Face to face concerts aren’t possible at present but artists are finding creative ways to interact with audiences. John Meagher reports
It was set to be one of the most magical nights of his year. Colm Mac Con Iomaire, the Dublin musician who co-founded the trad band, Kíla, and has been a member of the Frames for years, was to perform his acclaimed second solo album, The River Holds Its Breath, in one of his favourite venues, Vicar Street, last Monday night.
He was going to be joined by the composer Bill Whelan — famed for his work on Riverdance and a collaborator with Mac Con Iomaire on the album. It was one of several concerts specially curated for the St Patrick’s Festival and the violin-player had spent months refining his performance in the hope that the gig would be a truly memorable one.
Then, just four days before he was due to appear on stage, it was cancelled. As soon as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar delivered a hasty address from Washington that indoor gatherings of 100 people or more should not happen, all concerts were immediately wiped from the slate.
“I understood it completely,” Mac Con Iomaire says. “It makes perfect sense — and it’s the right thing to do.”
But when the dust settled, he decided that the gig could still happen — albeit in a very different form. And so on Monday night he set up shop in the living room of his house in rural Wexford, put his phone camera on record and played a live show that he broadcasted on his social media channels.
“It felt good to be doing something,” he says. “And even though there was nobody in front of me, I did have the sense that there was an audience there.”
And what an audience. In the region of 140,000 people viewed the gig, either live or in the immediate days afterwards. “It was incredible, really. At Vicar Street I would have played to, what, 1,000 people? Now, I was reaching many multiples of that.”
And the audience was from all over the world, including a significant proportion in a lockdown Italy. “I think in a time of crisis like this, art is really important,” Mac Con Iomaire says. “It’s a way that we can connect with each other. It can help us escape. Culture is so important.”
‘Rediscover the essence of culture’
It is a sentiment that was echoed by French President Emmanuel Macron when announcing a 15-day lockdown this week: he urged the nation to “read, rediscover the essence of culture and education.”
And with so much of our daily lives shut down — everything from cinemas to sporting events to the simple pleasure of visiting coffee shops or meeting friends — many of us are experiencing more free time on our hands than we could have previously imagined.
And art is there to fill the void. The Limerick-based singer-songwriter Emma Langford was due to play shows in Austria and Germany this week in advance of the release of her second album, but all were cancelled.
In an age of rapidly declining sales of recorded music — where the streaming services rule the roost but artists can barely manage on the pittance paid per stream — touring has become more vital than ever to help musicians like Langford to put bread on the table. So Covid-19 didn’t just do away with the thrill of playing to live audiences, but also an important source of revenue.
On Wednesday night she played a live show from home and it was posted on her Facebook page. It was organised by the Cork-based Unemployable Promotions and featured eight artists playing under the #stayathome hashtag. People were invited to make a donation to support the artists and roughly €170 per act was raised.
“It really helps,” she says. “This will be a time of uncertainty for a lot of people, but it’s also a time where people want to support each other. And they can see value in music and the arts and want to help.”
With conventional gigs off the agenda for the foreseeable future, Langford believes online shows can temporarily replace that need. “There is something intimate and special about them,” she says. “It’s a different kind of show and there’s a comfort in knowing that you’re reaching out to people and they’re having a collective experience.”
Musicians have been quick off the mark to connect with audiences online. The Dundalk-based garage band, the Mary Wallopers, were due to support the Choice Music Prize-winning Lankum at Cork Opera House on the evening of St Patrick’s Day, but when that fell through, they opted to perform live from home and broadcast the concert on YouTube.
The enterprising three-piece even mocked up a room in the 200-year-old house they are renting to resemble a pub. In promoting the show, they urged people their own age to stay at home.
Daithi O Dronai — the Clare musician who fuses a background in trad with a passion for electronic music — had the novel idea of creating a new song for scratch live online. On Wednesday and Thursday, he invited fans on a journey to his homemade studio to demonstrate how a song could come into being.
For more than two hours each day, he broke down the mechanics of songwriting and recording and offered an intriguing look at how musicians take an idea and fashion something special from it. The lengthy footage is available on O Dronai’s YouTube channel.
On Wednesday, Bono posted a video clip of him singing a song he had written for the people of Italy affected by Covid-19. ‘Let Your Love Be Known’ is the first song from the U2 frontman in three years, although not everyone welcomed his efforts. There were 100 variants of the ‘haven’t we suffered enough’ line on social media soon after.
