be incomplete, especially a gig belonging to this tour. One could argue that it’s always been sung, even before, and that it is time to change. I wouldn’t agree. We the audience expect “Molly Malone” as we expect “Whiskey In The Jar” some time near the end of the second half. A Dubliners’ gig wouldn’t be the same without “Molly Malone”.

Enid elaborates equally convincing why she doesn’t have any problems with the auld lass’ Molly:

"We've had a lot of requests for songs tonight, but we've decided to sing this one for you." A familiar remark that we've all heard in a similar form at the end of a Dubliners' concert. Of course Patsy is referring to "Molly Malone", the unofficial anthem of Dublin's fair city. Could there be a worthier closing for a concert of the musical ambassadors of that same city? Following straight after the much-loved "Wild Rover"
- the very first song on their very first album. There is no doubt that the fans love it - and expect it! And not just the Irish fans. A couple of years ago Al O'Donnell, standing in for Patsy during the German tour, introduced "Wild Mountain Thyme" as the final encore. A beautiful song, and one of my all-time favourites. Nevertheless, I left the venue humming "Molly Malone" ...

Closing our review, in a bittersweet year where triumph and tragedy were closer together than ever imagined, we have to come back to Barney. We don’t want to leave you with the usual “Hoooray!” in closing this report, we want to leave you with a touch of the feelings ranging from happiness to sadness that will forever be defining this 50th anniversary year. If they one day do the biographical movie of the Dubliners, they will find that no script can top the story life has written this year. Our final input comes from Renata:

Barney died suddenly and the shock was great. The Dubs were actually supposed to play together shortly after his death and I can imagine, and to some extent I witnessed, the state of mind of the other members of the band. Grief, and the wish to be left alone, and not being allowed to. People to see, condolences to respond to, and, most of all, the tour. What do we do now?

The decision to go on was almost inevitable. The tour was in full progress, the tickets were sold, the venues were booked. Definitely too late to stop now…

The first time I saw the Dubs on stage after Barney’s death was in Drogheda, in June. Everybody knows about the changes in the act – Gerry O’Connor at the banjo, lots of photographs of Barney, Barney on video singing “Fiddlers Green” and/or “I Wish I had Someone To Love Me”, and Gerry and Éamonn’s tribute to Barney. I know it was still very difficult for them to remain apparently unmoved with Barney singing behind them. I know they sometimes automatically looked for him on stage.

But some of them are the people who performed after Ciarán had collapsed on stage, who performed with a dying Luke, after Luke’s death, after Ciarán’s death, after Ronnie’s death. They know their job. I detected sadness and much strength of will, and the show was moving but also fun. One can’t mope on stage.

Today, John has turned his grief into poetry, and there’s a poem about Barney among the ones he recites to remember his dead friends. Gerry has become more self-confident (and is slowly getting used to the recognition he deserves), Patsy is looking up at the screen to Barney with deep friendship, Seán (typically) only looks up when not in the spotlight and hidden in the darkness of the back end of the stage, Éamonn has a photo of Barney on his guitar. The show goes on, and Barney’s still there, maybe chuckling to himself and saying, “I told you it was too late to stop now!”

Report by Enid, Renata & your webmaster moderating; pictures by Enid & Helmut and Rare Auld Times Entertainment (lookup individual copyrights in the gallery!)

Dedicated to B. from E., R. & P.


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