NOVEMBER 18, 2005 -- SOMEWHERE ON THE ROAD TO WATERFORD
I am driving. He is praying.
It’s the second day after our arrival, having spent the first night in a busy Dublin, and Michael has found religion anew. We make our way to the car hire and take out a small blue Micra that by the looks of it has absolutely no chance of fitting the two of us and our gear. With suitcases, CD boxes, guitars and drums packed to the ceiling of the back seat, I inch my way onto the Drumcondra Road and toward the motorway going south to Waterford.
In Ireland, I quickly resume my habit of driving like the locals, particularly in the country. Fast and with purpose. Roads here are cramped and follow a random swath of endless twists and turns that don’t really seem to be grounded in reason or the restrictions of local topography. Shoulders are nonexistent in many places and when you go far enough out from the city, drivers have to be on alert for oncoming traffic, as the roads are so narrow that no two cars have room to pass at the same time.
One peculiar tendency of the Irish driver who approaches a main thoroughfare from a side road is to drive at full speed right up to the intersection, a practice that is unnerving for some, but utterly terrifying for Michael. With every approaching car, he lets out a brief, desperate scream, followed by the ritual of grabbing the door handle on one side, the seat cushion on the other, and bracing himself for the deadly impact by planting both feet a yard apart on the dashboard and windshield.
“Dear Jesus, dear Lord, here me now…Please Jesus, please, not here, not now…our Father, who art in Heaven…Fuck, don’t let him kill me…Please God…Oh Jesus…”
Like a dog who can’t figure out why his tail keeps following him, he is utterly astonished every time we emerge from each near-death encounter unmolested.
We roll into Waterford and the clouds have made an unusual departure enough that the setting sun casts a warm red glow onto the streets as they dry off the day’s rain. The Viking town is old and charming with lanes that run parallel to the water and into the rolling hillside. A little girl waves at us in the car that carries the stranger with the black gangster hat.
But there’s a problem. In every direction, the place seems dead. It’s a Sunday – not the best night for a show – and the streets look deserted. While I have no doubt that the crowds will show up for the main act, I’m haunted by the warning of Nick Kelly that Irish audiences are typically irreverent and often indifferent to the opening act. And there’s the issue of Irish time – punctuality is defined as arriving an hour after you’re supposed to be there.
Visions are dancing in my head of playing to a lone doorman and a half-sleeping sound guy. If we’re lucky, maybe one wacked out fan who arrives three hours before the start of the show to catch a glimpse of the soundcheck is there to clap and boost our spirits. After all of the ups and downs in his career and the oozing symbolism this tour represents, a looming disaster on the first night would be an unwelcome knee to the groin of a guy who has already had his share. After a while, he picks up on the fact that my offhand comments are part of a larger concern. Then we see The Pub.
Irish pubs are quite unlike any other place. Truly Irish pubs – places that combine good company, good drink and some sense of atmosphere or rustic tradition, are a haven for the drinking classes of which we are proud card-carrying members. What seems so amazing in an era of increasingly short attention spans and the ever-present need for a higher level of stimulation is how the quaint notion of the Irish pub has not only endured, but flourished in almost every corner of the world. While I haven’t tested my theory, I tend to think that if you found the furthest point north on the globe that could sustain human life, you’d find an Irish pub with an Eskimo behind the bar.
This one doesn’t have an Eskimo, but it does have a good barman, who, as fate would have it, has heard of Chicago. The pub is deserted but warm, with a turf fire raging in the corner and no music to distract anyone. Pint for me, whiskey for him. And while I am still anxious, he is remarkably serene.
“Seamus, what’s the problem?” He calls me by the name coined long ago by friends in the Irish music scene. I tell him my worry – to come all this way, to have all these hopes, only to star in a bad sequel to Spinal Tap where he plays to an empty room. With this, he laughs and slaps me on the back. No worries. One person? Five? Ten? We’re in Ireland and we’re going to enjoy every minute of this, even if it’s nothing more than a paid rehearsal.
I am at peace for the moment. The pint helps.
We finish and go across the street to the venue, a fairly large place that holds a good few hundred people around small tables like the big nightclubs of the 1940s. We hear the voice of Juliet Turner coming through the halls as we walk closer.
She has a lovely Northern Ireland accent, with a singsong-like cadence and curious eyes that demand to know the real story behind the compliments you shower her with. Juliet is the top female singer-songwriter in Ireland and has a fierce legion of fans who sell out every venue in which she appears. Tonight, Michael will open for her at a time which seems frighteningly early given the deserted streets outside. As she finishes her soundcheck and walks off the stage, we say our hellos and plug in what little gear we brought.
Michael’s soundchecks are notoriously brief and tonight is no exception. In the corner of the very large stage, there’s a beautiful grand piano that he goes to right away. A few people move around the room, arranging tables and stocking the bar. But as Michael moves into the first few notes of a song that’s well-known to me, but unheard of to them, everyone slows down and takes notice.
“Graceful, she moved just like a dancer…I was waiting for an answer…”
He finishes and the people who only moments ago were busy getting ready have all stopped to listen. The voice of the sound guy comes back over the monitors.
“Great stuff. Really, man.”
Crowd or no crowd, this could be better than I thought.
We locate the venue manager and tell him that we plan on taking residence in the pub across the street until the appointed hour arrives. After stressing that the show must go on as scheduled, we assure him that we’ll be back in plenty of time. As much as I’m trying to put it out of my head, I can’t resist.
