Ralph McTell @ Cashel Arts Fest, Brú Ború Theatre Cashel, 18th September 2016.
It was a Saturday night full house at Brú Ború for an evening with Ralph McTell. The MC for the evening Reverend Gerald Field, the Dean of Cashel, confessed to being a McTell fan and a guitarist himself, recalling seeing Ralph perform in London during the 1970s. He said, "It changed my musical life."
Alone on the big stage Ralph McTell stood tall and strong, his voice as clear as ever, his guitar playing assured and accurate, belying his 72 years. His show was one of simplicity and intensity, no break, straight through for 90 minutes. Not much by the way of set dressing either, a small table, draped with a black cloth, a glass of water, a capo and that was it. The stage crew had installed some dry ice blowers, Ralph said he could do without them, we were left to see his performance without the fog.
He began by saying "there might be one or two of my songs you know, but the rest I'll tell you about" and so began his auto-biographical musical journey. Ralph was born in 1944, his father didn't stay around too long, so his single mother moved the young Ralph into a basement apartment. The upper floor was occupied by a young Irish couple, who took him under their wing. He got a sense of Irish culture before he was 10, was a recipient of Irish hospitality and obviously adored the Connaughtons who became his surrogate aunt and uncle.
He sang Mrs Connaughton, a fond memory of the kind lady and her husband who could fix and mend machinery, rebuild a motorbike or make a soap box car for the young kid from downstairs:
I remember when you built us a soap-box cart With the wheels off a pram, and a plank out in the yard, And you gave us a bit of string but we steered it with our feet. Oh boy it was the best one on the street, And you said "Jesus, that's the best one on the street".
He would return again to Irish themes with his new song I'm Just Nipping Down to the Post Office, Ma, a story about a young Irish Volunteer heading off to the Dublin GPO at Easter 1916.
Travel and being exposed to new music was at the heart of Ralph's metamorphosis into a professional player. His contemporary, Andy Irvine, had left London around the same time to discover Eddie Butcher and the musical scene in Dublin. Ralph headed to Germany where he came under the spell of American blues music. Those influences were evident in his guitar playing. Ralph told us he calls his own guitar Miss Gibson, a Gibson J-45's, which he has had since he was 20. Explaining "The Reverend Gary Davis's owned a Gibson J-200 guitar, which he called Miss Gibson, and I took my lead from him."
More tales followed. He recalled working on the building sites in London in the 1960s. He said he wanted to be part of an Irish work gang; but wasn't up to their standard, yet he was partnered with a young Irish lad. "I only half knew him, we went for a pint after work, we were friendly but not friends. I could see that London and the English were very strange to him."
"So one day digging a trench I asked him what he thought about London and he said 'It's a long way from Clare to here'. It was so perceptive, poetic, so meaningful. If he had said 'from here to Clare' it would have meant something entirely different, I could see in that phrase his heart and soul was still in Ireland." He continued with a funny anecdote about writing the song and how it had been adapted by the Fureys. Ralph's nuanced version of Clare to Here was the show stopper.
There's four of us who share the room, we work hard for the crack And getting up late on Sunday, I never go to Mass It's a long, long way from Clare to here It's a long, long way from Clare to here It's a long, long way, it grows further by the day It's a long, long way from Clare to here
At the end of the gig there was a standing ovation, and afterwards photographs, selfies and CD signings. The final verdict Ralph was as affable, convivial and convincing off stage as on. If you get a chance to see him live, do go. Ralph McTell and Miss Gibson have carried the banner for folk for 50 years, this is a man who has mastered his craft, he truly is an inspiration. Put him on your bucket list.
First published @ Irish Music Magazine #257, December 2017 (www.irishmusicmagazine.com).
Photo Credits: (1) Ralph McTell (unknown/website).