Christy Moore - The song's the thing
Christy Moore is talking about Glasgow’s Barrowland ballroom, a venue - and an audience - so dear to his heart that he wrote a song about it. In a forty-three year professional career, the Irish troubadour has played more rooms than he can count, big and small, to audiences attentive and rowdy, and has seen most of the things there are to see from a stage, including relationships being formed and deals of various other kinds being struck.
There are also other cities, such as Manchester and London, in both of which he lived for spells after moving to England in 1966, and Dublin, of course, where he can measure his own progression from playing in the back room of a pub to going out in front of thousands of expectant faces. None of them, however, has moved him to pick up pen, paper and guitar in tribute.
“Barrowland is utterly unique,” he says. “I have never encountered any place quite like it. OK, the place itself is eccentric and atmospheric but, for this singer, it is the spirit created by the people who come to listen. Wherever it is they come from colours the night, and they come from all sides in cars, buses, vans and trains, in the shimmering heat and the snow and rain.”
Glasgow, too, he adds, has always been a songsters’ resting place where he has always found a welcome, going back to the Glasgow Folk Centre in Montrose Street, where he made his Scottish debut in 1968, and the friendships he formed with fellow song hunters and sometimes song teachers: Danny Kyle, Josh MacRae, Arthur Johnstone and Hamish Imlach, whom Moore remembers during sessions in The Scotia Bar, calling for, as he sings in Barrowland, “neon pints of Fidel Castro” (a Cuban rum, Russian vodka and American Coca-Cola cocktail).
This coming week, as he predicts in his sleeve note to Barrowland on his latest album, Listen, Moore will once again climb the stairs to the ballroom stage to play to his fans, whom he describes fondly as “very well adjusted, moderate and clean living lunatics.” However, he might not have made the trip over from Ireland, indeed he might not be appearing live anywhere any more, but for the man by his side, guitarist and one-man backing band Declan Sinnott.
Moore and Sinnott’s relationship goes back to the early 1980s when Moore and his old mucker from Newbridge, sometime neighbour and co-founder of the heroically influential Planxty, Donal Lunny were plotting a new route. Sinnott was the first musician they enlisted for what became another seismic Irish band, Moving Hearts, and in the years following that band’s successes with albums including The Storm, he had become a key record producer and developer of Irish talent, including singer-songwriter John Spillane, Mary Black and Sinead Lohan.
In 1997, Moore suffered a breakdown, which left him unable to work for almost two years.
“I honestly felt that I would not perform publicly again,” he says. “Then in 1999, I began to sing again in my work room. That led to an album called Traveller that was recorded in the garden shed with Leo Pearson. Then I bumped into Declan at the cinema and we got together and sang for a few days in West Cork. It all drifted back together in an organic sort of way. We started an album, This is the Day, in Kilkenny and one night I got a strong compulsion to gig. The following night we played Cleere's Theatre in Kilkenny to ninety people and the seed was sown to return to work.”
Going out on stage ten years later, he adds, the main feeling is one of gratitude towards Sinnott, whose contribution in terms of encouragement and musical settings has lifted Moore to a level of performance that, to these ears, actually exceeds his pre-breakdown best. This hasn’t been so much a comeback as an artistic renewal.
If, at the time of his breakdown in 1997, Moore had felt in need of rest and recuperation, it would have been no surprise. Since giving up his post as clerk with the National Bank in 1966, he had immersed himself in the troubadour’s life in England and Scotland, inspired by the Clancy Brothers, who were, he says, his Beatles. Living in his Volkswagen Beetle sometimes for weeks on end, he grafted, first to get gigs, then to climb from the £6-8 per night level up to the next stage, the £15 that his friends Hamish Imlach and Ralph McTell could command, consuming liquid fringe benefits enthusiastically.
Having recorded his first album, the now very collectable Paddy on the Road in 1969, and failed to experience the uplift that the “he must be good, he’s got an album out” cache of the time was expected to bring, he decamped back to Ireland. There, in the cellars of a Georgian mansion in Kildare, with a group of musicians including Donal Lunny, Andy Irvine, Liam O Flynn and Kevin Conneff, he recorded Prosperous. Named after the house-cum-recording studio, the album lit a fuse under Irish folk music. Moore, Lunny, Irvine and Flynn formed Planxty – Conneff would later join the Chieftains – and after some initial indifference, began to induce responses more in keeping with a rock band.
It was a hectic time and after the band’s third album, Cold Blow and the Rainy Night, Moore left to go solo. But things stayed hectic. He rejoined Planxty. Then the band imploded (eventually reappearing triumphantly in 2004). He formed Moving Hearts, made two great albums, then left and ran into a legal storm when his song about a fire in a Dublin night club, They Never Came Home, was challenged in the High Court. Already a target for the special police due to his outspoken political sympathies, his home was raided and even more recently, he was detained at Holyhead under the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2002. On top of this, there were drugs problems, which a heart attack finally brought to an end, and much alcohol, which he has also now long since sworn off. Throughout his offstage battles, however, the music and touring, from Clonmel to California, didn’t stop … until 1997.
These days, when Moore tells his audience that he and Sinnott are going for an interval cup of tea, that’s exactly what he means, although they might just go backstage and play another song or two, because the gig doesn’t only consist of what the audience gets to hear.
“Before the gig Declan and I always play in the dressing room,” says Moore. “We will go at it with gusto and this warms everything up before show time. When we hit the lamps it feels like we are continuing rather then commencing. The set list emerges as we perform. We may decide what to begin with but even that may change twixt wing and chair.”
The set list can draw on up to one hundred songs or more – when he was preparing his book One Voice, which documents his life song by song and is the closest thing we’re likely to get to an autobiography, Moore had five hundred songs, where he learned them, why he wrote them etc, accounted for before some hard pruning was enforced. More notable, perhaps, than their sheer quantity, though, is the variety of songs he sings and makes his own.
Where else are you likely to hear, say, songs by Morrissey, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, gothic Americana masters the Handsome Family, and Pink Floyd sung by the same singer?
For Moore, the writers of the songs he sings have no particular personal consequence. Regarding the Handsome Family, whose Butterfly (So Much Wine) sits easily alongside Dylan’s The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll and Joni’s The Magdalene Laundries on Moore’s Burning Times album, he lists “their beauty, darkness, humour, Rennie's lipstick, and their quirkiness,” and the fact that they scare and entertain simultaneously among their attractions. And rather than being a tribute to its subject, Syd Barrett, Pink Floyd’s Shine on You Crazy Diamond, which he completely Christy-fied on the Listen album, simply makes Moore think of old friends who ran out of time.
“I get thousands of songs sent to me every year and it is impossible to even listen to them all. Every now and then a song will catch my ear. It can be for a variety of reasons but these writers have nothing really in common apart from writing songs I wanted to sing. Sometimes it can take years to cover a song; more times it can be an instant process. John Reilly's Lord Baker took maybe three years, Bob Dylan’s I Pity the Poor Immigrant maybe three minutes. Some songs go on forever, others fall out of the repertoire very rapidly never to return. I might liken the process to getting comfortable in new shoes...maybe,” he adds with a flourish from the King & I, “getting to know you, getting to know all about you!”
From The Herald, October 17, 2009.