Category Archives: what I’m up to

North American tour

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We’re travelling today — from San Francisco to Seattle.

We met early at Dublin airport on the morning of the 14th and spent a full day travelling against the tide of the sun, arriving late in the evening to our hotel on Sunset Boulevard.
The next day (and the day after that!) we had breakfast at a great place called the Dialog Café. There was some gear to be bought in the afternoon and I went along to the giant Sam Ash music shop that the guys had been talking about. I didn’t have anything to get except a piano bench, so I happily played with the Prophet 12 synthesizer while the guys got the bits and pieces (and, the main item of business: a drum kit for Paul).
After a swim in the hotel pool, we made the pilgrimage up Runyon Canyon (impatiently eschewing the boring old path and making a beeline for the top) to see the Hollywood sign and take some epic band photos. I tagged along with James and Emma, then, to an amazing sushi place they’d been to before and we walked back past the Chinese Theatre, the panoply of stars on the Walk of Fame under our feet.

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We finished our day with a sundae at Mel’s Diner 🙂

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Sunday was show day and we loaded into The Roxy in the afternoon. I had been feeling a bit nervous about getting back into the swing of things again after our few weeks off, but once we started sound checking it all came back. The few tweaks I’d made to sounds worked well, too. It was amazing to play to such an enthusiastic, sold out crowd in such a historic venue 🙂

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We got a few tales about the place from the production manager, most memorably the image of David Lee Roth running out into LA traffic, topless with red sequinned Lycra trousers, calling after his dog which had escaped!
The following morning, St Patrick’s Day, after waking up to an earthquake, we played a ‘Morning Becomes Eclectic’ session at KCRW.

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Their studios are on the campus of Santa Monica College and the walls are adorned with portraits, large B&W prints and one entire wall of small Polaroids of everyone from Ian McEwan to Ellen Page to a three-years-ago James.
That night we played another show at The Roxy. James was having trouble beforehand with his voice and pushed through the show, the three of us supporting him with a heartfelt, albeit unmathematical, 110%. Again the crowd were brilliant (as were the supporting act, Aiden Knight and his band, who I’m looking forward to hearing more of along the road) — they responded really positively to the new material and were treated to James singing ‘Higher Love’ at the end, something he doesn’t normally do.
A problem with our bus meant that we were standing around in the parking lot for an hour after our pickup time. My clarinet was sitting on top of my suitcase and all of a sudden one of the venue staff pulled out of their parking space and knocked it over, crushing the case. A quick examination assured me it was okay, although a few keys had been bent and I knew it would have to be repaired properly. Shaken and annoyed, I went to bed as soon as we loaded the gear onto the bus. Next morning I found the name of a woodwind repairer in San Francisco, Daniel Deitch, and called him up when we got to the venue. He responded graciously to my plea for help (I learned later that he has a really big workload at the moment) and I brought the instrument to his workshop as the guys set up the stage. Daniel was brilliant, quickly working over the clarinet and ultimately leaving it in better condition than it’s ever been in. Every cloud has a silver lining and all that! I also joked with him about ‘the luck of the Irish’ as we contemplated the tonne of steel that my Yamaha case had withstood valiantly.

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We chatted while he worked and listened to a brilliant Thelonius Monk album, ‘Live At Town Hall’.
When I arrived back a couple of hours later, the decision had just been made to cancel the Great American Music Hall show that night. James had an infection and a specialist had just prescribed penicillin and total rest. Hopefully the show can be rescheduled. On we go…

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Reading Room

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I’m writing this surrounded by cherubs and scholars in the reading room of the National Library. I have always meant to get a Reader’s Ticket and today finally got around to it. I was in town, at the sumptuous 37 Dawson Street, filming with James and the band for the RTÉ arts show ‘The Works’, which airs this Friday (7 March) at 8.30pm.

We finished our European tour with a really brilliant show in Paris (at La Gaité Lyrique) just over a week ago, having blazed a post tropical trail through Germany, Holland and Belgium. We played in quite a range of venues, from a small 200-seater (Brotfabrik in Frankfurt — dear knows what the venue guys thought as we ferried our entire lighting rig up the narrow, metal fire escape stairs that lead up from the courtyard below), to the unexpectedly brilliant venue in the old botanic gardens in Brussels, to the classy, professional venues that seemed to be everywhere in Holland, to what was for me a real highlight: the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.

