Sean Manning reviews the Grada concert, April 28th at the Dunedin Railway Station.
Now I have to say that Grada are a very good-looking band. Structurally similar To Lunasa – guitar and bass on either side holding the thing together and driving the music along, with the tune players, and in this case the singer, in the middle. They are young, energetic, and seem to really enjoy what they do together. There were no moments of ennui, no difficult dynamics. Even after god knows how many almost identical concerts, they seemed to be really having a good time. They told an illustrative story, how on their only day off in an Australian tour, which happened to be in Bondi, they stayed at home to rehearse new material.
They also seemed to be genuinely friendly. After the concert I went up to see what kind of guitars Gerry Paul was playing – he was off somewhere talking to someone else – and the fluter, Alan Doherty, merrily invited me to have a go with them. When their owner returned he was even more encouraging.
(For the guitar players, mostly he played a McIlroy, made in County Antrim by a refugee from George Lowden’s guitar factory, where they make instruments with a major reputation among folk musicians – Donal Hennessey of Lunasa plays one. Another graduate of the same school, Sam Irwin, made one of my guitars. The other one was a 1960-something Martin, a lovely little parlour guitar with tremendous intonation.)
With Gerry Paul crouching over his instrument on the right and Andrew Laking bending across his stand-up bass on the left, both of them New Zealanders, the music was pushed along – they don’t do much in the way of slow tunes. At times it was too complex for me, I wanted to yell, ‘hang on a bit, what happened there? Do that bit again.’ But they were already on to the next, equally complex measure. I can’t really complain, I found the whole concert completely engaging, which is remarkable, coming from this old grump, who can find something boring or just wrong with almost anything. As the concert developed, the layers of the music became plainer – I suppose they were teaching me to listen.
What they do has some roots in Irish diddley-aiddley music, but while superficially similar groups like Lunasa, Danu or Solas remain with the traditional, albeit in a modernized form, What Grada do turns it into pop, jazz and poetry. Nicola Joyce’s singing was not an old-fashioned traditional voice. She delivered the songs with passion and lyricism. An old-fashioned critic might carp that the words were indistinct, something that usually irritates me, but even that was OK, probably more a result of the venue. On their CD, I discovered later, the words are clear.
On either side they were flanked by two stunning instrumentalists – Alan Doherty of flutes and Colin Farrell on fiddle, both also playing whistles on occasion. These are both clearly capable of playing in a traditional style, but apparently impatient with that, their harmonies and solos owed much to improvisation and sounded at times more like jazz.
Favourite moments? Well, the encore for a start (so to speak). They did two things. First, Nicola Joyce and Gerry Paul returned to the stage and did the only reasonably slow thing of the evening – Suzanne Vega’s ‘The Soldier and the Queen’. Not an easy song, it was breathtaking. Then the whole group did something very fast that ended in a chaotically deliberate and high-spirited cacophony. But the best for me was as much visible as auditory. There was a duet on identical low whistles from Doherty and Farrell. Both dressed in black, they framed the singer who sat in the middle playing bodhron, and were framed in their turn by Paul and Laking. To add to the effect, Laking, left-handed on the right, played with his right hand above the left on the whistle, and Doherty, on the left, had his left hand on top. They are the most symmetrical band I’ve ever seen, and they didn’t even know it. When I told Gerry Paul about it afterwards, he seemed bemused.