Thursday 26 April 2018

Music: It's a capital idea: Dublin in song

New material: Gemma Hayes has contributed a track for Starboard Home, as part of the Dublin Port Authority project.
New material: Gemma Hayes has contributed a track for Starboard Home, as part of the Dublin Port Authority project.
John Meagher

John Meagher

Dublin Port Authority is not the first organisation one might think of when it comes to stoking the creativity of Irish musicians but that's exactly what it's done on a project called Starboard Home. The idea was to encourage some of the finest domestic acts of the moment to write a song inspired in some way by Dublin, and more specifically, its venerable port and the storied Liffey that bisects the city.

Eleven musicians of very different hues rose to the challenge and the resulting album is an idiosyncratic love letter to our capital. Bell X1's Paul Noonan helped marshal the participating musicians - with the not inconsiderable help of Gary Sheehan of the National Concert Hall and Nick Seymour of Crowded House, who was the album's producer. (Noonan and Seymour go way back - the latter recorded Bell X1's debut album, Neither Am I.)

There are original songs from such a disparate bunch of Dubliners as Richie 'Jape' Egan, James Vincent McMorrow and John Sheahan, veteran member of The Dubliners. There are also contributions from a few reared outside the Pale, including Tipperary's Gemma Hayes and Cavan's Lisa O'Neill.

But perhaps the most striking name on the project is that of Paul Cleary, frontman of the Blades, one of the greatest bands to have come out of Dublin in the late 1970s. The track he wrote for it, 'Kingfisher Blue', continues the rich vein of form he showed on last year's four-track Blades EP, Smalltown, and was inspired by an upbringing in Ringsend.

One of Dublin's oldest 'villages', it's located close to the point where the Liffey meets Dublin Bay and after moving here from neighbouring Irishtown when he was "10 or 11", Cleary lived "50 yards from the Liffey wall" until he moved out of the family home in his early 20s. The song is, clearly, a labour of love.

"It's autobiographical," he says. "The Larry and Mae mentioned are my mum and dad and the Stella and Pat are two rowing clubs, Stella Maris and St Patrick's. I remember the regattas that were held on the river when I was a teen." The title is significant too. "The kingfisher is a bird that you find on the Liffey and kingfisher blue was one of my mum's favourite colours. And I used Raytown, not just because it was the original name for Ringsend but because it's a poetic name - for me, it's redolent of Motown." Any admirer of the Blades - and there is no shortage of fervent devotees - will know that the name provided the title to their peerless 1986 best - Raytown Revisited.

"My default setting is to say no to these things - I don't know why, it's very negative. But when Gary Sheehan contacted me and mentioned commissioning a song about the Liffey, I couldn't say no, because it was part of me. Rivers are used all the time in songs - it's quite an easy metaphor to use, it is the cycle of life - it's almost a cliché, but it's true: the challenge is to do something a bit different."

Cleary was tipped for great things when the Blades first emerged almost 40 years ago, but despite writing a glut of songs that have stood the test of time quite superbly - including 'Hot For You', 'The Bride Wore White' and 'Last Man in Europe' - they never got the international recognition their talent deserved. Much has subsequently been made of their rivalry with a certain Dublin band from north of the Liffey, but Cleary says he has no ill-feelings that U2 became world-beaters and his band fizzled out. "A lot of what they've done has been very good," he says. "There's no animosity there - good luck to them."

It was thought that their 1985 album, The Last Man in Europe, would be the one that would raise the Blades' profile, but it didn't happen, and for many years after, they were cited as the ones that got away.

They finally reformed for a comeback show in Dublin's Olympia in December 2013 and have been a going concern since. "The last thing we wanted was to put on a gig that was only OK, where we were just a shadow of ourselves," he says. "And some bands have done that - not intentionally, of course, but it's how it turned out."

The acclaim was rapturous and they've played sporadically since then, including a forthcoming headline performance at the Groove festival, Bray, on July 2. New Blades material is likely to be aired now that the band are in the midst of recording a new album, set for release, Cleary hopes, before the end of the year.

"The album is 50pc there," he says, "but, in a way, the closer you are [to finishing], the further away you get. We've got the frames, as I'd call it, for 12 or 13 songs."

Writing 'Kingfisher Blue' has helped fire his creativity, particularly when it comes to looking back to those youthful days in Dublin's fair city. "There's a song called 'The Magnets'," he says. "It's basically about the Blades, because we used to play in a venue called the Magnet on Pearse Street. They were happy times, but I don't want to get too nostalgic about them. Some of those venues were pokey and the sound was awful." Like so many other establishments played by the Blades, U2 and their contemporaries, it has long been demolished: a Spar stands in its place today.

After years away from the business of recording new music, Cleary is grasping his second coming with both hands. One senses he is pleased to be something of an elder statesman on the Starboard Home album, although he quips that John Sheahan is more senior. "I don't feel part of any Dublin scene," he says. "Even the word 'scene' is a bit risible. I'm just glad that people want to hear new music from both me and the Blades. It feels like a very different time than when we first started out, but it's an exciting time too."

Starboard Home is released on Friday. Participating musicians play the National Concert Hall, Dublin, on June 22 and 23.

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