Sorry to Part, Happy to Meet
It’s not surprising that it can be a struggle to find the words to describe a perfect concert experience: if words could do the job, then music would be redundant. However, being transported with joy when listening to a band, or orchestra, involves more than merely the order of the notes and how well they are played, and, perhaps, words can convey something of the strange things that go on in heart and mind when those notes hit the air and invade the consciousness.
However, to attempt that description for the Horslips concert I attended last Tuesday night, is beyond difficult. Imagine discovering a band when you are 18 and following them devotedly for the ten years of their existence. Think of the responsibility they hold for the soundtrack to your twenties – possibly the most formative, changeable and scary decade of your life. Add to all this that they are explosive live, innovative, and huge in their own country, but also readily accessible: they give lifts to fans in their big white range rover; have a pint in the pub post performance; you carry with you the memory of a session backstage with them after a gig when you were 23, swapping songs and craic, they with as many questions to ask of you as you have of them; you have a treasured vignette of them stopping the car to ask you directions to the nearest chipper at 2am. These guys feel like friends, the fans clearly matter to them, as does the music; it’s a perfect relationship, and then, suddenly as it seems, it’s all over; they go their separate ways – knackered by ten years of touring Ireland, the UK, Europe and the States, non-stop.
You feel bereft; it does feel like a friend has moved away, just like the friends from your student days with whom you shared the excitement. After a dozen albums, you will miss the buzz of waiting for the latest twists and turns in their musical adventuring, but most of all, you realise what a hole will be left in your calendar of big nights: the anticipation of a date a month or so away when you will see the lads explode on stage, when you will bathe in camaraderie, and glory in the exhuberence of the music. You know the gap can never be filled – but you’re nearly thirty, and it’s beginning to dawn on you that there may be other priorities in life.
One of these, of course, is family.
The arrival of a child changes everything, but the band’s tunes are in your musical DNA: they are sung while bathing the baby, played in the car, background to holidays. There is the joy of recognising your child’s musical ability – birthday presents are violin, flute, keyboard, guitar, amplifier. Meanwhile the vinyl is replaced by cd, the cd by downloads. The band – Horslips – have become part of your family’s life, Dearg Doom a regular anthem, The Man who Built America bound to raise the heartbeat; King of the Fairies and The High Reel the definitive jig music. Your son starts to comment on the production – he likes Barry’s bass playing; ‘Johnny Fean’s a great guitarist, eh dad?’ You can hardly hide your joy that he ‘gets it’, and, the first time you hear the riff from ‘Sword of Light’ reproduced just about perfectly from the amplifier in the front room, you gain just a wee bit more confidence in your abilities as a dad. And you can’t help smiling.
Then, almost as suddenly as they left – they’re back: a low key acoustic set at an exhibition of their memorabilia in Derry; rumours of a full set, and then announcements of stadium concerts in Dublin and Belfast. You make all kinds of calculations as to how you could get there, but, even when there are more gigs around Ireland a year later, it isn’t feasible. But you are just glad they are back, and there’s always the hope that maybe one day…….
I opened the Celtic Connections programme in November with mild interest – maybe Paul Brady would be back, Teddy Thompson perhaps, maybe Julie Fowlis. When I turned the page, it said ‘Horslips: Old Fruitmarket, January 18th. 8.00pm.’
How do I evoke that moment? The remembrance of a first love? The comfort and joy of returning to your homeplace? The excitement of Christmas morning? I don’t know – but I do know the room swam slightly, and I looked about myself wondering if I was dreaming.
Within half an hour the tickets are booked, my excitement is pathetically over the top’ and my son is getting used to the repeated refrain of ‘Best live band ever’ ‘Fean’s an amazing guitarist’ ‘ Barry’s great craic’ ‘ Jim and Charles can play everything between them’ ‘Just wait till you hear them’.
It transpires that Eamonn Carr won’t be on drums, but Johnny Fean’s brother, Ray, will stand in. The live album from Dublin O2 suggests he’s the business and Eamonn remains the band’s drummer – as is their way.
As Christmas passes, the excitement mounts, reviews from Irish shows are pored over, hints of any failings in their powers are sought – but all the messages are the same – the lads are back and they’re better than ever. You really hope so.
The week of the show; my pal from university days is coming from Tayside to Glasgow for the gig – he’ll be with his son and daughter and friends. This is a bit more than just a gig, isn’t it. A wee niggling doubt creeps in – what if my son is disappointed, what if he – and my mate’s kids – fail to see what the fuss is about? No reason why they should be as affected as we have been by Horslips live, but what a disappointment if they aren’t.
A day to go and my work colleagues are, I’m sure, whispering about my unhidden excitement: ‘You’d think a man in his fifties…….’ And I don’t even have the decency to try to hide it; I tell everyone I meet what’s happening. My followers on Twitter and Facebook are deserting me in droves as my posts become a little too predictable. Most of them have no idea who Horslips are – that just makes it even more delicious.
I think my son is getting into the mood, I hear riffs on his guitar, the cds are being perused, downloads sought on the ipod. Oh God, make them good tonight!
On the train going through I think I’m gibbering; I try to dismiss thoughts of rail crashes, power failures and other acts of random mayhem. Three hours to go!
Facebook groups have suggested pubs near the venue where fans might meet before the gig. I wonder as we push open the door of the Blackfriars if we’ll be able to spot them.
The place is heaving. My son nudges me: ‘Hey dad – everyone in here looks like you.’
