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Luka Bloom - The Barbican Centre, London, on 31 January 2005
I have never quite recovered from the time when I got labyrinthitis and spent three horrible weeks in bed, nauseous and too ill to lift my head as the world spun too rapidly around me. Oh, I recovered from the labyrinthitis, but not from the fact that my handbag in the other room contained unused front row tickets to a Luka Bloom concert at the comfortable South Bank Centre. Amongst the incessant dizziness and vertigo that filled my head were sad, pitiful thoughts of where I should have been….
That was in 2001 and the longed-for opportunity to see this phenomenal fireball of talent had not come up since. My site is a testament to the fact that I go to rather a lot of concerts and enjoy most of them a great deal, but only a handful of the performers are truly exceptional with can’t-miss status. Luka is so special that I wasted no time booking a ticket to a concert this year at which he was rumoured to be the support act. I paid a significant amount for the ticket because the headliners were huge in their genre; it was the reunion tour of the original line-up of Planxty, who hadn’t played together in about 25 years. Sure, it would be a privilege to witness that, and I’d never seen a live performance by Luka’s older brother Christy Moore, one of Planxty’s founding members and a legend on his own, but I’m not terribly well versed in Irish traditional music or their famous trad/folk fusion, so I would not have booked otherwise.
Throw into the pot the facts that I had become a bit of a hermit since the recent sudden and nearly unbearable death of my father, that work was overwhelmingly stressful, and general fatigue ruled my world, and the bitter recipe left me sitting in my office near the Barbican Centre that evening wondering if I could manage to drag myself there for anyone. Well, maybe not for just anyone, I decided, but for Luka, I would. I wasn’t about to spend another four years regretting having missed the bliss of his presence for any reason. Surely his performance would be the shot in the arm I needed to get through the week, if not to start getting a grip on things generally. It was!
Having left it ‘til 10 minutes before the start to make the right decision, I ended up literally racing to take my seat in the first few rows of the Barbican Hall by 7.30pm. You don’t want to be late when the support act is your purpose for being there! On our seats was a free programme—more of a leaflet, really--produced by the good ol’ Barbican for its three consecutive shows, of which this was the third, of Planxty with support from the youngest of Christy’s brothers, including a bit of background on both. Whilst I was looking forward to seeing and hearing Luka live again for the first time in five years, you will have noticed from my moaning above that I was not in the best and most receptive frames of mind, wherever my mind is these days. So Luka was facing a challenge in me….one that he heroically met without effort.
As the lights promptly dimmed, an announcement that there would be no interval between acts put paid to my vaguely considered plan to slip away after Luka’s set but also meant it wouldn’t be a late finish that required sprinting for my last train, which helped me settle down to enjoy the treasures that would unfold before me. I had a quick glance around the 2,000 filled seats in the hall as the support act was announced, and unusually for that part of a concert, I was gripped with excitement rather than impatience.
Luka walked onto the enormous stage to colossal cheers from an audience that clearly knew that they were privileged to see him, rather than just the kind applause of a tolerant group who felt the need to suffer some unknown before the real show. But then I did hear dozens of Irish accents around me, so these were not people like my sadly ignorant peers in the City who required an explanation of who this ineffable talent was by regrettably resorting to "he’s the brother of Christy Moore," which would at least get a nod of vague recognition as they admitted to having possibly heard of him. (Why are so many extraordinary talents hidden in the undergrowth and forced to produce and market their own albums on the internet whilst the major labels invest millions in short-term syrupy dolts? Thank goodness modern technology allows these near gods to continue producing and delivering their creations to us themselves; the world would be cold and barren without that triumph.)
Strolling on stage with his acoustic guitar—now a nylon 12-string to whom Luka never introduced us, but I assume that this guitar had a name like his others but was perhaps just feeling shy tonight—Luka had a bit of a Johnny Cash feel about him, wearing a long-sleeved black oxford shirt tucked into dark belted jeans. His fringed hair was a tad longer than the cropped ‘do I’d seen him sport before, brushed back off his face and with stylish long sideburns (must admit to being a short-back-and-sides person myself, but the look absolutely suited him, particularly the fringe). He reminded me a bit of Peter Gabriel circa 1986, when Gabriel looked rather handsome just after his eccentric period and before his current Burl Ives look. Luka also sported an air of deserved self-belief, a confidence to face any challenge as he has crushed so many in the past. He looked incredibly healthy; his life must be firmly on track, full of hope and realised goals.
Luka seemed genuinely pleased, rather than jaded, with the enthusiastic welcome and leaned into the mike as he took a seat centre stage, saying with convincing sincerity, ‘It’s great to be here and it’s great to see you!’ I felt a vibe go through the air as a few hundred female hearts fluttered as though he were directing a personal greeting to them individually. This smoothie has real charm.
