Review: Ireland 100: ‘The Gloaming’ at The Kennedy Center

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The Ireland 100 closes this weekend with new Irish sensation Ireland 100: The Gloaming who made their Kennedy Center debut with a lovely mix of traditional music, improvisation, and new classics. Since their debut two years ago they’ve been racking up awards and selling out concerts halls all over the world, including Royal Albert Hall in London and the Sydney Opera house, so it was a treat to hear them in a more intimate venue.

Thomas Bartlett, Dennis Cahill, Martin Hayes, Iarla O’Lionaird, and Caoimhin O’Raghallaigh. Photo by Triskel Christ Church.
Thomas Bartlett, Dennis Cahill, Martin Hayes, Iarla O’Lionaird, and Caoimhin O’Raghallaigh. Photo courtesy of Triskel Christ Church.

The Gloaming members Iarla ÓLionáird (vocals), Thomas Bartlett (a.k.a. “Doveman,” piano), Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh (hardanger), Martin Hayes (violin/fiddle), and Dennis Cahill (guitar) are all classically trained musicians who write their own songs and have no trouble making things up as they go along. ÓLionáird said they’d leave it to us to figure out what was improvised, composed, or written a few millennia ago.

The band is string heavy (particularly if you count piano strings) which makes for a unique sound without any percussion or bass lines. It allows the band to focus on what makes Irish music special – the emotion, crazy fast licks, and intricate melodies. They trade solos and duets, building up each song to a beautiful, frenzied finish.

The band focuses on well-known Irish tunes, but takes an almost new age bent with haunting, emotional songs like “Touch Me if You Dare,” “Music in the Glen,” “Fáinleog (Wanderer)” and one set called only “a journey of jigs.”

One highlight of the night was the softer songs.  Gloaming means twilight and they definitely take that to heart on a number of songs with a lyrical expression like “Song 44.”

ÓLionáird takes the lead on a number of songs, singing in Gaelic and English.  He has a soulful, beautiful tenor that makes the songs come alive in the finest tradition of Sean-nos (acapella) singing.  Nothing captures the beauty and the pain of life so well, but my favorite was a children’s song called “Cucanandy” which he says means “nothing in particular.”

Ó Raghallaigh and Hayes shined on “The Rolling Wave,” one of those very traditional pieces where waves of fiddle music filled the hall. Bartlett and Cahill traded solos on piano and guitar in “Oisin’s Song,” another of the more lyrical pieces.

The Gloaming stands out in the sea of Irish music for their sheer virtuosity, their willingness to experiment with other musical forms and bring them to the traditional songs, and their emotionality.  It’s not just get up there and play the same old reel as fast as possible, but they seem invested in building a canon of diverse and affecting pieces. It was the perfect end to a month-long celebration of Irish culture and apart from history, a rollicking good time.

Running Time: Two hours, with no intermission.

The Gloaming played for one night only, June 4, 2016, at The Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For future performances and information at The Kennedy Center, check their calendar of events.