What, you might wonder, would motivate a 75-year Englishman to travel to a small town in northern France to be at a concert of traditional Irish music – and this at a time when the Omicron variant of COVID was surging across Europe?
The concert took place on March 26th at the Theatre Municipal Le Colisee in Lens, a town an hour or so from Calais and was part of an Irish music week linked with the Ballyshannon Festival. Lens is an ex-industrial town at the heart of a coal-mining area, where the mines are all closed but enormous slag heaps still dominate the flat, otherwise uninteresting landscape like randomly deposited black pyramids. The town, a few kilometres from Vimy Ridge, suffered dreadful losses and destruction during the First World War.
The concert act was advertised as Frankie Gavin, although by rights, it should have been Frankie Gavin and De Dannan. I’ve seen similar line-ups many times in the last few years – so what was so special about this occasion? Frankie has recently been diagnosed with Stage 3 cancer of the oesophagus, the arduous treatment for which will have started by the time this review is published. So, it was likely that the Lens concert would be the last time Frankie would perform in public for some time. It was an occasion, at least for me, not to be missed. The capacity audience at the theatre was fully appreciative of De Dannan’s music and gave the band a standing ovation.
In the event, what was most remarkable about the evening was something I could not have anticipated: the special sound that these four brilliant musicians succeeded in conjuring up on this occasion - Colm O’Caoimh, guitar, Frankie, fiddle and flute, Barry Brady, accordion and Kaitlin Cullen-Verhauz, vocals and cello. I’d heard all the tunes and most of the songs many times before – they never lose their excitement for me – but there was something extra that evening in Lens – perhaps it was the powerhouse of Frankie and Barry sparking off each other to perfection; perhaps Colm’s accompaniment was particularly sensitive that night; perhaps it was Kaitlin’s percussive, growling cello with its mixture of punchy bass notes and melodic bowing. Certainly it was all those things, but beyond these elements it was the quality of Kaitlin’s voice. Her first song, Far Away In Australia, made famous by the band in the 1980s, created the illusion of taking us back to the era of Dolores Keane, while her later rendition of the heart-breaking Teddy O’Neill completed the sensation. I can’t have been the only member of the audience to wipe away a few tears. Kaitlin’s choice of serious, soulful songs, which also included John O Dreams and The Foggy Dew, a song which chronicles the 1916 Easter Rising, gave the band a soulful gravitas it has been lacking in recent years.
For me personally, the experience took me right back to an evening in 1983 when I saw De Dannan for the first time at my local arts centre in Essex. That night featured what many still think of as the classic line-up of Frankie Gavin, Alec Finn, Máirtín O’Connor, Johnny “Ringo” McDonagh and two, yes two, wonderful singers: Mary Black and Dolores Keane. I’d heard the band on recordings before that night, but the live performance was perfection. I saw De Dannan whenever I could after that. Line-ups came and went. There was an odd occasion in Salford Quays when the accordion was replaced by Noel Hill’s concertina. The next genuinely exciting occasion for me was seeing the band at the Cambridge Festival in 2011, the first time I had seen and heard Barry Brady on accordion – a battered but refurbished 1920s Paolo Soprani instrument. He is a remarkable player who shuns the limelight and severely rations the time he allows for live performances. Being a full-time beef farmer is a time-consuming occupation which requires genuine commitment.
At Lens the band was brought back for an encore and, not surprisingly perhaps, chose The Arrival Of The Queen Of Sheba (In Galway), a band favourite since the early days. It never ceases to animate audiences.
I am fully aware that Frankie Gavin will be out of action for some time, but am certain that, in time, he will return with all his formations: The Provenance, The Roaring 20s Irish Orchestra, his duo with Catherine McHugh and for me, most importantly, De Dannan. This is too important a band to let slip away.
Frankie’s son Julian has started a Go Fund Me appeal to support his father during his treatment. Here is the link if you wish to donate. https://www.gofundme.com/f/frankie-gavin-my-father-has-esophageal-cancer-s3.