“So, do you think we’ll get a few heads in the door for the opening act?”
No telling, really, he says. Irish audiences are funny and they either love you or ignore you and God only knows when they’ll even show up. Hopefully, there’s not a match on or you won’t see a soul in here until Juliet comes on, he says.
We go back to our original barstools waiting for us as the barman gets our drinks before we even order. Michael is still at ease, but the manager’s words offered me little assurance. We sit and talk and wonder how strange it is that we are so very far from home in a place that seems so familiar.
After a while, the door to the pub opens and the venue manager appears. Listen, things are a little slow…ah…would you mind us putting the start time back a bit, yeah? Maybe a half hour or so?
We don’t mind in the least. Forty five minutes goes by and we quickly finish our drinks when we realize how much time has passed. We go in the back door and head upstairs to the dressing room. Once buoyant, Michael is serious now, getting in that familiar pre-show mood of nerves and attention to last-minute detail. After having spent so much time putting me at ease, he is starting to wonder if my grim prediction of an empty room will be our night. I tell him I’ll run down and check.
As I head toward the stage down the long corridor from the dressing room, I run into the venue manager. Ah, good, you guys are here. Listen, we we’re thinking just another 15 minutes, get everybody settled, if that’s all right? It is and I start to walk away when I hear him say, “Good crowd tonight, too.”
I walk onto the stage which is separated from the audience by a huge theater curtain. I peel back a corner and look out into a cavernous room filled with hundreds of people and more coming in. My heart races.
Michael, now curious, is pacing around and when I return. How’s it looking he wants to know.
“Not bad. Twenty, maybe thirty people,” I say.
“That’s enough. We’ll have fun.”
We follow the venue manager toward the stage. as the noise of the settling audience grows louder, Michael sees me smiling and knows he has been had, though he clearly has no idea what’s behind the curtain. Since I come on during the second song, I head to the back of the venue to catch the view from there.
The curtain is pulled back and Michael walks on. A good number of people offer polite applause. Michael sits down behind the big grand as the crowd quiets down a bit.
“Hello everybody. My name is Michael McDermott. There’s another part of the world where once upon a time that meant something, but here tonight I’m a bit of a stranger, so we’ll just have to see where this goes. This is called Bourbon Blue.”
With that, Michael eases into a haunting solo rendition of the familiar song. As he moves through the first verse, the hushed conversation in the crowd begins to subside. From the back of the room, the couples who a moment ago were facing each other have now turned around to see the stage. The late arriving stragglers duck down and quietly scurry to their seats. Apart from the piano and the voice, the room is silent.
For his part, Michael doesn’t even know anyone is there. His head shakes from side to side as he brings the intensity of the moment to a boil. He is playing to himself, for himself, by himself and if there is anyone in that room with him, he wouldn’t have a clue. He belts out the last verse in a barely contained fury that tells you he means every word he says. And he does.
The song is over and he finally comes up for air. The audience erupts.
Michael is genuinely taken aback. But he knows that his place is secure now and that the spoils of the conquering hero are now at his feet – and he’s ready to have fun.
Next up is Antique Store and the crowd is his own. Now I am the one with the nerves, as I walk up the middle aisle to join Michael in the second verse where I usually come in. The thought of being an American playing an Irish instrument to decidedly non-Irish music while in Ireland is now tinged with more trepidation than irony and I wonder if my addition to the act will torpedo Michael’s instant rapport with the crowd. I pick up the drum, look out at the sea of faces, and close my eyes for the rest of the song as I play. When the song is over, I hold my breath.
They’re going nuts. Again.
Michael comes up to the front of the stage and pulls on the guitar. From the back of the room, a man shouts over the quiet room.
“Good stuff, man!”
The crowd seconds the thought with a new round of applause as Michael offers his thanks. We are both smiling now and so are they.
We roll through five more songs, the audience with him at every step. When we get the nod from the stage manager that time is up, the crowd is on their feet cheering him on. We bounce up the stairs back to the dressing room, shaking our heads at what just happened. A couple minutes later the door opens and the stage manager appears again. The crowd is still going.
“Ah, this is a bit of a weird one for us. They want ye guys for a feckin’ encore! Would ye mind?”
Um, no. We wouldn’t mind.
We go up for one and come back down again, the audience still with him at every step. After a brief intermission, Juliet is on and the crowd settles into a new place. Michael and I find a side bar next to the main room of the venue and set ourselves up there. The bar itself is halfway between the doors to the main room and the venue, so every so often people from the crowd walk by. Everyone stops to congratulate Michael on a job well done.
But after a while, something very strange happens. As people on the side of the main room begin to notice Michael at the bar, more and more of them come out to meet him. Even as the show is going on, a crowd of people four or five deep is waiting to shake his hand, have their picture taken with him, or get a signed CD. By the time the night ends, the CDs are gone and we are surrounded by a couple dozen of our new best friends who drag us from pub to pub.
Somehow, we both make it back to the hotel with our instruments in that hazy period of time that could be correctly characterized as night or day. A noon breakfast is obtained at Ireland’s answer to 7-11, the famed Spar convenience store.
Dizzy with memories of the previous night’s success -- and just dizzy in general -- we load the car and say goodbye Waterford. I drive on to Cork as Michael puts his head down and curls into the fetal position on the passenger seat, preferring to hide from the menace of oncoming traffic rather than face his own mortality after such a great night…