Thursday, November 24, 2011

Review of Dylan at Hammersmith November 2011

I thought I’d write a wrap-up review of the last few shows on the Dylan/Knopfler tour, focusing especially on the last show, but also touching on the entire tour, and where the Never Ending Tour is at (for me) as 2011 draws to a close.

Essentially this has been a good tour. By any standards. But especially by the standard of Dylan’s last few half-decade or so of touring. My opinion is that there has been a steady improvement since 2009, following a steady decline since 2001. That decline was very gradual though, and there were great periods within it, eg Fall 2002, Fall 2003, the likes of Bonnaroo, Barrowlands 2004, Fall 2005 with the altered band line-up, Fall 2006 which had the fillip of the Modern Times songs, etc etc. But 2007, 2008 were not so great really, so it’s been good to see a steady improvement since then.

However that does not mean his voice has improved. Far from it! The Dylan we see on stage today does not have anywhere near the vocal range of the late 90s/early ‘00s, nor even that of 2005. Coupled with this problem was that he seemed to get so fed up of singing some songs that he began to phrase them in ever more bizarre ways. In the heyday of the N.E.T. this was one of the ‘selling points’ for regular attendees, the fact that not only did he regularly change the song arrangements, but he also changed the phrasing, often from night to night. But, at that time, the ever changing phrasing seemed to have some point to it, and he usually found some way to make the phrasing fit the song, or whatever emotion he was trying to convey on the particular night. In recent years, while he can still achieve this when he wants to, there have been occasions when the bizarre phrasing didn’t seem to make any sense at all. Some songs seem to be guiltier of this than others, eg Hattie Carroll and Hard Rain. So good to see things improve on this front and that he continues to do 'interesting' things with what are left of his vocal chords.

All of which brings us to a mild November day in Hammersmith last Monday. The tour had been notable for several reasons. Firstly, of course, having Mark Knopfler as an opening act. Having seen the opening night of the tour in Dublin 6 weeks ago, I had been disappointed he played not one Dire Straits song, so it’s been good that he’s added Brothers in Arms and So Far Away to his set. The rest of his set is pleasant rather than inspirational, the most interesting thing for me being his guitar playing. He has definitely added something to Dylan’s sets too, as from mid-tour on he joined Dylan every night for the first 3 or 4 numbers, just playing guitar, and making a nice contribution to the band’s sound.

The other notable thing about the tour is Dylan’s increased engagement with the audience. From Glasgow onwards he had been out in the middle of the stage much more than usual (up to half the numbers) – and in a much more energetic way, moving around almost like a boxer just holding the microphone in one hand and his harmonica/harmonica mike in the other hand and/or using the mike stand as a prop of sorts. This has made the shows considerably more enjoyable visually, and haven’t hurt the musical performance at all, quite the opposite actually.

By the London shows, the level of energy from earlier in the tour had perhaps ebbed a little, but was still very evident on some songs. So, what were the highlights of the London run? Here are a few examples;
Mississippi – very enjoyable new bouncy arrangement, making this the best live version certainly since 2001
Blind Willie McTell – amazingly this is (arguably) even better than the great arrangement he had been using since 1997, now cast in a genre that’s hard to define – part country, part stomping 1920s dixieland jazz (if that makes any sense!), punctuated (and finished) with some of the best hand-held harmonica you’ll ever see
Man in the Long Black Coat – this great song from 1989 has been transformed from a slow atmospheric number to a powerful up-tempo opportunity for Bob to stalk the stage barking out the verses in his best 2011 growl, again with fine harmonica
Forgetful Heart – I’ve seen some amazing versions of this since the song came out on Dylan's last studio album in 2009, but the one on Sunday at Hammersmith probably tops them all. This is 2011 Dylan at his best, and by far the quietest song he performs these days (Dylan concerts are now very loud rock affairs, with very little acoustic or quiet songs). Anyway, he gave this song an incredible vocal in London and performed it very theatrically too, like some kind of torch-song, really communicating with the audience like he used to in 1995 or 1999 or earlier in his career. At times during this performance I felt he was incorporating the spirit of older performers, not the blues/country guys he normally reminds us of but people like Sinatra, Fred Astaire, even Charlie Chaplin.

These are just a few highlights – lots of other songs were also very well performed over these 3 nights, and my only complaints are that he plays slightly too many ‘by-number’ rock/rock’n’roll/blues numbers, and obviously we’d like a bit more set-list variation - his set-lists having become a bit more static (by his own high standards of variety that is) in the last couple of years, but this tour saw a small but significant improvement in variety. So overall just a good solid run of shows, ending a very good tour.

The final thing I want to talk about before I sign off is the last song of that last show. Up til then it had been a pretty good show, of a similar standard to the previous night, and definitely better than the first Hammersmith show, but now we were to get a performance/moment to take the show to another level.

