It is strange that a lot of poetry leaves people cold, but if you call those verses ‘lyrics’ and set them to music, many of those same people will be enraptured.
Whatever the science behind it, Paul Kelly has instinctively tapped into our natural affinity for rhythm and melody in his latest collaboration, Ancient Rain, which is apparently inspired by more than 100 years of Irish poetry. In fact the ‘poetry’ includes song lyrics too – such as the Ancient Rain of the title, a song by Jimmy MacCarthy.
Collaborators Feargal Murray and Camille O’Sullivan might be less well known in Australia but their credentials are impressive and, after an hour or so watching them perform, you’ll be in no doubt they are names to watch.
Both have an apparent affinity for interpreting works as much as writing their own, and share Kelly’s fondness for a good yarn.
As storytellers themselves, then, it's no surprise that the three found inspiration in poems that tell a tale, reveal an era or reflect a life, as well as exposing the cumulative layers of pain, pestilence, dispossession, and sadness that has befallen too many generation of Irish.
Without a shred of mockery or guile, the first handful of songs focus on peat, potatoes, pigs and passionate hatred of the English. Not far behind are death, warfare, a lament for lost sons, famine, fever and teenage pregnancy – that ends in death.
While there are some searing moments of raucous rock to get your heart racing, there's more Nick Cave-esque maudlin here than there is traditional fiddle and bodhran pub craic or upbeat folk. Yet it’s not all doom and gloom.
As the evening progresses, Kelly takes more of a back seat while co-vocalist O'Sullivan emerges from the shadows and backing vocals to take centre stage and reveal the incredible breadth and depth of her voice and performance. Along with sensitive harmonies from the backing band – which includes pianist Murray, cellist Sokol Koka, percussionist Paul Byrne and guitarist Dan Kelly – her vocals and dramatic delivery provide a welcome lift and intensity, even when the subject matter is gloomy.
The climactic piece that ends the first act of the night, The Statue of the Virgin at Granard Speaks, is especially enthralling, telling the tale of the statue of the Virgin Mary at whose feet a teenage girl gave birth then died, along with her child. Despite the essence of the story being told before its recital, O’Sullivan (via author Paula Meehan) still manages to transport the audience to visionary and shocking places. O’Sullivan is a truly mesmerising force of nature.
Other verses are sung in Gaelic, which is a beautiful-sounding language – easy on the ears and tough on the translation. While it would be nice to understand the tale – especially as one, Ag Criost an Siol, whose title suggests a religious theme, attracts the sort of apocalyptic discordant setting that Nick Cave would be proud of – there is still satisfaction in purely hearing the syllables sung.
Kudos must go to the lighting crew, who have only a few chairs and a smoke machine to assist them in creating suitable atmosphere on stage. The lighting and set up for An Irish Airman Foresees His Death (WB Yeats) is particularly inspired, and conjures up the image and thoughts of a young man heading off on a mission that would be almost certain suicide.
This is an evening that will leave you with a head full of stories, your spirit lifted by the music and voices – and quite possibly with a desire to go look up a few Irish poets, which can only be a good thing.
Ancient Rain only runs for four nights but if you miss out, Camille O’Sullivan will also perform at the Toff in Town, on Sunday October 16.
2016 Melbourne Festival
Paul Kelly & Camille O’Sullivan with Feargal Murray
Director Chris Drummond
Venue: Playhouse | Arts Centre Melbourne, 100 St Kilda Road, Melbourne
Dates: 12 – 15 October 2016
Tickets: $79 – $59