Friday, 28 January 2011

Liam Ó Maonlaí at the Black Box, Belfast

This small back street venue in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter geographically shifted several times tonight from a gospel hall in the US deep south, to the Australian outback, a chilled-out club in west Africa to a seisún in Co Kerry.
In between Liam Ó Maonlaí managed to pound out some Celtic soul, down and dirty blues, a couple of ballads, tell a few stories… oh yes and play some Mozart as well.
He is a shamanic figure who seems to almost go into a trance, particularly when playing the bodhrán and tin whistle.
The first half of his set was a bit hit and miss, where he stayed put behind his piano only standing up to remove his shoes and socks after the first song. The highlight was a nifty little number played on the didgeridoo.
However, the second half moved swiftly into a different league as Ó Maonlaí growled a low, throaty bass note and delivered a sean nós-style song as Gaeilge.
From then on he performed in a dazzling display of different style, changing instrument with each song as he displayed his skills on whistle, accordion, bodhrán, mbira (an African thumb piano), as well as guitar and piano.
While on guitar he played a west African-style song, which sounded like a cover of the late Malian Ali Farka Touré, and he used the mbira to back himself while singing a song in Irish.
As well as being a multi-instrumentalist he has a great vocal range, often using his voice as another intstrument. Ranging from gravelly blues, to shrill soul (the hallmark of his Hothouse Flowers persona), to spine tingling sean nós he took his audience into Ó Maonlaí world, which is never a dull place, while the journey there can often take some strange twists.
This is the second time I’ve seen him play in the Black Box. You can read my review of the earlier gig here.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Notes From The Edge Times by Daniel Pinchbeck

In among a series of essays about climate change, economic meltdown, the role of the artist in society and the flaws of monogomous relationships, Daniel Pinchbeck also turns his attention to alien contact, crop circles and breaking through into his unconsciousness with the use of psychedelic drugs.
He is a new age philosopher whose name has become synonymous with the year 2012 and Mayan predictions that humanity is at the end of a 5,000 year time cycle which heralds the the dawn of a new era - and in some extreme scenartios the end of human civilization.
Pinchbeck often tries to put a distance between himself and some of the more outlandish themes in the sense that he will rehearse the theories that crop circles in the Wiltshire countryside are the manifestation of a higher consciousness or alien attempts to communicate with humanity, before stepping back and offering a more mundane possibility.
He is at ease writing about 'energies' associated with certain places but will throw in a self-conscious note of caution as if to say to his sneering detractors that he knows it might sound ridiculous but lets just air the argument before we shoot it down.
"While writing my books, I discovered that I was able to keep an open (if skeptical) mind, while exploring subjects that make most people flinch, whether shamanism, psychedelics, or crop circles." (P58)
This placing of a distance between himself and some the subjects he tackles in his essays enhances Pinchbeck's credibility as a commentator when compared to some of the more adamant 'new age' philosophers, and indeed their maintream detractors, who would have us believe that their theories are incontrovertible.
Despite this Pinchbeck is not shy of making the odd sweeping statement. In his essay on 'The Sexual Revolution, Take Two' he writes:
"Wars and other mass psychoses such as facism can be linked to sexually repressive or abusive practises in childrearing. The unnatural desire for power over others and control of other people's reproductive functions by fundamentalists and leaders of the radical right could be the result of psychological complexes caused by distortions of sex energy in early childhood, leaving permanent wounds." (P37)
Psychology, environmental meltdown, humanity's loss of contact with the very nature that allowed it to evolve, geopolitics, alien contact, shamanism, traditional psychedelics and the role of the artist in society (or lack of a role) provide some of the themes.
There is no single narrative as in his earlier, much-better, 2012 The Year of the Mayan Prophecy, which had just as many diverse ideas but seemed much more focused. That is probably because Notes From the Edge Times is a collection of essays and articles writen for a variety of publications over a two-year period.
Nevertheless Pinchbeck is never dull and this serves as a good introduction to his ideas.
He is not from the school of thought that 2012 will be a year of global catastropy in which climate change or some other man-made disaster will herald the end of society. He is more optomisitic and sees it as the beginning of a new period of evolution in which humanity will reconnect with the planet which enabled it to evolve.
He predicts a new global consciousness in which tribal values will be reinstated and people will be more open to the insights from within. Maybe it is all a bit hippy and idealistic, but then a world based on hippy values would surely be much better than the one we are presently inhabiting.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Welcome To My World - Jah Wobble