I had been wondering would he ask Knopfler out for one final song, and sure enough there he was, strapping on his red Strat(?) and, adjusting the microphone in the middle of the stage. So, wow – we were to get a vocal duet – something that had not happened thus far on the tour (he had only played guitar with Bob to this point), and indeed, I can’t remember the last time Bob performed an actual proper vocal duet with someone – maybe Norah Jones in 2005?

Anyway, it really was the special moment that people have been talking about. Ok, perhaps nothing extraordinary musically, but just a very genuine and (presumably) relatively unscripted moment and it led to a lovely communal feeling of warmth spreading across this great old London venue. The song of course was Forever Young –Bob taking the 1st verse, Mark the 2nd and sharing the 3rd. As people will know, not just from other reviews but from the youtube vids(!), Knopfler sang the lyric ‘May your heart always be joyful, may your song always be sung, and may you stay forever young’ right TO Bob, and gestured with his arm to Bob on the line ‘may your song always be sung’ to which the place erupted. You’d have had to have a heart of stone not to have enjoyed it, and if Knopfler was ever to win over the Dylan audience, he did it right there.

The song finished up with a solid harmonica solo from Bob (this tour having seen a very high standard of harmonica playing by the way), and the artists exchanged hugs with Bob giving Mark plenty of acknowledgement, showing friendship and respect between these two artists (and collaborators of old) in equal measure.

It was a fitting end to a decent year’s touring. With no rumours or news yet, who knows what 2012 will hold, but let’s hope, as he approaches 71, that he keeps it fresh, enjoys himself and is not done yet.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Review of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings at the Grand Canal Theatre Dublin 17 November 2011

I haven’t written a concert review in a while, but it would be reprehensible to let an appearance in Dublin by Gillian Welch go without mention.

As usual it was one of the concert highlights of the year, and a very successful return to Dublin on the back of her new album ‘The Harrow and the Harvest’. She usually plays Vicar Street but this time sold out the (larger) Grand Canal Theatre, a good achievement indeed in recession riddled Ireland.

Anyway, on to the show. At around 8.15 herself and Dave came on to a loud welcome and kicked straight into a powerful opening ‘Tear My Stillhouse Down’ before giving us a nice ‘Scarlet Town’ the evening’s first song from the new album. The audience was a bit quiet for the opening few songs, a fact noted humorously by Gillian, after which things livened up considerably. And of course, humour always being a big part of a Gill/Dave show, tonight was no exception, their songs often being so grim (in theme at least), it’s nice that the two of them are so hilarious in person. The only other artists I’ve seen who come close to being so funny are probably John Prine and Tom Waits.

They’ve also added in a nice little theatrical element – on the song 'Six White Horses' Gillian does some tap dancing (clog dancing?) and some percussion on her legs – doesn’t sound so good on paper (!) but very affecting and amusing on the night.

Anyway, leaving theatricality aside the main reason a packed house had turned up on this mild November night was to see and hear great music. And the show was jam-packed with great music. If I had to pick my top two performances of the night I’d opt for 'Wayside/Back in Time', a strong tune from the underrated Soul Journey album, and one I’d never seen them do before. Song of the night though had to be 'Revelator' – it really is their masterpiece and while it’s always a tour-de-force live, tonight seemed to take it to a new level – containing some of the most spine-chilling guitar I’ve heard in a concert for a long time. Dave got a thunderous and well deserved ovation at the end of it.

It really is amazing the power of this music – normally I’m not a huge fan of acoustic concerts, but what is generated by these two, just with guitar’s, voices (and occasional harmonica and banjo) beggars belief. Dave is not a strong solo singer but (ala Mike Mills) is a terrific backing singer and one of my favourite guitar players of all time, and likewise Gillian is one of my favourite singers ever.

Other highlights were; the 2 covers – Neil Young’s 'Pocohantas' and Jefferson Airplane’s 'White Rabbit', typically powerful versions of 'Look at Miss Ohio' and 'Caleb Mayer', plus some of the strongest songs from the new album - my favourite of which were 2 gorgeous performances - ‘Dark Turn of Mind’ and ‘That’s the Way that the Whole Thing Ends’, 2 quiet songs cleverly placed in the encores but mixed up with some of the livelier more throwaway (albeit entertaining) songs like ‘I’ll Fly Away’ and ‘Jackson’.

So, much as I enjoyed the Dave Rawlings concert in Belfast last year (where he and Gillian kind-of swapped roles) and his own album was quite good too, it’s been amazing to have a proper new Gillian album and tour. Let’s hope we see them again soon!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Review of 'Justice for Believers' album by Dublin band The Roj Light

Justice for Believers is the first proper album by The Roj Light, a Dublin band fronted by Roger Whelan. It’s not just me that thinks they are a promising band, there have already been some good reviews and talk about the band, indeed Roger himself retired from a career in international cricket to pursue his musical vision, and I’m pretty sure he’ll get there.

