“Well the weather tonight is Irish,” seemed to be the joke of the evening as four hundred lucky audience members packed into downtown New York venue Le Poisson Rouge on a wet October evening. The long celebrated Other Voices program made a leap from Dingle to New York to film two nights of music and the written word as a part of the Imagine Ireland campaign.
“We don’t know where we’re going. We don’t know where we’ll be when we get there. And when we get back, we won’t know where we’ve been. So come on this journey with us,” actor Gabriel Byrne said as he opened the evening. He welcomed Glen Hansard, of bands the Frames and the Swell Season, to the stage who rather than taking up his guitar, read a poem by Seamus Heaney. As Hansard read the last few lines of the poem, the sound of the fiddle began swell behind him.
Joseph O’Connor took the stage soon after to read an excerpt from Joyce. But the audience favorite of the evening was Gabriel Byrne’s own original piece, an essay of sorts about his early days as an actor. “Ay your man’s an actor, and couldn’t you tell by the cut of him?” Byrne took the audience on a hilarious journey from his mentor’s Dublin apartment to his first film set where when delivering his single line, he hobbled into and sent a priceless statue crashing to the ground.
Then Paul Muldoon launched into his poem “Bob Dylan at Princeton: November 2000” which expressed much of his longtime love for Dylan. The night shifted into a bit of a tribute to the late 60s, and what better a venue than a dive on Greenwich Village’s own Bleecker Street? Hansard returned to the stage to follow up with a cover of the Bob Dylan penned and The Band perfected “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” Hansard then debuted some new material, leaving his beat-up Lowden guitar momentarily for a stay behind the keyboard.
The stage rotated legend after legend from Colum McCann to Iarla Ó Lionáird, Joseph Conrad to Martha Wainwright. Damien Rice surprised the audience with an unscheduled and unplugged performance of his song “The Professor.” While Rice was met with surging applause, if anyone stole the show it was certainly the young Thomas Bartlett. He sat in on keyboard for most of the evening’s performances and served as a sort of curator. He received by far the most admiration of his peers throughout the night. As Bartlett introduced his own idol, fiddle virtuoso Martin Hayes, it became clear why Bartlett seemed to have such a knack for organizing the show: he’d been putting shows together since he was twelve.
After seeing Hayes play while vacationing with his parents in Dublin, Bartlett and his family tailored the rest of their uncharted holiday to follow Hayes’ touring schedule. “He must’ve been thinking who is this blond kid grinning at me so lovingly?” Bartlett joked as he told the story. Bartlett and Hayes began emailing and Bartlett booked shows in Vermont for Hayes, who would only realize later that his new American booking agent was the same twelve-year-old who had turned up at all his shows in Ireland earlier that year.
Popular band The National praised Other Voices and played a bit of music they had written about what it felt like to wander the Dingle Peninsula. The night went on to feature more contemporary New York artists, some with obvious Irish connections and others just friends along for the ride. The most moving moment came toward the close of the evening, when Iarla Ó Lionáird took to the stage to sing sean-nós. For a moment the genius of Martin Hayes, of Joyce and Heaney cowered in a collective bow to Ó Lionáird whose performance connected the evening to a more ancient spirit, an overtaking one.
It was a triumph of the Imagine Ireland campaign and a thrill to witness. Other Voices should be ready, with perhaps a larger venue for the future. New York will most definitely be demanding an encore.