For children’s author Sarah Webb, the isolation imposed by the virus has presented several challenges — including fears that two book festivals that she helps to programme, a key source of income for her, will be cancelled. “It’s a very tough time for many people, including those in the creative fields,” she says. “Many just aren’t getting paid.”
But she believes it is also a time when the importance of the arts and entertainment will truly hit home. “As a family, we all sat around and watched Extra Ordinary [the comedy feature starting Maeve Higgins] and it’s rare that you can do that with a 17 and 14-year-old.”
Webb has kept busy by offering free online literature tutorials for parents and their children. She calls them ‘Creative Bursts’ and has been heartened by the response to date. “They’re ideas to help children be more creative. I’ve been doing this sort of thing for 20 years and, obviously, with what’s happened I wasn’t able to meet with children any more.”
The Museum of Literature Ireland [MoLI] — which, like all museums in the country, has been forced to shut — has shared Webb’s Creative Bursts on its website. “They’ve had thousands of hits — and from all over the world,” she says. “It’s quite playful and seems to connect with kids between, say, seven and 13/14. We’re going to do it for two weeks and see what happens after that.”
The London-based Irish comedian Alison Spittle was due to perform a series of comedy shows but all have had to be cancelled. Panicked about what to do next, she devised a ‘Covideoparty’ in which she leads a group-watch of a film on Netflix and tweets along with viewers. The idea seemed to tickle the fancy of many, and a group-watch of Matilda led several people to dress up as their favourite characters.
“It’s a thing that I’m doing because I have the time,” she told the Journal. “I was really depressed on Thursday and I just put all my energy into this. It snowballed — I didn’t think it would get this big.”
Some kind-hearted fans have even donated money to her online. “I was in tears the first night because I was just thinking, ‘My life is ruined’. I was so worried about rent and stuff. I’m not doing it for donations. Nobody has to give me any money.”
More established artists were keen to use their platform to raise money for others. Dubliner Gavin James, whose popularity here is such that he can play the 3Arena, played a live online gig on Thursday night “from my gaff” with all proceeds going to Alone, the charity founded in the 1980s by the late firefighter, Willie Bermingham, that helps elderly people.
And Imelda May also thought of the elderly — the cohort most at risk of Covid-19 —when she played an online show on St Patrick’s Day. All money raised went to old people helped by the London Irish Centre. “Donate anything she can,” she asked of her fans, “then get your pint, your Tayto and yourself ready for a little isolated seisiún.”
Meanwhile, Colm Mac Con Iomaire reckons he will do more live gigs during the duration of the crisis. “It seemed like something practical, positive, affirmative to do,” he says, “and it helped me and my family to take our minds off it. Knowing that we’re all in this together and helping each other — even in a small way like this — is very heartening.
He says that despite the trauma many are experiencing, our tech-heavy lives can be a force for good and help us weather this time. “In a way, we’re finding out what the internet was designed for — and not an ads agency to sell us stuff. It’s like going back to a more idealistic time of it. I can’t help but feel that the world will feel different after all of this, and that we may recalibrate and really get a sense of what’s truly important.”
Join the library
Okay, so you can’t physically go into a library — all buildings are closed for the foreseeable future — but you can sign up online and immediately available of the services of its Borrow Box online resource. It’s an ideal way to borrow ebooks and other materials and there’s a huge catalogue with which to choose from.
Watch arthouse films
There’s no shortage of movies on Netflix and its rivals, but if you’re really looking for the best of world cinema, you’ll have to search elsewhere. The Criterion Collection has up to 2,000 of the best films in cinema history for you to choose from while the Turkish streaming site, Mubi, offers a hand-picked new film every day. It’s just €1 for the first three months.
Listen to new music
These is a golden age for Irish music and you can catch up on the best of the lot on any streaming service. Lankum bagged the Choice Music Prize at the beginning of this month, but two of the best albums of the past two months didn’t even make the nominations — Jape’s (pictured) Sentinel and A Lazarus Soul’s The D They Put Between the R and L.
Support independent bookshops
Yes, you can get anything your heart desires on Amazon, but that’s only lining the pockets of the world’s wealthiest man, Jeff Bezos, yet more. Instead, why not buy books online from the likes of Dublin’s Gutter Bookshop or the long-established Kenny’s in Galway. The latter insists you’re likely to get books cheaper from them than from Amazon.