This album is a good start. Right from the off it grabs you with opening up-temp number Laura. This song was also on a single and you can see why. Very catchy, and it shows off the Roj Light’s sound at its best, ie a bright indie-rock sound, reminiscent of Oasis or the Smiths but with a more interesting twist (I like Oasis but they could be a bit leaden at times), in that there is a touch of Stone Roses in there too – a band with more diverse influences than Oasis. It’s interesting to see influences pass down the decades like this, whereby we can see the Beatles being filtered through Oasis to bands like the Roj Light via the more psychedelic musings of the Stone Roses and other 1990s bands.
I even fancy I caught a strain of the crisp guitar lines of early Cult albums, but I could be wrong..

Anyway, enough of influences – there’s nothing wrong with being influenced, but the Roj Light are original enough to stand out. Lyrically the songs are quite diverse, and are not afraid to tackle the major malaises facing Ireland today, taking stances many of us might agree with now where we wouldn’t have in the past. The main example of this is a song called ‘The 2016 Rising’, which has a very innovative video on the band’s website

Other songs I liked were a solid ballad called ‘The Scars Upon Our Heart’ with some nice dreamy guitar work noodling away behind the vocals, followed up on the album by a strong rocker ‘Death To All Cynics’. Musically, this song is typical of the band, with really good rhythm guitar played over some fine drum/bass interplay, with ‘ragged but right’ guitar solos which don’t overstay their welcome.

But I won’t focus too much on individual songs - this is an album to let wash over you, and indeed there are several promising new songs from the band on their website now, suggesting album no 2 is in the pipeline. So, go check them out! Highly recommended!

Monday, July 4, 2011

Dylan in Cork and London, June 2010

I usually write gig reviews hot off the press with the sound of the music still ringing through my head - however I’ve been very busy since the 2 Dylan shows I saw last month, so am only getting around to it now and therefore my recollections may be a bit hazy!

Firstly, I went to the Cork show. Dublin’s southwestern capital was looking well on a mainly sunny day as a carload of us (myself, Jim, Mike, and John H) made it down around lunchtime. Dropping one of our party (regular readers might guess which one!) off at the queue at the venue (a big marquee in the Docklands area), the rest of us spent the afternoon having lunch, strolling around the city centre, and catching up with some other friends at a specifically organised live music event in a pub.

After that it was down to the gig, and we all did surprisingly well in getting positions at or near the front of the stage, and then the hour’s wait for the lights to go down for this tour opening night. Sure enough, all was as usual, lights down, spoken introduction by Al (no intro music), no band changes, Bob looking fighting fit in black hat and suit, and straight in to an absolutely barnstorming ‘Gonna Change My Way of Thinking’. As good an opener as he’s had for many years, this one is just perfect for his current vocal range and immediately we were aware everything was good - artist and band in good form, with a great sound system in the tent and the vocals blaringly up front, just as I like it.

From there, it was straight in to a nice ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’, Bob out front with no guitar, the familiar current fast-ish country arrangement, with a defiant but not annoying emphasis on the 2nd line in every verse, as is his wont these days on some songs. Plus some amazing harmonica!

Next up was a re-arranged ‘Things Have Changed’, with a bit of spiky stop-start action going on, worked really well, but at subsequent shows it was more a case of ‘The Arrangement Has Changed’ with this song and not always for the better in my opinion.

From there it was on to ‘Tangled up in Blue’. I’ve grown to like (if not love) it’s latest arrangement, by my count the 4th radically changed version of this song in the last 8 or 9 years alone, with Bob out front and almost dancing – it was a real crowd pleaser once they figured out what the hell song it was!

And I really must say the best thing about these shows is how animated Dylan is, and has been pretty much since late 2009. By my count, at the Cork show he was out front for about 8 of the songs, played guitar on 2, and was only stuck in behind the keyboard on about 5. What a change from 3 or 4 years ago! It’s great to see him engaging with the audience much more, and all the ducking and diving and expressiveness with mic and harmonica etc. This engagement/animation was of course to be taken to new heights at the infamous Milan club show the following week!

Also he’s putting much more effort in to his vocals. The condition of his voice is certainly no worse than it was in 07/08, and although he doesn’t have the range or the flexibility of the late 90s/early ‘00s golden age(!) of the Never Ending Tour, he’s still finding it in him to be damn expressive when he wants to be.

Anyway, back to the show - ‘Levee’s Gonna Break’ had a bit of a re-arrangement, more of a jump blues now than a rockabilly/blues number, as did ‘Highway 61’, now recast as a kind of swing number, or at least more country than what we’ve come to expect from this blues-rock warhorse. ‘All Along the Watchtower’ is also quite dramatically rearranged, and despite cutting out the song’s famous descending chord sequence I have to say I now quite like it, it’s forced Bob to sing it better for one thing, and the band do interesting things in the murk of what is now nearly a ‘song without chords’. I should mention Stu gets to play a lot of lead in this song as he usually doesn’t get to play much despite being more talented than he gets credit for. Charlie Sexton, a player who in my humble opinion is slightly less talented than he gets credit for doesn’t get to play much these days either. In general I like the way the current band is playing and the current song arrangements, but Bob letting his guitar players off the leash a bit more wouldn’t do any harm.