When he next leaned towards the mike, that luxurious voice sang one line a cappella, "Voices cry out", and we sat in awed silence as he closed his eyes and began strumming his anonymous friend to unravel the silken string of the awe-inspiring Diamond Mountain. This version seemed a tad bit slower than usual, its concentrated chords meandering through the hall, and it was utterly gripping. Gentle and stupendously striking, it nearly sucked us into another galaxy. His rich voice was faultless, like that of a god from a superior world, and here he was promising that he would be there when we needed him, singing those moving lines with an unprecedented passion.
I’m always taken by these songs that seem to proclaim undying devotion to a person who probably desperately needs that support—Carole King’s You’ve Got a Friend, Paul Simon’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, Paul Brady’s I Will Be There. The sentiments in the refrain of this song seem similar, but Luka’s song dwells more on displacement. Luka’s skill as a writer is being splendidly poetic rather than obvious and plain whilst avoiding piecing together such opaque words that the average Joe cannot relate to it. You never need to expend energy deciphering his work; its perfection and magnetism are instantly clear so you can ease right into its beautiful comfort.
As his voice soared during the refrain and bellowed with that bewitching, seemingly impossible full depth that spills out as though it is no big deal, I was reminded of the pure brilliance of this song that I hadn’t played in far too long. I used to get that feeling whenever I dug out The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as a kid—I’d think I had memorised every word and note of it and thus didn’t need to listen to that album so often, but when I did, I was dumbstruck all over again. Luka has so many dazzling compositions and magical covers treated with his miraculous interpretive skills, all performed flawlessly, that there isn’t enough time to play them as often as they deserve to be heard.
Note to self: find the time. Life wouldn’t be so full of stress with Luka on my side melting away some of the tiny and huge things that terrorise me. Thank goodness I conquered that stress for long enough to take my seat at the Barbican so Luka could drum that message into my brain—or strum that message into my brain, as it were—and weave a protective net inside it to catch and dissipate the scarier worries. Anyone else who doubts the power of a live performance and thinks they can’t fit it into their busy diaries should take note.
And all that with just the first song, albeit a powerful song, delivered by a king. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a gushy fanatic who worships a singer as though he’s an idol. I am well aware that Luka is human and I don’t know him or anything about his personality or the things he enjoys when he gets off stage. Whilst the heart displayed in his songs suggests otherwise, he might be a moody terror or a thoughtless womaniser, might yell at his pets, might leave his toenail clippings on the rug—or he might just as easily be a delight. That’s none of my concern. I’m in a privileged position, as so many of us are, to be able to get my hands on all his magnificent albums and play them whenever I want, and that’s all I need from him. They work sufficient magic for me to appreciate life against the odds when I allow him in, and I pray for his health so that he may continue to produce these poetic creations for many years to come or at least enjoy a long life doing whatever he wants to do, as he has already given us so much.
Well, I got a bit soppy and side-tracked there, but that’s the potency of his performance—intricate yet aggressive, a polished sort of raw. When he finished his first song, someone near me breathlessly uttered an overwhelmed, "Wow!" and the Barbican erupted in a roar of massive cheers, whilst the man on stage took a swig of bottled still water as though he were doing nothing extraordinary, all in a day’s work.
Without speaking, Luka busied himself with an outstandingly moving, dark Spanish guitar introduction to the next supreme song, Primavera. To its instantly memorable slow, steady beat, he began, "You were sent into this world in the darkest winter days./How did I have such fortune to know you?" For the captivating and immediately appealing chorus, he delicately raised his voice high from the booming bellow of the melodic verses in a manner reminiscent of the fine Finn Brothers, belting out, "Me, see me now, I am August oak leaf….you are primavera." It is rare that my weak and battered mind can remember anything these days after only one hearing, yet I feel I could already teach a university course on the riches of this song; I have hummed nothing else since.
Every time he brought us to the refrain of this spectacular composition, I must admit to expecting him to sing "Footsteps, I could learn to listen" as the lead-in chords must be similar to Fertile Rock, but there the similarity ended. The song’s warmth filled the Hall as Luka demonstrated some remarkable hand gymnastics on the guitar that confirmed that his mitts were clearly working fine again. It is hard to believe that this man has been plagued with tendonitis, and astounding to think that he recently had throat infections that might have robbed us of this pleasure, and I congratulate him for clearly following the doctor’s orders so that he could make it back to this remarkable condition. He closed the song with more fancy fretwork full of the romance of expert Spanish classical guitar.
