The Gloaming

Trad supergroup play out the 2014 Belfast Festival at Queen's with support from Hannah McPhillimy

When you go out, go out with bang. Isn’t that what they say?

The final musical act of the 52nd edition of the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen’s is an occasion charged with the buzz of expectation – there isn’t a spare seat in the Elmwood Hall for trans-Atlantic super-group, The Gloaming.

The Gloaming’s subtle sculpting and remolding of Irish traditional music has garnered critical acclaim on both sides of the big pond since Martin Hayes (fiddle), Iarla Ó Lionáird (vocals), Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh (fiddle), Dennis Cahill (acoustic guitar) and Thomas Bartlett (piano) first got together in 2011.

Tonight's Belfast crowd has to wait a little longer than expected for them to take the stage, however, with the previously unadvertised support act of Belfast-based singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Hannah McPhillimy playing a short but quietly captivating set.

It’s quite proper that young, emerging talent should get a support slot to a large audience on such an important stage, and the talented McPhillimy rises to the occasion. The singer’s set draws from her notable debut EP Seeing Things (2013), a work of maturity beyond her years.

Intimate confessionals 'Take Care' and the blue-toned 'Still' highlight the poetry of McPhillimy’s narratives, with trumpeter LJ Hughes and vocalist Eleanor Kyle lending arresting harmonic colors.

McPhillimy switches from piano to ukulele on 'Kindness', a little gem of a tune whose beauty lies in its simplicity. A new song, 'Running', follows the soul-laid-bare blueprint and rounds out an impressive set from a songwriter of original stamp and a singer of genuine soul.

To great applause The Gloaming arrive and opens the set, appropriately enough, with ‘Opening Set’ – Ó Lionáird’s caressing Gaelic ballad is underpinned by Bartlett’s rumbling piano and given wings by Hayes’s strongly rhythmic melody.

Ó Raghallaigh joins with his ten-string hardanger d’amore fiddle, Cahill strums, Ó Lionáird holds a Hammond organ drone and Bartlett adds chordal punch as an infectious reel gathers force. This sweeping 17-minute set earns a rapturous ovation.

'We take poems and make them sing, whether they like it or not,' quips Ó Lionáird by way of introduction to 'Song 44'. Based on a 14th century poem, Ó Lionáird’s measured delivery here is contemporary in tone, as is the striding rhythmic pulse of piano and guitar.

Ó Lionáird captures the lyricism and sense of wonder inherent in poet Michael Hartnett’s 'Necklace of Wrens'. Six centuries may separate these two poems but The Gloaming’s language is nothing if not a bridge between past and present.

The two fiddlers trace the melody of 'Hunting the Squirrel', a spare, elegant chamber piece that segues into a 2/2 reel with piano and guitar fleshing out the rhythm.

The classic reel, ‘The Sailor’s Bonnet’, has been covered by everyone from The Bothy Band to The House Devils since its first translation to wax in the 1930s but Hayes introduces the melody at a seductively slow tempo before a more familiar, foot-tapping groove takes hold.

Older by two centuries, the quietly beguiling ‘Samradh Samradh’ features Ó Lionáird’s lilting vocals, Hammond drone and delicate fiddle interplay. The final song draws from the Bardic tradition of poetry, which dates back to mediaeval times. Ó Lionáird, with simple piano accompaniment, delivers a graceful, quasi-hymnal melody before the twin fiddles unfurl a stomping reel to stir up the dust.

The band is cheered out for the inevitable encore – the vocal ballad ‘Saoirse’ is full of longing. Bartlett artfully steers the tune to new pastures, where Ó Raghallaigh and Hayes rally in unison one last time. The reel, however, never quite catches fire and it is on the most delicate of notes that The Gloaming signs off.

Nevertheless, the audience roars its approval once more and shuffles out, bathed in the heart-warming afterglow of a truly memorable performance.

Visit The Gloaming website for information on forthcoming concerts.