I won’t go through every other song played, so just to mention that ‘Simple Twist of Fate’, ‘High Water’ and a massive ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ were other examples of show stopping songs on the night. But yes of course I’ve left the best to last – as ever Ireland seems to always get a little setlist surprise from Bob, as well as (arguably) getting some of the best show(s) of his recent European tours, so tonight in slot 7 we got an absolutely gorgeous rendition of one of his best ever songs, ‘I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine’, complete with lovely new arrangement and a killer vocal.

So, that was Cork, and after some end of gig chat with all our friends, it was back to Dublin and thence to London in time for the Feis two days later. This is a new version of the old Fleadh festival in Finsbury Park, and as before it is a muddy and drunken (but fairly good natured) affair. It is supposed to be a celebration of Irish music, and given that Bob is all but an honorary Irishman these days, who better to headline on day one!

I won’t discuss all the support acts, especially as many of them (Christy Moore and the Cranberries especially) seemed to suffer from a bad sound mix, and only one of the support acts is worthy of a superlative review anyhow - this being the cracking performance by the Waterboys. As ever, the Scottish/Irish outfit put on a killer show, judging their audience nicely, by mixing in big hits, with less well known songs but nothing too demanding for a drunken, rain-sodden crowd wedged together in a big field waiting for Dylan to come on. Mike Scott has added a pedal steel player to the band, and this guy certainly adds something, especially on a gorgeous pedal steel soaked version of ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’ with Mike quipping that Dylan is unlikely to play it himself later on but that if he does, we’ll be getting TWO versions of a great song in one night’. This was one of two covers on the night, the other being a northern soul encore, with Mike and band showing us they can do funky as well as any other music style. The opening song was done in a funky arrangement too, maybe alluding to future directions?
Anyway, to finish up, I’ll just mention one more setlist highlight, a version of ‘September 1913’, a poem by W.B. Yeats which Mike has put to music (along with a dozen others, which the band have toured as a bigger show in its own right, with album to following in September), and it was great to see it done in the context of the regular (smaller) Waterboys touring band.

So, with the Waterboys having laid down a marker, and perhaps the other most popular band on the day (certainly with the younger people in the audience) having been Gaslight Anthem (must check ‘em out..), Bob came on for his 90 minute headlining set, just as the crowd had got even more wedged in, drunks everywhere, several people taken over the barrier from fainting, too much booze etc. But it was another solid performance from our man, with several setlist changes from the Cork show, including set highlight - a remarkably quiet ‘Forgetful Heart’ which was a brave choice for such a boisterous audience, and one that worked in no small measure. Otherwise, most of my Cork comments stand at least for the repeat songs played, with my 2nd favourite song of the night being ‘A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall’. Never my favourite Dylan song, and one that has suffered from ever more bizarre vocalising in recent years, tonight his sing-song/talking staccato type-thing actually worked, and by the closing verse he had the audience totally reeled in. I think it works if it seems he is actually trying to emphasise particular lines or words with some sort of purpose, rather than just re-styling a song because he’s sick of singing it.

Anyway, another very solid performance all round, with excellent sound (the recordings from this tour thus far are very good too, although some of the Feis discs have unintended comedy in them from the noisy crowd – my favourite overheard comment being ‘oh-oh look out, we’ve got a puker here’!)

Final mention must go to the closing song, a version of ‘Blowing in the Wind’ which some people didn’t like. I thought it was very good, and instead of the normal closing harmonica solo, he soloed the hell out of the song on guitar, showing that as we know, he can play some decent almost technical guitar, when he wants to!

From there, off we went in to the night, my short Dylan jaunt over for this tour. Dylan wise, we continue to live in interesting times!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Review of Circuit of Avonbeg mountain race May 2011

This is a short report about the Circuit of Avonbeg mountain race, which I took part in today. It's a race on the calendar of IMRA (Irish Mountain Running Association), and is one of the longest, toughest ones of the year. Check out for more info on this great sport - much of which, in this country, takes place in the Wicklow mountains.

It was a truly spectacular race today. Relatively lucky with the weather, at the start I didn’t think visibility was going to be good, but it picked up, and from the top of Lugnaquilla we could even see the sea! Otherwise it was chilly, windy, sunny at times, and about 3 big showers, but could have been worse.

Anyway, thanks to Aidan for all his navigational help around the course – we kept apace with each other for most of the race, and when we separated, I did get a bit lost I must confess, and wasted quite a bit of time scrambling around in miscellaneous forests near Conavalla, including falling on my ear more than once!

But, to start at the beginning – we took our time going up Lug (the first of about 6 peaks we were to climb), making it in a comfortable 90 minutes.
From there, we had the most enjoyable part of the race - must have been quite a few miles of the most blissful downhill mountain running you’re likely to come across.
From there it was up to Camenabologue, the first manned checkpoint, and then down to the bottom of the valley, from where my aforementioned adventures happened.
But, no harm done (apart from getting soaked and a lot of minor scrapes on my leg), and managed to catch up with Aidan somewhere between Lugduff and Mullacor (the final manned checkpoint).