His efforts were rewarded with considerable applause. He thanked us and then told us that, in 1972, when he was 17, he had his first ever gig as the opening act for a band called Planxty. People applauded as he added with a tiny wry smile, "And you can see I’ve come a long way!"
I must pause for a moment to catch my breath as I now do a calculation that reveals him to be 50 this year. Amazing, other than a slight season of maturity visible behind his eyes, he is Peter Pan, looking terrific and exuding a youthfulness that I envy as a person 11 years his junior.
That maturity is more evident in his music than on his person, I would say. Although poets like him often seem to have a romantic, youthful take on the world, Luka injects so much more intelligence and life into his songs now. He explained where the next one came from, called Thank You for Bringing Me Here, which he said had been inspired by a Belfast friend. Whilst they were drinking opposite McGann’s pub (I presume the one in Doolin, County Clare, known for its Irish music sessions), this friend recounted an incident when he and his eight-year-old daughter had been walking down a beach on the Aran Islands at sunset. His young daughter turned to her father and said, "Thank you for bringing me here", which understandably inspired Luka to write about the profundity of such innocent but thoughtful words.
During the quick pace of the guitar introduction to the new song, Luka leaned his head back and smiled before beginning to sing lyrics from the young girl’s point of view. Somewhere in the bright, exquisite tune, Luka emphasised the words, "I know I am wanted in this world," and part of me longed for that comforted confidence of sheltered youth.
Luka’s punishing session on the guitar during the bridge of the song should be used as an NHS advert to give hope to other tendonitis sufferers, and when he drew the touching song to a close, silencing the striking sounds he had created, we offered up the only noise we were capable of sending back: immense applause.
Support slots are too short, so Luka wasn’t wasting any time, and he stopped only long enough to take a quick swig of water and thank us before pounding away at the nameless guitar with electrifying speed. He spoke over the thrilling promise of the introduction to remark to us, "Perhaps it might be a little bit difficult to explain to a London audience, but this will go a little way towards explaining where I come from." My heart leapt in excitement, as I knew that he was a bogman, deep down, it was where he came from….I was going to get to hear I’m a Bogman live. The recorded arrangement on Between the Mountain and the Moon is genuine perfection—a mouth-watering concoction of beautifully bleating Spanish trumpets, a thumping drumbeat that could ward off the devil, heartfelt lyrics full of fondness for his home, and just everything pulled together in such harmony, with such evocative drama, that I picture in my head every time I stop to listen—and one must stop to listen—specific scenes that begin an Oscar-winning World Cinema classic. Not a film I can recommend at Blockbusters, but one in my head that hasn’t been made yet, so let’s just hope the director comes to me for help with the soundtrack when it is finally created. The proof of Luka’s potent performance is in the fact that someone like me who generally would not wish to hear one of the most perfect songs in the world tampered with was eagerly anticipating its transformation into a bare-bones number by one man holding a bunch of wood with nylon stretched across it.
Perhaps the sophisticated City folk in the audience who were out for a night of music without being so familiar with the performers would have mistaken this tune as a proclamation of Luka’s being some sort of swamp monster. It’s true, the concept of the "precious wetlands" can initially be hard to grasp if you know nothing of them, but it’s impossible not to fall for this swamp monster’s silken voice, enchanting repartee and to-die-for repertoire.
He led us gently into his world by proudly proclaiming twice in a speaking voice, "I’m a bogman!" before leaping into the explosion he'd fused and racing through the words like Linford Christie. He was bashing his guitar so rapidly that I half imagined that big brother Christy had snuck up behind him with his bodhrán, with perhaps a dozen other Moores standing in the wings picking out the tune on steel strings, for surely that staggering sound could only be created by myriad able hands. When it came to the (forgive me) Rolf Harris bit—you know, the long "diddly dum" bit, Luka pulled it off apparently without breathing for a good two minutes, proving that, should he ever wish to produce pearls of a different sort, he could easily take up pearl diving. When he came up for air at the end of the song, the audience seemed to need a moment to recover from the bends, pausing for a second to reel over the mind-blowing, breathtaking experience before showering Luka with an ocean of cheers—nay, roars. Luka looked particularly chuffed as he thanked us (for, when you think about it, thanking him).
