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Celtic Flame - Royal Albert Hall, 14 March 2000

featuring Jack Lukeman, Sharon Shannon, Paul Brady & Hothouse Flowers

Despite this having been a fabulous evening, I am afraid I have no play-by-play review to offer.  I feel quite certain that I jotted down setlists for all the artists except for Sharon Shannon, so there is hope that I will come across those at some point (I am a pack rat so everything is here somewhere...) and, if I scribbled any decipherable notes on them, I could perhaps belatedly cobble together something worth reading that would give you a better idea of the wonderful night.

In the meantime, I shall give you a few thoughts from memory (a scary thing, looking back three and a half years when I can't remember what happened yesterday, but then it was fairly memorable stuff) and a few photographs....

Celtic Flame, I believe, is a series of concerts celebrating Irish music (and note its proximity to St Patrick's Day), but I really know little about it as this one was sprung upon me.  I was fortunate enough to attend this concert at the Albert Hall on 14 March 2000 thanks to a lovely friend, who had procured front row seats and thoughtfully ended up with a spare ticket when her husband dropped out.  Unlike the Fleadh, the four acts on the bill were strictly Irish.  I was looking forward to the evening as I am a huge Paul Brady fan and had enjoyed seeing his absolutely stunning performance at the South Bank Centre, and I remembered loving a song by Hothouse Flowers back in the 80s, but had lost touch with them.  I had heard of Sharon Shannon but knew little more than that.

As I waited for my generous friend in the foyer by Door 4, I found myself, predictably enough, virtually surrounded by Irish people other than a long-haired, bearded Englishman who was standing almost unnoticed in the corner despite wearing most unusual garb for London--flowing robes over sandals, I think it was.  He was the seventh Marquess of Bath, who had apparently ventured down from his ancestral home of Longleat to hear some impeccable music.

Shortly after taking our seats, we were all treated to the most unusual site and sound of Jack L, as he was billed--Jack Lukeman.  Here was a young man dressed in tight-fitting black trousers and t-shirt with an ammunition belt offset by an incredibly bright long red feathered boa.  He wore wrap-around shades on his long face with a sliver of a would-be goatee on his chin, and sideboards that ended in sharp points towards his nose.  His hair was dark and curly and he had a strong widow's peak that gave us the impression we were watching a camp vampire who preferred a boa to a cape.  Although, frankly, he wasn't really camp, nor was there any element of Marc Bolam glam. Jack was simply eccentric and artistic, and easy to take seriously.  Somehow this boa-draped wildfire dancing about on stage with the microphone stand, a blur of bright colours plunging his arms into the air above him and whacking a tambourine was a perfectly acceptable vision in the staid Albert Hall. 

What made us accept him so readily?  Apart from admiration for his style, courage and panache, that voice definitely won us over.  Frankly, it seemed completely inconceivable that such a deep, clear, phenomenal voice in perfect pitch could burst out of anyone living in this modern decade; there was something Rat Pack about it.  Whilst it had the unpredictable depth of Edwyn Collins, it was far smoother and appealing (fond as I am of Edwyn Collins), and his unflinching control over it nodded towards old-style crooners like Frank Sinatra.  Perhaps the physical Dracula image I referred to before gave him a sort of afterlife quality, as well--combined with that superhuman voice, it was as though we were watching a fantastic movie character or ghoulish narrator greeting us before taking us through Tales of the Unexpected or The Twilight Zone. 

Fitting right in with this image was his fast-paced song with tones of a rockabilly rhythm, Ode to Ed Wood.  He started with a sort of spooky come-into-my-lair voice (indeed that was the first line) that put me in mind of Tom Waits, with echoes of Jim Morrison but frankly, and I know I will probably get death threats from the Doors cultists now, Jack's voice far outshone Morrison's; it was a voice with which he had clearly worked all his life, and he was perfectly at ease being in control of it, swinging it from side to side and throwing it across the far width and great heights of the Albert Hall without ever pausing for breath, it seemed.  Presumably this song was a tribute to the eccentric man usually referred to as the worst director of all time, who has posthumous cult status and was the subject of a tribute feature film biopic by Tim Burton.  Certainly Jack was referring to the darker side of his life and his Z-movies with his lyrics, which culminated in a remarkably catchy, fast-paced chorus of 'I like girls, and I like boys / I like leather, I love your toys.'  Well, Wood was known to direct whilst wearing women's clothing.