By that stage the whole field (35 runners) had got very spread out, and indeed I hardly saw anybody throughout the 2nd half of the race – of course by the time I got to Mullacor, the winners – and well done to Colm Hill on a sensational winning time of 2.30 ish (I think) would have long been in the clubhouse (so to speak).

Anyway, from Mullacor, it was basically down to the Wicklow Way, and a slow trudge back to the finish line, which I crossed in a not so impressive 4 hrs 35 mins.
But, hey, at least 30 mins of that was spent going the wrong way!
The entire race is approx 1100 metres of ascent, and is approx 26 kilometres in length, although I reckon I ran closer to 30.
So, lessons learned for next year (brush up on my navigational skills), and a great day out in the Glenmalure Valley (the most scenic part of Wicklow), albeit maybe the toughest single sporting event I've ever taken part in.

Highlights – the great descent from Lugnaquilla and the descent/flat parts from Conavalla through to the saddle between Lugduff and Mullacor.
Lowlights – I don’t mind the sore muscles in my legs, but I could do without the 2 big blisters (one on each toe!).

Most of all though, I’d like to say thanks to the volunteers, especially the race director and the summit marshalls.

Looking forward to cracking 4 hours next year.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Paul Brady concert review - Vicar Street 1 April 2011

Having won a pair of Paul Brady tickets (thanks Radio Nova!), and really only being a middling PB fan, I went along to Vicar Street last night with minimal expectations.
First a quick pint in a great local pub, The Thomas House, and in we went, grabbed our seats, and about a minute later out came the unassuming singer from Strabane, Co Tyrone.

The night was nicely split between solo and band performances, with seemingly every genre from Brady’s past represented, rock, pop, some lovely trad songs and a jig/reel or two, along with several from his current album (Hooba Dooba), one of which was a gorgeous solo piano song – something to do with a mother and son, will have to check that one out further. Plus, he played at least 8 or 10 very well known songs, so really everyone should have gone home happy, and I reckon they did.

I don’t know if he generally tours with a band, but tonight he had two good players with him, a chap I didn’t know on keyboards, and Bill Shanley on guitar, who I’ve seen several times before as his main job is in the Ray Davies band, lovely guitar player.

Writing this on the hoof, so, to some highlights;
• A truly gorgeous rendition of The Island, PB just stood at the centre for this one holding (but not playing) his guitar, letting the keyboard player play the big piano in the corner, and play it really well, plus some nice fills on acoustic from Bill.
• There were lots of special moments like that, Brady’s lyrics which often spoke to previous hard times, now seeming sadly relevant again
• He only mentioned the country’s current woes a few times, and his demeanor throughout was very relaxed and good humoured - I’ve been to lots of concerts, but there really was a great rapport last night between artist and audience – the whole night was just full of good music, some reflective moments and everybody seemed to feel we were acknowledging hard times, but realising that nights like this, and music in general, don’t just comment on the times we’re in, but also serve to help us escape them for an hour or two
• A rocking version of ‘Nothing but the same old Story’ brought back to us the sheer power of that song, a visceral indictment of past experiences of Irish people abroad. And, ok, we’re not seen as murderers any more, but pariahs of a financial hue now perhaps?
• Absolutely amazing rendition of Arthur McBride, just solo on acoustic guitar, I have rarely seen a major artist ‘live’ a song as Brady did this one last night, especially as he must have played this one a thousand times before
• The Homes of Donegal was an anthemic rendition in the 2nd last song slot
• Many more highlights, which without a setlist I’m struggling to remember, but even the poppier songs, not necessarily my favourites, were very well done, and boy can he write a decent pop song?!

So, to wrap up, it was just a nice unexpectedly good night of music. With all the talk of U2, Van Morrison, Rory Gallagher, Horslips, Phil Lynott, The Frames (oh yeah, forgot to say Glen Hansard guested with PB for one song last night) it’s easy to let Paul Brady slip under the radar. A pity, because as last night showed, he’s one of our most talented artists of the last 4 decades – in voice, musicianship, songwriting – all of which he showcased gracefully and with good humour last night for 2 hours in Vicar Street. 9 out of 10.


Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Review of Wicklow Way mountain race March 2011

This is my first race report, have only been doing IMRA races for a year, but finally thought I should put pen to paper.
It’s hard to explain how much I get out of mountain running as it seems to have overtaken many of my previous pastimes (obsessions?!) such as golf, concerts, road running etc. I find running much simpler than golf, you just have to KFR (keep f***ing running!), and mountain running, while not simpler than road running, is a million times more satisfying, and (arguably) easier on the body. It’s the perfect sport really –
Competitive? – Certainly, but not overly so..
A mental challenge? – you’d better believe it, as you face your 4th or 5th summit on a long race and your lungs and legs all but giving out..
An escape? - it’s simply the best escape you can have from the real world - charging up and down mountains requires at least 100% concentration, every step is different, the terrain and scenery changing by the minute – definitely the most magical way to run, and one of the best ways to enjoy the breath-taking Wicklow mountains, or any other mountains for that matter.. and the weather doesn’t matter a whit, just adds to the challenge..
And of course, it’s one of the most sociable forms of athletics or sport, definitely some of the most unpretentious and likeable sportspeople you’ll meet..