Luka, who usually sings with his eyes shut, then surveyed the audience with a grin. "Fantastic!" he concluded. Then, almost in a tuneful rhythm, he said, "Planxty—Barbican—London—me—you—fantastic! I love it!" So did we. Continuing his little moment of jolly, he then appeared to mutter "Shite…comes to mind", which was a bit of a confusing signal. Perhaps I misheard it. He must have sensed the bafflement in the air from many of us, and he quickly tried to explain, saying, "that means happy—sorry!" Well, I’m not up on any type of Irish slang and even if I could find something spelled vaguely similarly that he might have said, like "sláinte", I’m told that’s pronounced "schlancha", so there’s not much point in my tiny American-in-London brain trying to figure out what exactly was said or meant. (This stumble into linguistics reminds me of wandering with my mother and her friends through downtown Charlotte, North Carolina, on the sunny morning of my brother’s wedding when they decided to eat an early lunch in a cavernous Irish theme pub called Rí Rá. I clearly remember the group expressing disappointment that the pub didn’t have a more Irish-sounding name rather than the "Italian" expression they took that to be! Bless.)
Luka’s mutterings all seemed somehow to be part of a sweet moment anyway, and he communicated perfectly well with us stuffy Londoners throughout the evening with his songs. It was good to see that he appeared to be enjoying the concert as well.
He then told us that he wanted to sing us a song that he had written 20 years ago: City of Chicago. As he has never, to my knowledge, released this song before, I imagine the Planxty fans were cheering the song they had heard Luka’s brother Christy cover. Thrilled with the cheer, Luka said, "Thank you!" in a deliberate way and then paused for more applause, smiling to admit that he was trying to milk out another cheer. Then, as though to explain his jovial mood, he quipped, "Unlike Bob Geldof, I really love Monday. It’s my favourite night to sing. I always say that people who go to a gig on Monday night really want to be there!" This earned such a big laugh, it turned into applause. No doubt I wasn’t the only one who had dragged myself there--and felt utterly foolish afterwards for having had any doubts.
After putting a big smile on every face, Luka soothed us with a slower version of the song, delicately plucking at the strings of his guitar as he sang with a beautiful clarity of the fact that the potato famine had driven people from Ireland in 1847, so in the city of Chicago, "there are people dreaming of the hills of Donegal." The tune was so peaceful and apparently uncomplicated, it could make one wonder why it wasn’t written a hundred times before, but I imagine Luka is like an ice skater in making something look simple and graceful when in fact it’s quite complex and takes years of practice to disguise the work as effortless.
When our wildly appreciative applause eventually tapered off after that number, Luka told us that the next day would be a great day, not just because it was the 1st of February, not just because it would be Saint Brigid’s Day, but because it would be the day on which his new album would be available "on the old website there," and the audience chuckled at his plug.
He then said that he’d recently realised that a lot of his songs were about "being in places, leaving places, missing places….This one," he said, "is a bit different. It’s called No Matter Where You Go, There You Are". He said it had been inspired by his friend Mohamed, who was an Algerian living in Galway. He thanked us for listening and burst into a rapid guitar intro to the song, another instantly beguiling melody that would surely win anyone over immediately with its hooks and furious pace. This album was clearly going to be a real stunner. His heavenly voice repeated the wise words, "You must go follow your star; no matter where you go, there you are." Paul Young, eat your heart out.
Luka finished up by bashing the heck out of his innocent but tough guitar—not in destructive Pete Townsend fashion, you understand, but by ripping out some music with what looks like violence but sounds like silky exultation—hard love, really. He was met immediately with a rising wall of monumental cheers, over which he had to shout out, "G’night, God bless, thank you very much!" before descending the steps on the far side of the stage and disappearing into the mysterious world behind the stage door.
He had played for about half an hour, almost turning the Barbican into the type of sacred ground full of spirituality of which he so frequently sings, and he had worked us up into such a happy frenzy that we had no energy left to start feeling depressed that it was over. Nor was there time to go outside and sulk, as Planxty were due to follow within minutes. I held out a faint hope throughout the Planxty set that Christy would invite on stage his wee brother Luka to join them for a number, but no such luck—not that the Planxty set seemed to be lacking in anything, I must admit!
After the concert, I rushed home to get to bed so I could be sure to be up on time on St Brigid’s Day/Groundhog Day to order my copy of Luka’s latest album, Innocence, and hear several of those lustrous songs again.
I wish I could have crystallized the striking memory of Luka’s opening set by taking a photo, and I did have my camera with me, but the Barbican is terribly strict with its no-camera policy, and big scary bouncer types were tracking down anyone near the source of a flash, so I never reached for mine. Plus I heard once that Luka is not keen on having his photograph taken whilst performing. In any case, much as I would have loved to have taken a photograph of him to keep the magnificent memory fresh, there is no way that it would have done him justice. He is an amazing king of hearts in a world of plain suits. Long may he reign.
Copyright © 2005 by TC. All rights reserved.
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have visited this page reviewing Luka Bloom's support performance before Planxty at the Barbican Centre, London
since 26 March 2005