As a relative newbie to both Cork and the ‘Noise’ stable, I am still in awe at the amount of great venues this city possess. Tonight is no different with my first introduction to the Half Moon Theatre. I’m sure the regular gig goers are more than acquainted with the setting and could tell me an interesting story or two if provoked (don’t start us Stephen – Ed.).
Kicking off tonight’s proceedings is former music student and Knocknagree native Elly O’ Keeffe. Armed with just her guitar, O’ Keeffe takes to the stage with an air of confidence. It is obvious that she is well seasoned and has paid her dues for many years. O’ Keeffe delivered a wonderful début album When We Live in 2010. Falling somewhere between Liz Phair and Stevie Nicks, what separated ‘O Keeffe from being “just another singer-songwriter” was her live band.
In certain parts of the set the songs sound like an unplugged Fleetwood Mac, you can almost hear the 70′s FM rock tones intertwined between the melody and the guitar. Once again driving home the need for a live band that would display the songs in their true essence.
Although she battles with an increasingly loud crowd at the upstairs bar, it doesn’t stop her taking to the piano for a gorgeous ballad titled ‘Mislead’. The skill that ‘O Keeffe posses is her ability to glide seamlessly between an incredibly powerful vocal delivery and an eerie softness while maintaining perfect pitch at every pace. Finishing with an acoustic cover of Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time after Time’ it would seem that she has completely silenced the riff raff upstairs. Before exiting for a quick cigarette I overheard one mature lady on O’Keeffe – “Bressie would put her through in a flash girl”. Who am I to argue?
Taking to the stage just after 10pm are head-liners The Hard Ground. This show is in support of the band’s fantastic new single ‘Pawn’, taken from the recently released début album Broken Conversations. Kicking things off with the plinky plonky piano skank ‘Dance of a Lady’, it is more than obvious that we are dealing with some serious musicianship. From the natural, lock-tight groove of the rhythm section (drummer Damien Ryan and bassist Dave Duffy), to the splendid skank rhythm of the brass section, The Hard Ground certainly know a thing or two about song arrangements and structure.
Vocalist / Pianist Marlene Enright is one of the most enticing performers I’ve seen of late. Her vocal delivery is warm and enchanting yet vibey and timeless. Staying with the set opener, we also get our first taste of vocalist / guitarist Pat Carey’s contribution with his Waitsesque / smoker’s growl commanding attention from the first word. The plinky plonk piano opens into a Swordfishtrambone Stomp™ with Carey delivering everything but a lung into his performance. From there ‘Drinkin’ to Heaven’ provides us with some more tasty brass only to be outdone by the wonderful Kazoo solo from Carey.
At times I genuinely can’t believe how tight this band actually are. I was full sure that they were all playing to a click track but alas, not a headphone in sight. The new single ‘Pawn’ really is the band’s piece de resistance. It’s an absolutely stunning song, crafted to perfection and delivered with gusto – the band know it too. Enright and Carey show how compatible their voices really are hile the pizzicato strings shine through perfectly on the back beat. The only criticism is Carey’s overused Waits-like entrance into the chorus. Although we’re only three songs in, by this stage it’s like the drunken granddad bursting trough the door of a child-like sing-along. I’ve nothing against wearing your influences on your sleeve but at times it would seem that Enright is far from the Pawn she makes herself out to be.
From here out we’re treated to (yes, you guessed it….) a cover of Tom Waits ‘Way Down in the Hole’ known to many as the theme song from US TV show ‘The Wire’. Shockingly, vocal duties are left to Enright and her smooth velvet tones do it more than justice. However, it doesn’t last long. It’s not that Carey isn’t capable of delivering a great vocal – and if he is the main songwriter, he sure is doing one hell of a great job – it’s just a little bit overkill and somewhat forced at times. He sounds fantastic when taking on dual harmonies in his standard delivery but the more I hear the Waits spin the more I feel like Seymour trying to enjoy Blueshammer in the movie Ghost World.
The highlight of the night comes in the form of ‘Back Road’. Without doubt the quietest song of the night, the silence in the crowd only highlights its beauty. The ambient guitars, the swirling synth tones, the hypnotic brass and the soft mallet tip sticks create something quite beautiful indeed. Here we see a four part harmony sung with such sweetness you can’t help yourself wanting more. After the climax but before the final note one audience member sums it all up in one word “Beautiful!!!” he proclaims.
Another highlight was set closer ‘Bad Faith’ a hybrid of Jazz, Ska and Waltz with some world music style rhythms setting the pace. Drummer Damien Ryan again proves he’s a keeper with his Stewart Copeland-like ability keeping the groove alive like a runaway freight train. The trombone hook seems to get the people moving in every possible way known to man from polka to a mature take on bustin’ the grooves.
In retrospect, The Hard Ground are a band who are more than capable of writing a good song but are still somewhat finding their niche. It is evident that their time as music students has paid off. The song structures are faultless, the vocal arrangements are stunning and at the end of the day the songs are there. I don’t want to harp on about the Tom Waits thing but one final conclusion as a spectator, I don’t think they need it as much as they think they do.
As the set finishes they avoid the usual walk off – walk on encore routine and settle for the charming Cork way of wrapping it up stating “we were supposed to do the cool thing but sur…”.
The new single ‘Pawns’ it out now via itunes.