- 23 Dec 18
Place Them Under Glass. National Treasures At The National Stadium. Pat Carty, Aosdána Membership Number 749, Reports.
Malcolm Gladwell gets a lot of mileage out of the “10,000 hours” theory in his best seller, Outliers. He didn’t even come up it in the first place; it’s originally from a study by Swedish psychologist K. Anders Ericsson. The idea is that to be truly great at something, you need to put in the time. What a revelation. Anyway, let’s apply this theory to Kíla, celebrating thirty years on the go. A quick bit of mental arithmetic and phalanx counting tells me that comes in at nearly 263000 hours. Is it any wonder they’re so bloody good?
Thirty years then, or thereabouts, since the band first came together in Coláiste Eoin out in Booterstown and, the story goes, played their first gig upstairs in the Baggot Inn to three people. A lot of water under the bridge, and a lot more people through the doors, since then. Everything from albums based on Wu Cheng’ en’s Journey To The West, the one with the monkey king - take that Damon Albarn, you band wagon-jumping bollocks! – to books about the joys of pissing. This past year has seen a lot of activity: touring and promoting 2017’s live album Beo, releasing the road movie made at the same time, Pota Óir, and re-releasing 1997’s pretty marvellous Tóg é go Bog é. And now, to cap it all off, Feile Kíla, a night of celebration in the National Stadium – their usual Nollaig knees-up, only bigger.
I went to see Ry Cooder in this very venue only a month or two ago and ran into Kíla bass man and all round good-egg Brian Hogan who spoke of their plans, only slightly worried about selling the tickets. He quoted figures, and seemed confident. Unfortunately, there seemed to be a fair bit of empty space in the venue when I arrived. No need to worry thought, when I returned from the bar – it still looks like the local G.A.A. club where you tried for a Scór na nÓg medal back in 1979 - the crowd had magically quadrupled, and that wouldn’t be the last piece of sorcery tonight either. Just before the band took to the stage, the guests of honour, Uachtarán na hÉireann Michael D. Higgins, and his wife Sabina, arrived and took their seats to loud, and justified acclaim. Now you might think, as I did, that the great man might show his face, stay around for a number or two, and then quietly head off to take care of other duties, or hit the bed, but he was in for the long haul, beaming until the final curtain. He kept the shape throwing to a minimum though, as befits the office.
After a nice introduction, as Gaeilge, from the Clondalkin Clobberer Bernard Dunne, three tracks that featured on the Beo album start things off. Aoife Kelly adds a second fiddle to ‘Mutatu’, complimenting the uillean pipes, before the flute prompts everyone to pick up their málaí and make a dash for the end of the tune. ‘Pota Óir’ is like a very happy dog in that it sports two flutes. Rónán Ó Snodaigh, the Charlie Parker of the bodhrán, who still looks like the bloke from the local “head shop” who wants to sell you a “legal high”, stomps around the stage urging on Dave Hingerty, who is working hard on the hi-hat, and even harder when they song moves up to a quick march. Ahead of ‘Electric Landlady’, Hogan switches to a Les Paul style bass lest anyone doubt his rawk credentials, and in front of a background straight out of the Gustav Klimt colouring book, the same two flutes chase each other around the melody, the fiddle coming in to calm thing down, but only temporarily, as more bodhrán abuse drives the whole thing to a crescendo that threatens collapse before the main riff reappears to save everything.
As Mary Coughlan says, taking the stage, “The party hasn’t even started yet!” Coughlan bravely takes on the immortal melody of ‘My Lagan Love’ and if she goes a bit jazz in terms of pitch and timing on the odd occasion well, it’s only a testament to her artistic skills, and the crowd eat it up regardless. A bit or plasterboard is put down on the stage before Ó Snodaigh introduces ‘Buadán’ as a song inspired by some words he picked up from a friend who is no longer here. Aneta Dortová takes to said plasterboard to offer some unaccompanied contemporary percussive dancing before the band fall in behind her, the pipes leading the charge. It is then the turn of Imelda May, who remembers following Kíla around to gigs in the early days. She handles the delicate ‘Babymouse’ beautifully, her voice soaring in unison with Dee Armstrong’s aching fiddle. May then straps on a bodhrán – as she says herself, she has balls of steel for daring to compete with with Ó Snodaigh – for a spirited run through her own ‘Johnny’s Got A Boom Boom’, Hogan going all Bill Black for a solo, followed by Hingerty who insists on getting in on the action.
