Ryan Francesconi + Cian Nugent in Cork
You could have been in Eastern Europe at times. If you stared up at the
renovated church ceiling, you could have been back in time by a couple of hundred years, such was the antique quality of the music*. This was Ryan Francesconi playing at Triskel Christchurch in Cork last Friday, a sublime match-up of artist and venue, if ever there was one. Before saying any more about the gig, here's a few lines from a review of his current album that caught my eye.
"Skirting any obvious models, this is an attempt to establish his own
original voice on the instrument ... These are polished and meditative
pieces, given to frequent pauses and moody moments. On the title track
Francesconi can flight out sparkling ornaments that recall Toumani
Diabate's kora ... The music is sophisticated, but there's an escape
from the urban, a sort of West Coast Buddhist romanticism. That's not
meant as a snide comment - this is a beautiful album, carried off
with poetic aplomb." Clive Bell, The Wire
This is the tune mentioned there, which finished the Triskel gig, the title track of his current album Parables on Drag City.
Roughly half the gig was solo, for the other half Ryan was joined by a violin player. I didn't catch the name of Ryan's colleague at the time (the introduction was lost in the high Christchurch dome), but she played great, supple, agile melodies. You wouldn't call it accompaniment as such, it was as if they were duetting, giving and taking the lead role. But I spotted this web advert for an Australian gig of Ryan's a few months back.
"Ryan will play one set of solo guitar compositions. For a second set,
of pieces inspired by Balkan traditional music, he will be joined by
Mirabai Peart (also of Joanna Newsom's touring band) on violin."
This clip from the Joanna Newsom performance "under canvas" in Marlay Park in Dublin the other day confirms the presence onstage of Ryan and Mirabai.
Some thoughts about the gig. It was a wonderful experience, somewhere in the bounds of world music, with a distinct feeling of time travel to it. The tunes unfurled themselves like cats stretching out in the sun (thank you Stewart Lee), but were quite capable also of turning into frantic creatures (cats?) with bursts of notes skipping up and down Balkan scales. Ryan mentioned Balkan and Greek music himself in introducing a couple of numbers. He told one story about a trip he took with Mirabai last year to the island of Lesbos, which is Greek but faces very close to Turkey. He talked about arriving there on spec off the ferry, finding a place to stay, exploring the island, meeting local musicians on the street and playing along with them. It painted a picture of music as a means of communication, of travel and companionship, a way of transporting yourself and of connecting with other people. It also showed a deep understanding and appreciation of the source, origin of the music he plays, which added a lot to the overall performance.
Although an obviously outstanding musician, he wore the impressive technique very lightly, playing with what seemed like little effort. This wasn't in any way showy, it was more like a humility, as if he saw himself as a channel for the music. Something in that Wire quote rings true - "West Coast Buddhist romanticism". (Ryan was born in California, and lives in Seattle now.) There was something idealistic in his demeanour, almost hippy-ish you might say (that photo on top does feature Stonehenge, after all). At the risk of reaching a bit, it was as if he's a solid believer in the universal power of music to make bridges between people. You get this impression from Irish trad musicians (among others) in sessions sometimes, that absorption in the moment, and it struck me that Cork's sizeable trad music support base would have found plenty to like in this gig. There are some revealing comments by Ryan here, in an interview on the G-Man blog, on the subject of performing solo live and the difference between solo acoustic and solo with electronics.
It was not a night to concentrate on identifying tunes (Ryan himself didn't introduce any of the solo set by name, if memory serves) but I think he also played this beauty from the current album.
His artist biog on this site has a comprehensive summary of his many projects and releases, covering jazz, folk and ambient music, solo projects as well as collaborations. It also previews the Parables album with the phrase "as if the English Nick Drake was in fact Bulgarian". That might be a little bit easy, as comparisons go, but it's not a million miles away. A great performer.
A word about Cian Nugent, who played before Ryan. His was a more studied performance, you might even say intense, with impressive technique also on show. I thought some more background information on the tunes would have helped engage the audience a bit more, although hearing the stirring Sixes & sevens from his current two-track album Doubles on VHF Records made it worth arriving early alone (albeit without the lovely flurries of trumpet and clarinet on the studio recording). The album is UOH-recommended and you can hear that tune below.
Sixes & Sevens by Cian Nugent
All in all, a decent and appreciative crowd (good business was underway at the merchandise stand) and a standout gig in a distractingly beautiful venue. And to Plugd, for putting the gig on, chapeau, as they say on the Tour de France.
*In the Gulpd café/bar afterwards, you could also have been in Barcelona (and unlike Catalunya, there's Murphy's on draught) - full-length glass doors leading on to a medieval laneway, walls adorned with underground performance art memorabilia (a Black Sun retrospective), food as well as drink available...are you with me? I know the illusion would have been shattered as soon as you turned the corner to Rearden's/Havana's but at least we can dream.