Most of his lyrics were more poetic, and in the gorgeous Georgie Boy, Jack seemed to urge a childhood friend to stand up and show some of the promise he had shown as a child before 'something deep destroyed' him.  On this number, Jack's vocals greatly resembled those of the master singer Midge Ure, with a bit of Nick Cave thrown in for good measure.  His powerful voice would soar, lilting far above us before dropping again to its deeper-than-reality trademark beauty.  Jack held out notes for weeks, but not in the gratuitous Mariah Carey way; he was a truly amazing talent, and this song was sensational.

I believe he also performed the extremely Tom Waits-ish song Bedsprings, whispering wickedly seductive lyrics over drums of almost Minnie the Moocher strength, complete with predatory wolfman-like howling.   

Those three breathtaking songs, so memorable that I recall them fairly clearly even now, were not a patch on the gloriously stunning Rooftop Lullaby, a soothing masterpiece that showed off his voice perfectly and surely melted most of the audience with its increasing power and splendidly memorable melody.  That song alone made me certain I must hear from him even after he left the stage.

He did more than four songs but those are the ones I have remembered for several years.  This boy from County Kildare was quite the showman.  I could have watched him all night; even if I had paid £50 for the pleasure, I could not have been disappointed.  What a way to open a show!  Fortunately, he frequently mentioned his website's URL ( JackLukeman.com ) so I was able to go home and order his album Metropolis Blue, which arrived from Ireland fairly promptly and which proved to be one of the greatest albums I had heard in years. 

I believe that the next act, curiously, was Paul Brady, taking the stage with his trusty accompanist (who I always called 'Jesus' in my mind because of his usual long hair, beard and sandals).  I say curiously because I would have expected an enormously talented veteran songsmith who had been producing extremely impressive work since the 70s (his first solo album in 1978 was named Best Folk Album of the Year by Melody Maker and that was just the beginning of an illustrious solo career) to be the headliner on the bill.  This man's songs have been covered by Joe Cocker, Tina Turner, Cher, David Crosby, Santana and Art Garfunkel.  He has written with dozens of fellow songwriters including Carole King, Bonnie Raitt, Brian Kennedy and Mark Nevin.  Surely this man, who can lend his hand to any genre, was the priceless platinum of a gem of a line-up, but I wasn't going to complain about him coming on early since I was worried I might need to leave early to run for my train.

Add Ronan Keating to that list of people with whom he has written.  That worried me terribly when he announced that before proceeding to sing said co-authored song, I believe whilst he played piano (he played acoustic guitar for most of his set, with Jesus covering the keyboards).  However, the song, which I believe was The Long Goodbye, turned out to be perfectly entertaining; it had Paul's hand in it, after all.  Other than that, I am fairly sure he performed several of my many favourites, but I cannot tell you a single thing about his setlist, except that I know I loved every minute of it and I was probably so transfixed by his dazzling talent that I failed to log any titles into my brain cells.  As I said, there is hope I will come across my setlist one day, but that will only prove what I already remember: Paul was stupendous live, as he always is, with his comfortably grand musicianship and faultless champion voice.  Never mind his warm personality and charming English professor looks! 

Next, I believe, came Sharon Shannon.  Shannon is a highly respected accordion player from County Clare who once played with the Waterboys before touring with Christy Moore and working with, frankly, what seems like every big name in Irish music.  She came out on stage joined by several traditional Irish musicians, and they all proceeded to jam away at some fast-paced traditional sounds, from what I could tell in the foyer.  The friend I was with was definitely not a fan, so we took a break then, but the Albert Hall has monitors in the foyer so you can watch what you're missing, with a drink in your hand.  I must confess to being such a philistine when it comes to traditional Irish music that much of it sounds alike to me.  I can see really loving the atmosphere if I came across it live in a pub or something, happily tapping my feet away and being fascinated by the talents of those creating the sound.  But I would not buy an album of the stuff to play in my spare time; one day I will delve into it all more and rectify my ignorance.  I think I would enjoy it, but for now, my appetite for it is sated by the few tracks I own on various compilations.  I have to say that Shannon did seem to play a mean accordion at great speed, and I believe she even played the fiddle once. She seemed jolly and enthusiastic, as did her band, and she put in a fine performance that the whole Albert Hall audience clearly enjoyed.

We returned to our seats during the enthusiastic applause for Shannon, in time to see Dubliners Hothouse Flowers to take the stage.  I had adored their hit Don't Go 12 years before, which I blasted many times from my car stereo as a teen in the States, having come across the brilliant foot-tapping song with its fast-paced piano work and breakneck rhythm on a compilation CD I had brought back after a trip to the UK.  To this day, the song never fails to lift my spirits.    I also enjoyed their album Songs from the Rain but had lost touch with them otherwise.  

