Clannad @ Fortitude Music Hall
Nostalgia is addictive, especially the further one moves in time away from seminal moments, moments that triggered an interest, a delight, and a deep appreciation of something or someone. So many musical artists know the power of that addiction: witness the spectacular -and, to be honest, surprising- success of the digital masterpiece ABBA – Voyage in London and the extraordinary ticket sales for Elton John’s final live performances around the globe and Madonna’s coming fortieth anniversary live tour extravaganza; the buzz of being in the presence of greatness (musically) hasn’t dimmed.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic Irish band Clannad had planned a fiftieth anniversary world tour – but also a farewell tour – that had barely begun before it was halted, at the start of 2020, with the tour resuming in fits and starts across 2021 and 2022. Age and health concerns have somewhat unfairly stalked the band since their last visit to Australia in 2013 with one of the five founding members, Pádraig Duggan, dying in 2016. He was twin brother of Noel and together they're the uncles of the other three members: siblings Márie, Ciarán, and Pól Brennan). Also, Brennan’s father, Leo, died in the same year and his pub in Co. Donegal, Ireland was the genesis of their jamming together in their teens, creating a unique sound and take on traditional Irish/Celtic folk music. To add to the sadness, another sibling, Leon Brennan, who was tour manager for most of their career died in 2021 and to really put the boot in, Noel Duggan died suddenly last October. If there ever was a time to consider “should we really go on?” these last two moments
probably gave them all pause to reconsider this fiftieth anniversary/farewell tour.
However, nostalgic opportunities to revisit much of their older material, many of the tunes not played before on an Australian tour and the Irish way of craic, were enough to keep Clannad on track to make their final ever live concert appearance in Australia, on the day after S. Patrick’s Day. Unlike Elton John’s final ever live concert appearance in Australia (also in Brisbane), the venue was much more intimate than the vast Suncorp Stadium. Having played at the Concert Hall, QPAC a few times and on their last visit at Brisbane City Hall, the right balance seems to have been struck by playing at the still relatively new Fortitude Music Hall in Fortitude Valley, which has an air of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” about it – not too big, not too small, not too cavernous, not too cramped – it’s just right for being able to see and hear with ease. Given that Clannad take their audiences on a journey using another great Irish talent, that of seanchas (storytelling), explaining the history of the old folk tunes they revived over forty years ago, or the
background to some of their more modern, well-known pieces, this farewell concert felt like one of their earlier gigs – educating and entertaining their audience, particularly as much of the set list is in Gaelic and most of the audience wouldn’t understand a word of what was being sung to them.
That set list lent heavily on their earlier albums, Dúlamán, Crann Úll, Fuaim, and their first two self-titled albums. Starting with just the three Brennans on stage and the haunting love ballad Buachaill Ón Éirne and then into what is really a children’s round dTigeas a Damhsa the audience were held captivated by their mastery of the style, which is not unexpected given how many times they would have played these tunes. Adding long time drummer and percussionist Ged Lynch and guitarist/balalaika-ist Aisling Jarvis and on keyboards, Paul Jarvis (both also on vocals as well), the sound of both older and more modern tunes never felt lacking in depth or tone.
It is worth taking time to mention the Jarvis siblings further, as they are continuing the family tradition, being Márie’s two children (who both appeared at a very young age on Márie’s solo albums in the '90s and '00s; Aisling on the cover of the first one of those releases as a days old baby and had one of the songs dedicated to her, Paul as a toddler reciting the Lorica of S. Patrick in Gaelic on a latter release from the early Twenty First century). No-one could really replace the guitar, mandolin and balalaika playing of the Duggans or easily match their harmonising with the Brennans, however, the Jarvis siblings were more than equal to the task, especially Aisling, who was often swapping instruments mid-song and took the vocal line of one Paul Hewson (aka Bono Vox of U2) on Clannad’s most successful English language release In A Lifetime.
The three Brennan siblings have always played a variety of instruments as well as singing lead and harmonies – Márie on harp and percussion, Ciarán on double bass, electric upright bass, acoustic guitar and keyboard/synths, Pól on fiddle, tin whistle, flute, acoustic guitar and synths – it’s a showcase for musicians to learn from, how to master an instrument (or several), sing,
and project a stage presence that enchants an audience.
Apart from giving the audience much of their older back-catalogue of traditional tunes and stories, Clannad shared some of their “new age” style that brought them to a wider audience in the 1980s. There was the haunting Theme from Harry’s Game (the first ever song sung in Gaelic to reach the top of the UK charts), the ethereal Newgrange, the moving I Will Find You (from the film Last of the Mohicans) and the score for probably the best Robin Hood TV series ever made, the mid 1980's Robin Of Sherwood of which five of the full length tunes were played as a medley (something they have done every tour, with some of the songs being swapped in or out,
this set offered here was damn fine!).
The only disappointment was the lack of material from the albums released just prior to and after their twentieth anniversary tour (1990) – absolutely nothing from Sirius, Anam, Lore, or Landmarks and only one track each from Banba and their last full length album, 2013’s Nadur. Whether the band don’t have the same nostalgic feelings for these albums (four of them didn’t
feature Pól as he’d left the band from 1990 to 2011) or the lack of ‘hits” off them, who can say? Given that they played right through the entire evening without a support act, save for a twenty minute intermission, there might have been some call to have a few more pieces that give a fuller representation of their career. Though, that could be considered a fairly gauche reflection, because having twenty-four songs performed throughout the night including some older tunes with much longer musical passages to highlight the playing skill of the entire band, is a rare treat in itself.
One of the last songs they recorded with Noel Duggan A Celtic Dream encapsulates that fifty year musical journey in a way that only the Irish can – melancholic, reflective, yet smilingeven if through tears – and perhaps it was the atmosphere of the evening, but the spirit ofPádraig and Noel felt as if it was present in the last half dozen or so songs of the set. By the final track Dúlamán, an absolute staple of all their live performances, the audience were on their feet stamping, clapping, singing along (throughout the evening Márie and Pól were heartily encouraging the crowd to get “involved” even singing words that would be completely
foreign to many of those in attendance). There was time for one encore, Teidhir Abhaile Riú, a classic Irish tale of drinking, love, lust and a late night/early morning stagger home. Theaudience were definitely not willing to let Clannad go – however, even nostalgia has its limit and age, time and rules about hours people can work have to be reluctantly obeyed.
It’s sad to know that there won’t be further tours or recordings, even if the Jarvis siblings have easily adapted to and taken up the same mantle as their elders did, being the “Family from Dore” (the English translation of their name) fifty-two years ago. There won’t be their like ever again, however, what they have inspired with artists mining old tunes, stories and ways to present them to an audience eager for enjoyment and entertainment will never pass away.
Go raibh maith agaibh - Slán leat
- Blair Martin.