So, as you’ve gathered I LIKE mountain running.
Which brings me to last Saturday, and the Wicklow Way Trail. Preparations weren’t perfect (are they ever?), had overdone it completely at a Crusaders AC session on Tues, was stiff for days after that, gym Wed, gentle jog Thurs, forced myself to do nothing Fri, didn’t sleep great – about the only thing I did right was 500g of pasta on Fri night, and off to the start with me and Tony on Sat morning.
What was perfect though, was the organisation – a very difficult race to manage, with a shuttle bus system taking everyone out to Ballinastoe and TWO races to manage (about 30 hard core runners were doing double the distance of our race ie 50K!), and a long trail to be manned, watered and photographed. So, well done to Dermot, Mick and all the other volunteers.

Our race (the Trail), was a 15.5 mile (25k) affair along the Wicklow Way from Ballinastoe to Johnny Foxes, and a few minutes after midday, off we went - a cool foggy morning and about 170 of us taking to the hills.
However just to make us feel ever so slightly inadequate, at about the same time the Ultra runners came through – they were doing the exact double of our race, ie 50km out and back! Some of these guys looked remarkably fresh, despite being halfway through a race much longer than a marathon and over about 6 mountains!

Anyway, we set off up the trail, and towards Djouce. I kept it quite easy at the start, knowing my legs would need every ounce of energy as the hours wore on. It was a fairly steady incline and soon enough we hit the boardwalk near the JB Malone memorial. Not knowing whether to ‘pose’ for the nearby photographer, or take in the Lough Tay view, I stumbled a bit here, but no damage done and proceeded on at a reasonable pace to Djouce. Luckily we didn’t quite have to do the summit, as the Wicklow Way veers right around the shoulder of the mountain, at which point I had a bit of a stitch and lost some ground, recovering enough to enjoy the great heathery/boggy descent from Djouce down to the turnstile. This sort of descent is my favourite element of mountain running, when you can really feel at one with the world and lash down a mountain knowing the terrain is relatively safe (ever since twisting my ankle last year I’ve lost my nerve somewhat and for now am taking it easy on dangerous or rocky terrain).

From there, we went on down to the river, and up the nasty first bit of the ‘mountain that becomes Maulin’ – this is my term, maybe it has another name (!), and then turning right and down on the nice trail that soon gives us the great view (to our right and below) of the Powerscourt Waterfall.
At this stage I was running pretty well, a bit (but not too much) behind some of the people I usually aim to keep some sort of pace with (hello Justin, Tommy, Tony, Vanessa, Zoe etc), probably in my usual mid-field position.
Decided to up the pace a bit on the zig-zagging fire road and on down to Crone car park. Probably overdoing it a bit, and then (2nd mistake) drinking just a bit too much water at the first water station. Other than that, I got the food and drink about right throughout the day.

I should mention by the way, that there was a good bit of banter and chat throughout the race, especially the earlier part – towards the end everybody seemed to be dying on their feet, and things were much quieter!
And, this is where I was also starting to struggle – realising I had over-done things a bit down to Crone, had very little energy for the big climbs up Curtlestown and Prince Williams Seat.
Especially the nasty ride from the road near the hostel – boy is that steep!
And then the seemingly endless trail up Prince Williams..
After that, at least things were mainly downhill or flat, but I was running on empty by now.
Have never particularly thought I had great mental strength – although found out in 2009 that I do have a little bit, when managing to polish off a sub-4 hour marathon in difficult circumstances (by my standards that was a good time), so trying to draw on this, I soldiered on, legs and lungs feeling like they were at a marathon-esque wall.
I wanted to come in comfortably under 3 hours, and just managed it, at 2.42, shuffling over the line, legs almost gone, but a great feeling of satisfaction and camaraderie all round!

After that a nice few drinks in Johnny Foxes and a meal in another runners’ house - thanks Zoe - (a sociable and hospitable bunch, as I was saying, mountain runners..!), and all in a gruelling but enjoyable day completed.
This is 4 days later. It took 3 of those for my legs to recover, but already looking forward to the next mountain race (albeit hopefully a shorter one!).


Monday, January 3, 2011

Review of 2010

So, 2010 eh? - a year many people are glad to see the back of, especially in Ireland.
But economic meltdown notwithstanding, life goes on, especially music, films etc, and thank God (or whoever) for that.
So, here’s a rundown of some of the things I enjoyed most this year.