Lead singer Liam O'Maonlaí (pronounced 'O'Mwan-lee') appeared elsewhere in my CD collection, though, first as part of ALT, which stood for Andy-Liam-Tim, the first names of the three performers making up the group on the one-off project: Belfast boy Andy White, Dubliner Liam, and probably my favourite singer ever, Tim Finn, a New Zealander of Split Enz and Crowded House fame.  Before I heard that album, I thought Tim Finn could do no wrong.  After I heard that album, I never played it again and politely looked the other way.  Some would say I was being unfair, but I cannot comprehend how three musicians bursting with talent and experience could put together something so weak, ill-conceived and poorly rehearsed, although I do recall that they seemed to announce with pride at the time that they had just thrown it together rather ad-lib and did not rehearse at all.  Sadly, it shows.

Fortunately, Tim worked with Liam again later on a vastly superior project when Liam provided backing vocals on Tim's beautiful song Many's the Time (in Dublin) off his fine 1993 Before & After album.    Watching Liam now on stage at the Albert Hall made me think of Tim, not just because of this association, but because they were both clearly fond of the theatrical element of performing, and yet both were rather laid back, Liam wandering about the stage in bare feet and a shirt that could have been his pyjama top over casual baggy trousers.

I was thoroughly impressed by how much sound just three young men could create, with Liam covering vocals, keyboards, guitar and Bodhrán, his schoolfriend Fiachna O'Braonain on guitars, and Peter O'Toole (not the Lawrence of Arabia actor) playing guitar--there sometimes were three acoustic guitars playing at once--and keyboards as well.  They looked like they were having as much fun as the audience was all evening.  I think their set was fairly short as the Albert Hall's entertainment licence's terminal hour is about 11pm, possibly because the thousands leaving the hall have to walk amongst student accommodation and would wake them otherwise.  I believe the boys played Hallelujah Jordan, You Can Love Me Now, and possibly Thing of Beauty before dedicating a song to a dear departed producer friend.   When it was clear that they were ending their set, the audience begged them, 'Don't go!', so they treated us to precisely that marvellous song. 

As I began to feel that terror that grips me at the thought that I might run for ages to reach the Tube station, wait forever for the Tube train, run for miles within the next Tube station, and reach the rail station just as my last train pulls away, I was tempted not to play it safe and leave.  I felt certain that such a grand evening could only be topped off with a finale including all four performers.  However, they were running late and I really could wait no longer.  Just as I reached the top of the stairs down to the basement exit, I turned around to see Paul Brady on stage with Hothouse Flowers, my dream coming true after all, although I would have really fainted with glee if Jack Lukeman joined them all as well--such a sight was hard even to imagine.  I only had time to snap a quick distant photo of the four men, and off I ran before they really even got started, so I am not sure what song they performed. 

Glimpsing the four men on stage was intriguing though as there was a vague six-degrees-to-Kevin-Bacon connection between the two acts.   Liam as a youth had admired the work of Planxty, which originally comprised Christy Moore, Donal Lunny, Liam O'Flynn and Andy Irvine, but later Paul Brady replaced Moore (and went on to record with Irvine).  During the interval of the Eurovision contest in 1981, the original line-up of Planxty performed a Bill Whelan (later of Riverdance fame) composition, a fact that many years later reassured Hothouse Flowers when they were offered the same gig that it was not necessarily a naff thing to do. So some tenuous linking there, but it interested me, at least....(I could carry it further to say that Hothouse Flowers are sometimes compared to the Waterboys, with whom the other main act on the bill , Sharon Shannon, once played, but I'll leave it alone.  Give me a few years to link the Boa Boy to them all....)

Apparently I also missed the final finale, which included all of the performers of the evening playing, I understand, Paul Brady's hit The Homes of Donegal, which almost would have been worth sleeping on a park bench just to see.  Sigh.

Still, how can I find sorrow for what I missed when I witnessed so much brilliance?  Look at me, remembering the evening so vividly years later, when I seriously have to be reminded by friends from time to time that I have even attended certain concerts at all.  I have no brain for memory, and yet I found a space somewhere for the Celtic Flame performers, as well as the memorable dazzling light show that reminded me of my Spirograph kit when I was a kid.  Whilst I already owned plenty of Paul Brady albums (and eagerly increase my collection whenever more are offered...) and have enough Sharon Shannon on my many Celtic compilations to keep me content, I did have to abuse my credit card a bit after the concert, getting albums by the other two acts.  That always seems a way to mark the success of a concert, to me.  This one was fantastic.


Copyright © 2003 by TC. All rights reserved.

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