It’s one thing to honour the archives, to dig deep into historical material and bring it into the light of the present day. It’s quite another matter to take that music and make it new—but that’s what folk supergroup the Gloaming has done, beautifully, over the course of two inspired albums and six years as a band.
The quintet takes its inspiration from the Irish heritage that all of its members share. But, as fiddler Martin Hayes says, “This band’s a little more than traditional Irish music, let’s put it that way.
“In a traditional music form,” he continues, “one always has to go back to the source and revisit the roots and, you know, renew that continually. The other thing is, one needs to push the limits of that on the other end of the spectrum. You also have to find relevance in the world in which you exist as an artist and as a musician, so that it becomes a language that’s alive and speaking for you now.”
It’s a process of looking back in order to go forward—and for Hayes and his bandmates, that means removing some of the near-baroque virtuosity that has come to epitomize the playing of all those tricky slip jigs and reels.
“First of all, when you strip those melodies back to their bare bones…and you just analyze the melodic line itself, you begin to understand the feeling that inspired that melody, that emotional connection,” he explains. “And then you can find a way to express that piece of melody in a way that makes sense to a wider world, if possible—in a way that can show them the real beauty of it.”
This push for simplicity doesn’t imply that the members of the Gloaming are not all true virtuosos. In fact, their band is the most gifted group to come out of Ireland since the rise of the Chieftains in the 1960s, numbering as it does musicians who are at once leading exponents of the tradition and tireless innovators.
Hayes himself has been pushing against folk orthodoxy since the late 1980s, when he and Gloaming guitarist Dennis Cahill formed the electric folk act Midnight Court. They’ve been playing together ever since; in fact, when the fiddler calls the Straight, he’s in California, where he’s doing a few duo shows with Cahill before they join the larger ensemble. His fellow fiddler Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh takes a similarly expansive view of his heritage, playing a custom-made instrument inspired by Norway’s Hardanger fiddle and introducing elements of Scandinavian music to the mix. The band also includes pianist Thomas Bartlett, who maintains a thriving practice as a producer, session musician, and songwriter—working with, among many others, David Byrne, the National, and Martha Wainwright—under the pseudonym Doveman.
“Thomas is bringing all kinds of different influences to the table in terms of how he interprets these tunes,” Hayes says. “But he also has a knowledge of Irish music and American contradance music that goes way back to his early childhood. That’s what allows him the freedom to bring these things in, because he instinctively knows how this music goes.”
And then there’s the icing on the cake, in the form of Iarla Ó Lionáird—an assessment none of the singer’s colleagues would dispute. Ó Lionáird is simply a performer of uncommon grace, subtlety, and power, as well as a living link to the Irish bardic tradition.
“Iarla can go way back into the raw elements of the [unaccompanied] sean nós style that he grew up with in West Cork, and that’s like the elementary, core bedrock of this music,” Hayes says. “And at the same time, he spent a big part of his career out there with [electro-trad pioneers] Afro Celt Sound System, or doing modern compositions with Donnacha Dennehy, so he has an understanding of a more contemporary world as well.
“Tradition is an artifact, and it isn’t very interesting just simply preserving an artifact,” Hayes adds. “I can see some value in that, of course, but it’s nothing like having something that speaks to the soul in the present moment.”
The Gloaming plays the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on Sunday (October 15).