‘Her Royal Waggeldy Toes’ from 2007’s Gamblers’ Ballet is a lovely bouncing ball of a tune, conga drums driving the bass groove along, Rossa Ó Snodaigh prompting the now packed dance floor crowd to compete against each other in a hand clapping competition, as he switches from tin whistle to shrill bird whistling. Hogan offers hugs to the crowd before the merry dance of ‘Ór Agus Airgead’, this crack gang of minstrels making it look almost too easy.
There’s then an Irish introduction which I won’t embarrass you by with a translation. It reminded me of the time Kíla asked me to consider joining them as their own Aire le haghaidh bolscaireachta. I went into the interview, there was about twenty of them there – I don’t think anyone really knows how many people there are in Kíla. The first question came from an Ó Snodaigh, naturally. I wasn’t yet familiar enough with them to distinguish which one. “Do you speak Irish?” “Do I?!?” I haughtily replied, more than a little put out, “have an eist of this!” I took my clay pipe out of my waistcoat pocket, lit up, and gave out several staves of Buile Shuibhne, including my own corrections where I felt Mícheál Ó Cléirigh had dropped the ball slightly. Tears were shed, heads were shook, the Lord’s name was taken in vain a few times, but all parties thought it best to leave it there, as Irish of such sparking purity could only distract from the music being purveyed. Anyhow, back to the show, ‘Rusty Nails’ took me right out of my reverie, but the appearance of a fairy queen on stilts, and dancers as a school of jellyfish that swarmed around the arena made me question wheter I was back in the land of consciousness at all. It was a fantastic idea, bringing magic to the stadium, and making the crowd part of the show.
More guests followed - a mighty lambeg drum, and founder member and former Frame Colm Mac Con Iomaire for a rousing ‘Gwerzy’. It’s all going off now, aerial silk dancing, flash mobs, a load of balls, literally, as massive liathróidí dance above the crowd, although slightly too many are directed back at the stage causing the sound man consternation as he kicked them ar ais arís into the hall. It’s a whirlwind of ideas as the main set is brought to a close by the beautiful ‘Crann Na bPinginí’, the rockin’, and new to these ears at least, ‘Jaka’ and a suitably epic ‘Seo Mo Leaba/ A Minor Reel’
They haven’t even left the stage before the crowd start howling and baying for more music. ‘Sean Deora’ is a haunting lament for a fallen friend, but it is ‘Skinheads’ that nearly tears the place down. What is it in our race memory that causes us to completely lose our shit when a bit a of trad is given out after a few pints? Combine it skilfully with the best rhythms the rest of the world has to offer, as is Kíla’s wont, and there’s no hope at all. The concrete floor seems to be shaking, it is perhaps the most convincing knock out this venerable arena has ever witnessed.
They come out again for one last one, a sing along to ‘Tóg É Go Bog É’. People are up on each others’ shoulders now. Has that bloke got his shirt off?!? In December? He’s no Charles Atlas either, but no matter, he’s lost in it like the rest of us.
Unfortunately it has to end, and it does. “Oiche Mhaith” is the cry, and it certainly was. I make no secret of my estimation of Kíla as national treasures worthy of preservation under glass, and it would appear that everyone agrees with me, from the president down to the two lads sneaking a joint up in the gods. Traditional music is all very well but combining it with flavours from Kingston to Bamako is what makes this band so special. Tabhair dúinn tríocha bliain níos mó, le do thoil.
All pictures: Caoimhe Ní Riagáin