Bob Dylan x 4
Paul McCartney – RDS Arena Dublin
Leonard Cohen – Lissadell House Sligo
Waterboys x 2 – Abbey Theatre & Wexford Opera House
Wilco – Open House Festival Belfast
Ray Davies – Grand Canal Theatre
David Rawlings / Gillian Welch & Old Crow Medicine Show - Belfast
Crosby Stills & Nash – o2 Arena Dublin
Iron Maiden – o2 Arena Dublin
Redneck Manifesto – Roisin Dubh Galway

Not a vintage year, but not bad. I went to less gigs than usual, but seemed to choose well.. Saw 4 Dylan shows and all were all very enjoyable, especially Ljubliana (a boiling hot little gym hall) and Thomond Park Limerick (a drizzly breezy afternoon in a partially full big rugby stadium). It was a poor year for Dylan setlists, but great to see him more engaged and out at the front of the stage again.
Budgets only permitted one of the (ferociously expensive) Leonard concerts, but every word you read about how good and special these nights were in the grounds of Lissadell House (Sligo) was true. Never to be forgotten. Artist and band at the peak of their powers, oh, and some new songs too!
I’ve already reviewed the two Waterboys concerts I saw of Yeats poems put to music on this blog, so I won’t go over old ground, except to say it’s a much better idea than it sounds! Some of the best tunes Mike Scott has ever written, and really an amazing show both in concept and execution.
McCartney in the summer in the RDS was very good (he’s always good) but not quite as special as the smaller o2 arena show 6 months earlier. And he needs to change his banter.
Wilco in Belfast gave a suitably raucous and textured performance for their first ever appearance in Northern Ireland. They are still easily my favourite current band.
The gig the next night, David Rawlings/Gillian Welch and Old Crow Medicine Show was also enjoyable, but left one looking forward to the next proper Gillian album and tour.
Other enjoyable gigs included Crosby Stills and Nash (harmonically nice but not earth shattering) and Iron Maiden (call me old fashioned but it was marginally too loud and they played too many new songs!).
Redneck Manifesto in Galway (as part of a stag night!) was the pleasant surprise of the year.


Bruce Springsteen – Darkness on the Edge of Town box set
Dylan in Mono and the Witmark Demos
John Lennon - Double Fantasy Stripped
Beatles Red & Blue albums
Rolling Stones - Exile on Main Street remastered
Richard Thompson – Dream Attic
Blizten Trapper – Destroyer of the Void
Neil Young – Le Noise
Arcade Fire - Suburbs

A really bad year for albums I thought. I concede that 90% of what I listen to is old music, but given that I listen to a LOT of music, that still left me disappointed with this year’s 10%.
There are quite a few contemporary bands I keep an eye on – the likes of Arcade Fire, Blitzen Trapper, Grandaddy, Wilco, REM, Bon Ivor, Band of Horses, Megafaun, Artic Monkeys, Foals, to name a few– but only the first two of these released any decent new material it seems, in 2010.
Neil’s new album Le Noise was ok, still haven’t got my head around it to be honest, and I was never a fan of solo electric guitar albums!
Richard Thompson’s Dream Attic was good, and there’s ALWAYS 2 or 3 amazing songs on any RT album. Plus it was an interesting way to present an album with a live disc (only) of the main songs and an outtake disc.
John Lennon's Double Fantasy received the stripped (plus the regular album remastered) treatment, and in the main, was an improvement. Great to hear the vocals even more up-front.
Otherwise the two big releases of the year for me were Dylan in Mono (his 1st eight albums) and Springsteen’s Darkness re-release.
Our appetites for the Dylan set was whetted by the Beatles’ mono (and stereo) releases the year before, and while this was not as radical (or arguably as necessary), you can never have enough versions of Blonde on Blonde (!), and many of the songs on many of these seminal albums have benefited from the new mastering and the mono presentation. That said, I haven’t got overly excited about it – I probably need to listen to it more (on headphones). The Witmark Demos set was ok, nothing new or startling, but if you never had any of this material before, it would be worth picking up to hear how Dylan evolved from 1962 into 1964 or so.
However, my album of the year (if you can call it an album) is the Springsteen set.
Essentially it is a re-mastered Darkness on the Edge of Town (from 1978), which has always been my own favourite Bruce album and has never sounded good on CD before. Well, now it does!
Plus we have all the bonus material – starting with a 2 disc set of outtakes from Bruce’s entire period between Born to Run and Darkness. Don’t forget this was a 3 year period when he was legally prevented from releasing anything, and he wasn’t only writing dark anthems such as would appear on Darkness – he was also writing glorious pop songs, many of which appear on these discs. There are too many gems to mention amongst the poppier songs - but suffice to say we can now see how he got from Born to Run to The River. Oh, and there are a couple of anthemic songs too – a bigger band version of Racing in the Street and the unreleased The Promise – both incredible finds.
Finally, there are also 3 dvds in the set, with some great archive and contemporary material relating to this period.
The Beatles Red & Blue albums were nice to have, and of course, using last year's remastered versions, now sound amazing (mainly taking the stereo options I think), but are probably not essential, except to Beatles completists, or people like me who first fell in love with the band through the 1970s vinyl version of these albums, or perhaps of course to Beatles newbies?
Final album to mention positively is another remastered job - this time my favourite Rolling Stones album - Exile on Main Street, which like the Bruce album, always sounded a bit nasty and tinny on CD, so here it is in pristine nick, along with some great bonus material.


