Spotting Leo at the entrance to Unit 23 Live I naturally went over to say hello. I began with an anecdote how earlier at a local bistro a girl behind the bar had asked how I was and, enthusing with a shout of Great, I explained this was because I was in town to see a band that evening she probably had never heard of [being considerably younger than me] Tír na nÓg who I last saw over 40 years ago. She concurred. She didn’t know them. It wasn’t the best line with her nor remembrance for Leo. However, I managed to follow-up with the observation that my friend Steve and I last saw Tír na nÓg at the Weeley Festival in 1971 which drew from him the nostalgic sigh Ah, Weeley…. I do feel we coalesced then, even if only briefly.
Being effusive – I trust not embarrassingly – I did add that his and Sonny’s music had been a significant soundtrack to my life, growing up in the early 70s, especially Tír na nÓg’s second and special album A Tear and a Smile. It still is special as was hearing songs from it during their genuinely stunning live performance that night.
The venue Unit 23 Live in Totnes was the perfect setting for Saturday’s gig. An anonymous looking ‘unit’ in a block on a small industrial site, it was inside an intimate yet nicely open space, including balcony, with tables and chairs set out for the performance. Easy to park right there next to it and a place to sit for the night at the front of the stage as my friend and I had arrived early. At my age, such ease of attending is bliss.
Finely supported by the psychefolk of Jacqueline Crystal, when Tír na nÓg started their set they didn’t so much roll back the years as simply reconvene them and at times add electronic effects to blow us away with louder sounds than the folk of their 70s output, Leo O’Kelly playing some fine echoed and wah-wah guitar, for example on Venezuela, Sonny Condell applying other effects as on Love is Like a Violin: I don’t think I have ever seen so many effects pedals linked up to two acoustic guitars.
In running now through most of their set for the night, I want to convey its rich variety as well as nostalgic impact. Opening with Mariner Blues from their eponymous first album, it was noticeable how playing live adds another impressive layer to their oeuvre [as well as musicianship], clearly no waning in the performing over the years, and Leo’s guitar soloing impressive. In introducing next Looking Up, he tells us this is about first seeing Sonny back in 1968 and deciding then how he wanted to perform with him, and Leo is once more superb on electric [electrified] guitar. And then it is the first outing for a song from A Tear and a Smile, the sublime When I Came Down with its sweet chorus Oh you are still a mystery to me that I am signing in my head from all those years ago.
Then we return to ’71 and the first album with Aberdeen Angus, a classic folk ditty where such musical and lyrical jollity was a requisite of albums at the time – the opening on record sounding like Sandy Shaw’s Puppet on a String which I mention as joking about thoughts of both Sandys Denny and/or Shaw become a part of the warming banter between Leo and Sonny. We are next introduced to the bossa nova of Andria from their latest album The Dark Dance, recorded after a 42 year ‘break’ from Strong in the Sun in 1973. Before the intermission Leo refers to someone who recalled a song of theirs on the album featuring, among others, Sandy Denny, Jethro Tull, Quintessence, Cat Stevens, Mountain, Free and The Incredible String Band: and it was of course the brilliant Island sampler El Pea - with the single huge pea on the cover, the original vinyl in my collection - and the song they play from this is Our Love Will Not Decay, taken from their first album.
After the interlude, Leo and Sonny return with another gem from my all-time favourite, Two White Horses, ploughing a beautiful nostalgic line from back then to now, and immediately another from this album, a folk ditty from there – the jaunty rag of Bluebottle Stew.
An upbeat switch is, as Leo tells us, one of their few covers, the rock of Nick Drake’s Free Ride, and then the title track from the album on which both of these first appeared, Strong in the Sun. One more cover is of the Jagger/Richards Play with Fire and Leo for the first time that night plays violin, this with a haunting tone.
Introducing the album The Dark Dance explicitly, they play You to Yellow which is the first song on that and perhaps one of the most reminiscent of their signature sound, Sonny, as throughout the night, quite poignant in his familiar vocal lilt and clarity. And then it is the glorious So Freely, back to A Tear and a Smile, my managing to defer a sentimental reverie producing the former physical response in the title but definitely not preventing the second from spreading across my face, and I record this on my camera, just for me, as a precious memory from this night.
They then play Venezuela, very much Leo’s song from the 80s and prompted by a TV programme he watched then, a rousing guitar and vocal with effects performance that blows me away, this also resonating – literally – as my friend and I sit there at the very front and in the smaller but excellent venue that is Unit 23. There is a ‘demo’ version of this you can see on YouTube, as well as more recent live performances, but you have to be there next to the PA to get the full wonderful impact, and a fine display of lead guitar prowess.
Another highlight of the night, as with Venezuela, was the song Eyelids into Snow, written by Sonny with his then 80s band Scullion, and it is a CS&N-esque perfection – both in that songwriting and the night’s performance – Sonny and Leo in superb harmony, and Sonny at his most vocally soaring. What more could one want?
Well, obviously, an encore. This brought us more delightful banter about loving the same girlfriend and playing the songs Piccadilly and Daisy Lady, though there was confusion about which was actually concerning this girl – and did they play both? I can’t fully recall because by this stage I was in a palpable reverie having enjoyed the very good company of my friend from long ago and Weeley and now, and this outstanding performance from Tír na nÓg in Totnes and Unit 23 Live.
For other reviews and observations from me on the work of this duo, read here.
If you get the chance you must make the effort to see them live:
Thur 4th May - Cathedral Arts Festival, Duke of York, BELFAST
Sat 3rd June - The Borderline, LONDON
Sun 4th June - Acoustic Festival of Great Britain, UTTOXETER
Tues 6th June - Milton Rooms, MALTON, North Yorkshire
Wed 7th June - The Old Courts, WIGAN
Thur 8th June - Trades Club, HEBDEN BRIDGE, West Yorkshire
Fri 9th June - Bridgewater Bar, RUNCORN, Cheshire
Wed 1st Nov - Kitchen Garden, Birmingham
Thurs 2nd Nov - Arts Centre, Evesham
Fri 3rd Nov - The Crown, Nuneaton
Sat 4th Nov - Greystones, Sheffield
Their music can be bought here.