Former PiL member Jah Wobble has been a long-term champion of 'World Music', albeit set against the reggae inspired dub-a-dub-dub sound of his bass. However, it is not only geography that comes in to play on Welcome to My World but musical genres.
Some tracks on this album could have been the soundtrack to Doctor Who in the mid-1970s, with its discordant synth runs heralding the emergence of the sea devils from beneath the waves.
Jah Wobble's previous two albums took him on a dub-inspired journey through China and Japan but this outing he has come for the most part back into the northern hemisphere.
Spain and North Africa and India provide the main inspiration, with a quick foray back over the equator into Brazil, and even the urban English 1990s for a few rave-infused tracks.
There are echoes of Miles Davis Sketches of Spain on three tracks while one of the London tracks, Putney, sound like it could have been lifted from Hendrix's Electric Ladyland.
It took me three or four listens to get into this as the first few times I just didn't get it. I've been caught out by Wobble turkey's before - Heart and Soul being a particularly miserable aural experience - and I thought some of the tracks on Welcome to My World were outakes from that. But it is a grower and a curiously addictive album that sounds as if it is soundtrack waiting for a film to be made for it in which a time traveller roams the globe and battles the occassional mortal enemy.

Shamrock Haiku

I've two new haiku published in the latest edition of the excellent Shamrock Haiku (16).

in a sun-dried pond –
speckled mud

cloud streaks
scarring the sky –
hounded wind howls

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Oddballs by Manchán Magan

Despite some superb prose, surreal twists and strong characterisation this first English-language novel from the Gaeilgeoir, travel writer and documentary maker doesn't quite work.
It is a pity, for there are many insights into the human psyche – especially those who live in the hinterland of what is perceived as normal.
Magan is also strong in his descriptions of place – particularly the coast of Kerry where much of Oddballs is set – nature and wildlife.
Three of the main protagonists, Rachel, Charlotte and Colm might have carried a novel by themselves.
The descriptions of Rachel – an American teenager, grieving at the loss of her boyfriend, who is self-harming by making incisions into her stomach with a knife – are truly moving and her rational for doing so totally convincing.
Colm, an autistic teenager, who seems to have insights into the higher selves of those he meets through the 'light' that they emit, is baffled by the world in which he lives and which seems absurd when viewed through his eyes.
Charlotte, the coke-snorting, self-styled white witch is absurdly delusioned, her hippy ideals random and subject to change depending on circumstance.
The fourth main character, Donal, a hard-drinking, bitter young fisherman, angry at the hand that life has dealt him, never really convinces. While his angst is understandable, he doesn't particularly elicit any sympathy.
The main problem seems to be that having established the outsiderness of his various characters Magan has built an expectation that when they inevitably get together the offbeat narrative will fall off the wierdness scale. But it doesn't.
It is a bit Samuel Beckettish in that nothing happens – twice in the case of Waiting for Godot and in Oddballs quite a few times more.
The plot is too fragile, the scenarios in which Magan places his players too limp to be really that interesting.
Maybe he is just trying to be post-modern, for he scatters his narrative with arcane pieces of knowledge, philosophical musings and a barely articulated spiritual (for want of a better word) subtext.
There is much to be enjoyed in this novel and as anyone who has read any of Magan’s three travel books (see my review of Truck Fever) will know he is a superb descriptive writer with unusual but pertinent insights into the human psyche.
I wanted this novel to be good, but while the writing and the characters did make it worth persevering with my high expectations, based on Magan's previous output, were not met.