Une Prophet
Let the Right One in / Let Me In
The Way Back
White Ribbon
The Road
Nowhere Boy
Robin Hood
Whatever Works

Not a bad year for films, but I feel like a bit of a fraud here because I missed quite a few of the year’s big films.
Out of what I DID see, some of my favourites were;
A Prophet – film of the year this one – a truly incendiary French prison drama, with some really good acting and storytelling.
White Ribbon – possibly from 2009, but I saw it early in the new year, a poetic take on village life in early 20th century Germany.
I saw BOTH of those child vampire films – Let the Right One in (in Swedish) and the American remake. Both were chilling, hard to say which was better really.
The Way Back was an underrated epic road journey film, which admittedly did lose it’s pacing a bit in the 2nd half. Catch it in the cinema though – a great LOOKING film.
Avatar was ok. Very nice to look at, so probably only worth seeing on a big screen, and just about the only film I’ve seen that really merits the 3D thing.
The new Narnia film (Voyage of the Dawntreader) really didn’t need to be in 3D, and like all of the Narnia films was a bit of a disappointment.
Robin Hood was pretty good. Hope they make another one.
Alice was a bit ho-hum. Helena Bonham Carter was the best thing about it.
Nowhere Boy was a decent biopic of the young John Lennon despite the lead actor not being very good.
The Road was a bit flat. Very depressing, so much so it made the Irish situation not seem so bad!
Whatever Works was a surprisingly enjoyable old style New York Woody Allen film – I think it was written ages ago, and I don’t think it even got properly released over here – I saw it in the Dublin film festival.


The Road
The Lovely Bones
Born to Run
Just a Little Run Around the World – Rosie Swale Pope
Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks

This year I seem to have been reading more books about running and mountains (!), so again I didn’t get much fiction read (apart from a bit of old stuff)
The Road was pretty good, as was The Lovely Bones, in both cases apparently much better than their respective films (I haven’t seen the Lovely Bones)
I also read a few music books, but none were outstanding.
Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks was a good insight in to how the Queen of Crime worked and put her plots together.
To pick 2 highlights of books I read about running – Born to Run was inspirational, but not as much as Just a Little Run Around the World, by a woman who did just that. It took her 5 years!


After the Dance
Chopin in Paris
Les Liasons Dangereux

I went to fewer plays than normal this year.
Chopin in Paris was a very enjoyable piece about, well, Chopin in Paris. Written by Miriam Gallagher, it featured a very good acting performance in the title role and some sensational piano playing!
Les Liasons Dangereux was a reasonable Gate adaptation of the famous French play.
Arcadia was awful I thought. Probably not a bad production, but maybe Tom Stoppard is just not for me.
However, one of the very best things I saw/did all year was After the Dance by Terence Rattigan. I’ve already reviewed it on my blog, but would like to say that ever since then the play has ‘grown on me’ a lot, so I’d like to ‘upgrade’ that review from ‘fairly positive’ to ‘exceedingly positive’. That’s the bloody problem with blogs, I guess!
Anyway, it has resonated with me a lot this play; the strength of the acting in particular (amazing cast), and a top notch production and writing. It’s set in the 30s (written in the 40s?), and I’d strongly recommend it if a good version comes back.


Downton Abbey
Any Human Heart
Upstairs Downstairs

The first three of the aforementioned were worth the price of my Sky subscription alone.
Downton Abbey has got a lot of column inches already but suffice to say it was worth all its good reviews, just a good old fashioned lush period drama with really good writing and production values. And don’t forget it was not a period adaptation, but a brand new story.
Any Human Heart was very different, but no less gripping. I was unsure about this one at the start, but it just seemed to get better and better (only until the last episode, which flagged slightly) as we sank further and further in to the life of this man traversing his way through the 20th century. It was funny, insightful, dark and gritty.
Sherlock was the best contemporary drama I saw this year, and yet was also somehow rooted in the late Victorian / Edwardian world of the original Conan Doyle books. However, if you don’t like period stuff, don’t let that put you off. This was a modern series in every sense, with some staggering acting and scripts. Perhaps it looked a little low budget, but I’m sure that’ll change in season 2, after the first season was such a hit.
The new Upstairs Downstairs was enjoyable, but suffered a bit in comparison with Downton Abbey. It was a bit claustrophic and one or two of the storylines didn’t seem to work. There was some good acting though, especially from the ever reliable Eileen Atkins.
Most other TV seemed to me to be rubbish, the occasional documentary notwithstanding. I seemed to tune in to radio more than TV in 2010. Although both radio and TV could be very depressing if you listened to too much Irish economic reportage (best to stick to Lyric and Nova!).. Hoping for better news coverage (and for better news) in 2011!
PS – I usually have a section on Art, but didn’t get to many exhibitions this year. I’d highly recommend the Metsu exhibition in Dublin though – finishes sometime in January I think.