Mike Wilson penned this review.
The Dubliners are true legends of folk music, having now performed together as a group for 44 years. Many of the stories they tell of Dublin, are of a city that has all but disappeared in this day and age, and they are now as much a part of folklore as the songs and tunes that they perform.
Tonight, The Dubliners consisted of just two original members; Barney McKenna on banjo and John Sheahan on fiddle. Sean Cannon was in fine voice, and can hardly be described as a newcomer, having been a member of The Dubliners since the early 1980s. Patsy Watchorn is no spring chicken, but has been with the band for only a couple of years. Watchorn is seemingly a stalwart of the Dublin folk music scene, though largely unknown to the majority of the audience, which may have accounted for the relative apathy with which he was greeted. The Dubliners’ usual guitarist, Eamonn Campbell had sadly returned home to be with a poorly family member, and was replaced tonight by the talented classical guitarist, Michael Howard.
Barney McKenna is largely recognised as the man who popularised the tenor banjo in Irish music, and his characteristic playing style was very much evident tonight. Approaching 70, fragile of appearance, and seemingly struggling to walk, it is somewhat paradoxical to witness Barney’s fingers effortlessly tripping up and down the fret board and picking out his trademark banjo licks. The crowd showed a warm fondness for Barney every time he was allowed the chance to perform a solo spot, and indulged him his hilarious, drawn out tales. Though not equipped with a particularly sweet voice, it was nonetheless touching to witness Barney’s emotional rendition of “I Wish I Had Someone To Love Me,” and to witness Barney singing an old shanty is to witness a true legend in action. Tonight’s shanty was the enchanting “Fiddler’s Green,” and the audience joined Barney enthusiastically on the rousing choruses.
John Sheahan is an understated genius, and a totally affable and likeable gentleman. He seems to be the glue that holds the whole band together. His effortlessly fluid playing style translates into whichever instrument he picks up and proves particularly satisfying on his flawless fiddle playing. Obviously a very gifted and creative person, we were treated tonight to a reading of Sheahan’s poetry by way of a moving tribute to a former-Dubliner, the late and very much missed Luke Kelly. Sheahan’s lilting fiddle composition, “St. Patrick’s Cathedral,” was further testament to his remarkable talent.
Sean Cannon has a very distinctive singing voice, drawing to some extent on the ‘sean nos’ style. I particularly like Sean’s vocals and was a little disappointed that he didn’t feature more in tonight’s concert. Cannon turned in great performances of Ewan MacColl’s “Manchester Rambler,” and the traditional “Black Velvet Band.” It was however, towards the end of tonight’s concert that he must have stored up all his energy for an outstanding “Whisky In The Jar,” where he really attacked the vocals, almost growling out the lyrics at some points. This was a rare energetic moment, in what was otherwise a relatively subdued evening. This was exactly the type of Dubliners performance that I’d come to see!
There was alas, something missing tonight. I felt that they lacked a front-man with the charisma that could command the respect and adoration of the audience. There was sadly no Luke Kelly, no Ronnie Drew, no Paddy Reilly — Patsy Watchorn is a good enough singer but was nowhere near to filling the void left by the absence of such characters. Indeed, I was personally disappointed that Sean Cannon didn’t rise to this particular challenge, as he would have been more than man enough.
A friend of mine remarked that tonight, The Dubliners were “a shadow of their former selves.” I have to agree with this to some extent, and the absence of a front man largely contributed to this feeling. I must add however, that I would rather spend a night in the faintest shadow of The Dubliners than many of the other offerings that take to the road these days. Their legend still burns bright, and with the likes of Barney McKenna, John Sheahan and Sean Cannon, it is still well worth going out of your way to catch them.
(Manchester, UK, November 3rd 2006)