He’s right – the world is full of fifty five year old men, with their children in some cases, and a variety of Irish and Scots accents. There are ‘Tain’ tee shirts and all manner of gear with ‘Horslips’ enscribed on it. This is Me Heaven!
Everyone is talking to everyone else: ‘Where are you from?’ ‘When did you last see them?’ ‘D’ye think they’ll play ‘I’ll be waiting’? ‘ I hear Fean’s solo on Furniture is mighty’.
The guy next to me, who I don’t know from Adam, asks when I last saw them. ‘Thirty four years,’ I say, ‘but it should have been thirty two – their last Edinburgh gig was cancelled because of an electrician’s strike.’ It turns out he had a ticket for that gig too. He then tells me he’d discovered too late, a week later, that a notice on the door of the venue had announced that Edinburgh tickets were valid for Glasgow the next night. After thirty two years I now discover I could have seen them after all!
My pal and his kids and friends arrive. It is fantastic to see him again and to meet the young ‘uns. They get on with my son immediately. There is a very special atmosphere building. As it always was with Horslips, this is much more than just a gig.
Some of the guys who follow Horslips online recognise my mate and there are more introductions and outbursts of songs from various tables. There is the delicious moment when we know it’s time to head across the road to the hall.
The hall is piled high in clichés – the atmosphere is electric, expectant, hushed – what else can you say. A whole crowd with just one thought. A few have seen them since their reformation, but this is their first gig outside of Ireland so most of us are carrying memories of three decades or more. The lads must be feeling much the same.
Then the music starts, out comes Ray, quickly followed by those so familiar faces. Even over Johnny Fean’s introductory chords you can hear a kind of roar from the crowd – part relief, part jubilation. Before we know it Charles O’Connor is whirling through ‘King of the Fairies’ at breakneck speed – the drums thud, the bass resonates, the keyboards are flowing – they’re back!
The next two hours are dream like – virtually every favourite track is played, and played brilliantly. We’re all singing along – lyrics, guitar parts, flute trills – you name it – after half a lifetime we have them down to a tee. The joint, as they used to say, is jumping.
My pal and I exchange glances from time to time, there’s smiles and the odd hug. It’s good to share the feeling. I look around, determined to get a handle on the moment. The crowd is a mixture – original fans, their partners, and their kids – mostly in their twenties. Those who have seen the lads before are bouncing, heads back, arms waving, punching the air in sheer exhuberance. The partners look like they are starting to realise what it’s all about – but it’s the offspring who have the most interesting reaction.
This is not a case of ‘DadWeddingDancing’, where the young ones put up with embarrassing attempts by their parents to perform on the dance floor; the look on their faces is not one of patronising tolerance – it’s a reflection of their understanding; they get it; they know what’s going on here. I try to put my finger on it.
Then I realise: it’s that moment in ‘Field of Dreams’ when Kevin Costner gets to meet his Dad when he was a twenty year old. Our kids are getting the chance to see their parents as they were at the age the children are now. Imagine seeing your dad when he was 20! It’s a revelation – an epiphany; and it’s bound to bring us closer. In losing ourselves in the music, we have found ourselves in our children’s eyes. Fanciful? No doubt. Sentimental? No – far beyond that.
We have reached a time in our lives – late middle age, that is almost as uncertain as our twenties, when the lads last played for us. While we wonder what’s next, the present becomes heightened and important. We may wear suits, worry about pensions, and appear responsible, but, inside, the twenty year old is alive and kicking – and Horslips have found the key to let that part of us dance again. With every whoop and holler, we are declaiming the exciting fact that we are who we were, and we always will be.
As the set rolls on towards the inevitable ‘Dearg Doom’ and the highly charged encore of ‘Shakin all over’, it’s obvious the band are enjoying it as much as we are: they love playing, they love the songs, they love the fans. They always did.
Someone, possibly me, shouts out: ‘I love these guys’. In fact, it’s probably me, because I do. I love them for their joybringing connection with us all, for the verve of their music, for the respect they have that ensures they are playing better than ever and hitting all the same buttons with the same energy.
And it is about connection – between them and us, then and now; the immutability of joy in our lives, the ability of music to transport us to wherever we‘ve been and wherever we want to go. Our whole lives are in that hall – places we’ve not been for years, friends we’ve not seen for decades, feelings we’ve controlled sensibly for all our adult life. Horslips bring them all out so we can check they are intact and celebrate the happiness they have all brought to us during our lives.
At the end, as the last chords die away, there is contentment and a sense that we will see them again. My pal and his family will get the chance to chat with the lads in the pub while we are on the last train; we are delighted for them. All the way home my son and I swap superlatives; I am as pleased for him as he is for me. There’s an extra connection. Neither of us will forget this night.
I’ve made some huge claims for music and a band in these words, but I have not written without reflection. Music at its best connects with our emotions, frees our feelings, and lets us connect with ourselves the way we want to be. Of course there are more important things in our lives, and naturally a gig after 34 years is going to be either fantastic or miserably disappointing. I said at the outset that it would be difficult to capture the moment – but I hope I’ve done it some kind of justice. I just believe that what Horslips generate is a little different to the norm, that they build on the music and create an extra relationship, an additional energy. This was the opposite of an old band going through their hits to a nostalgic fanbase. This was affirmation of now; a salute to the unchanging nature of our human spirit; confirmation if we needed it, that we retain our core, that we are who we are. No wonder we were roaring!
Last Tuesday night, new fans and old, young and middle aged, we were rock and roll!
And it was fabulous!