It won’t be long now before we’re back on the road again for five weeks in the US and Canada. I’m really looking forward to it: it’ll be my first time visiting most of the places we’re going to. My sister and I took a trip to Philadelphia / Virginia (& Washington DC) / Long Island (& New York) / Toronto (& London, ON) in the summer of 2000. We crammed all that into one month, staying with family and friends along the way (and enjoying the hospitality of the Salvation Army in Toronto!).

This time out it’ll be a tour bus bunk all the way. That was probably the hardest thing to get used to, and there was much discussion as to the merits of top, middle, or bottom bunks. I only tried the top bunk last time, so I must experiment with the other options on this run.

I got through two books: ‘Stoner’ by John Williams and ‘A Visit From The Goon Squad’ by Jennifer Egan. Both were brilliant and weren’t a million miles apart in terms of subject matter and tone (although Jennifer Egan pulls off some beautiful chapters in voices ‘other’ than that of her primary style). I was also introduced to the delight that is ‘East Bound and Down’. It had been my intention to try and get through the last few seasons of ‘Breaking Bad’, but that would’ve meant isolating myself from the group and well, gosh darnit, if they weren’t just too good to be around! I really must try and get to it on our jaunt around America, though. The others have all seen it (and there’s more than one of them has some item of clothing related to the show), so I’d say they’re champing at the bit to talk about it sometimes!

Christmas song arrangements

I’m excited about going to see Patty Griffin tonight at The Sugar Club!

This week I’ve been writing some arrangements of Christmas songs, prompted by one of my students, Chloe, asking to learn Winter Wonderland. I played it to her yesterday and began to teach it to her. I had three students not show up on Monday (ugh…), so I finished it then. Another reminder that I need to draw up a set of ‘rules’ for when I return to teaching next year.

Then yesterday I sat down and did an arrangement of Gabriel’s Message, a beautiful haunting melody that I performed at carol services in Edinburgh and Dublin ten-plus years ago. Sting (whose version I had heard back then) re-recorded it for his beautiful ‘Winter’s Night’ album a few years ago. I dug out an arrangement of Once In Royal David’s City last night, too, that I made in 2000. I’m definitely going to record them all and I’d like to also self-publish the sheet music. I’ll have to check with the publishers of Winter Wonderland if I do that, but I think it’s a good arrangement that amateur pianists with a penchant for jazzy harmonies will enjoy 🙂

16 November

I was to have been in Toronto today, getting ready to play my second gig with James Vincent McMorrow. Sadly, the visas hit a bump and didn’t get processed in time. They’re in for a treat tonight (and then next week in New York) as James does his inimitable thing. It was after a beautiful solo show a year and a half ago in St Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny, that James spoke to me about his wish to put some horn parts on his new album. I went away from that conversation excited and it’s amazing now to be playing a part in introducing the new material to the world.

The silver lining from not being away this week is that I can go to two gigs that I’d have otherwise missed: Patty Griffin next week (who Jen and I have never seen live — *very* excited about that one) and tonight New Dublin Voices in the exquisite Christ Church Cathedral. I can’t wait to hear what they’ve been working on. Since I stopped singing with them, they’ve gone on to win gold medals in one of the most auspicious choral competitions in the world (in Arezzo, Italy) and have greater things ahead.

A new chapter begins

I’m just home from a lovely full day of being a professional musician. I had five students in the afternoon / evening, three in one household and two in another. In the second house I was given a hot bowl of leftover chilli, in the first I got all the coffee I could drink and some marvellous chocolate chip cookies. I worked on aspects of musical performance, theory, and aesthetics with keen students.

Pretty good, right?! And that wasn’t even the best part…

This morning I rehearsed for the first time as a member of James Vincent McMorrow’s band. I worked with James on his new, ridiculously good, expansive, melodic, beautiful record, ‘Post Tropical‘. The opportunity arose for me to go touring with him and — having thought about it a *lot* and with the crucial blessing of my amazing wife — I jumped at the chance. (Check out some of the places we’ll be going.)

We got five songs done today, four from the new album including the new single, ‘Cavalier’, that has just been released today. It’s a different sound to the material he’s released before now — it’s bigger, bolder, stronger. I cannot *wait* to play it live — take a listen and you’ll see what I mean 🙂

Laugh, Kookaburra

I’ve had quite a lot of religion in the last twenty-four hours. Quite a lot of beginner guitarists, too, and fifteen minutes of ‘Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree’ (with the word ‘gay’ in the last line substituted for ‘great’ in the kids’ books).

I sang in the choir yesterday at St Ann’s for the funeral of a man I didn’t know called Des. His eulogy (delivered brilliantly by an old friend to a packed church) painted a picture of a long and happily full life. Full of work, sport, and friends — many, many friends and, in 1973 (when he was fifty-one) he got married in St Ann’s.

St Ann’s is an Anglican church, in the same tradition as the ones I attended growing up in the North. The minister is from the North, too, so it’s all very familiar! I’ve sung there quite a few times in the past few years — I also started to learn organ there with Charles Marshall last year. At the service yesterday, Charles played as the minister said some introductory sentences of scripture before we processed down the aisle ahead of the coffin. It was really effective — the music ebbing and flowing, suspending time, allowing the concepts of life and death and resurrection to be carried into the room, not simply said by a person.

After is finished in the music school last night, I got a lift into town with Emily, who takes the new community choir out there (Castleknock School of Music in Ongar). She was asking me what brought me to Dublin and I was telling her about coming here initially to do a year of discipleship training at CORE church. It seems rather strange to me now (well, what I mean is, it sounds strange when I tell others…), but I was seriously considering becoming a minister at one point. I don’t think anyone but me would’ve thought it a serious possibility, in retrospect! Anyway, Emily and I chatted about what we believe or don’t believe.

I came home and, rather too late, had a take-away from the Chinese place opposite the DART station in Howth. The young girl at the counter, wearing a hoodie emblazoned with the name of a school of English, tapped away on her plugged-in iPhone as the two of us waited in silence for the hatch behind her to open and the brown paper bag to be thrust out. ‘Kick Ass’ was playing on a flat screen above her head. I ate the food — shredded chicken with cashew nuts in a honey sauce with boiled rice — while watching Richard Dawkins on YouTube debating with an Australian cardinal, George Pell, in front of a studio audience that applauded *a lot*. And laughed at a couple of odd places, which led the jet-lagged and exasperated Professor to ask a few times, “what’s funny about that?!”.

Today in the Irish Times there’s a review by John Waters (a renowned pro-religious columnist) of Colm Tóibín’s ‘The Testament of Mary’. On the opposite page, there’s this letter:

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I wonder if I feel the same way about religion in my life as I do about the word ‘gay’ in the Kookaburra song. It’s not the same to surmise that the bird’s life is “great”. Okay, the more suitable words aren’t going to fit so neatly into the song, but when I think about that word I wonder if we haven’t lost something in ‘losing’ its original meaning.

It’s simply not possible to revert to it, though.

First week back…

This past week was my first back after the summer. I had a wisdom tooth out on Monday 2nd and took that whole week off to recover (although it wasn’t as stressful and traumatic as the extraction I had back in April…). It was good not to try and start back that very first week and let the kids get back into the school routine. My timetable didn’t need too much tweaking, thankfully. I’m teaching every afternoon and it all seems to work, travel-wise. Tuesday is a bit frantic and I reckon I’ll need to get a GoCar for those days, but the rest is doable on public transport.

I’m listening to the new album from Elvis Costello & The Roots, ‘Wise Up Ghost’, as I write this…

I’ve started some new things this term, too. I’ve started singing with Anúna — so far I’m getting to know the music and the group. It’s going to be a steep learning curve: the choir sing everything from memory and I’m just not used to that yet. I also have a good deal of work to do on voice production. Over the next weeks and months I’m going to seek out some voice lessons from a very experienced teacher who will be able to help me get a bigger sound.

Another new group I’ve joined is Dublin Symphony Orchestra, a long-established amateur orchestra in Dublin. I expressed my interest to their clarinettist literally years ago when we worked together on a theatre piece. Woodwind spots don’t come up very often, so I was delighted when he got in touch a few weeks ago and invited me along. We read through Mussorgsky’s ‘Night on the bare mountain’ and Wagner’s ‘Siegfried Idyll’ at the rehearsal and it was so good to be back in an orchestra. Seems like a lovely group of people, too 🙂

Something had to give with all this novelty, of course, and I’ve bid farewell to my regular gigs at The Millstone. We had a good run — I’ve played there at least once a week for over a year — and I’ve learned an awful lot in that time. Obviously my repertoire has hugely expanded, too, and I’m going to try and capture some of the breadth of the material I can do now on my YouTube channel over the next months.

Definitely try to give ‘Wise Up Ghost’ a listen — mellifluous grooves, fabulous lyrics delivered by a confident, experienced front man…