With his shock of untamed corkscrew hair, little round glasses and unassuming air of quiet distraction, you could quite easily mistake Martin Hayes for some absent-minded scientific research boffin rather than the fiddle player extraordinaire and man who has made such a significant contribution to the relocation of traditional Irish music into the popular consciousness.
Following firmly in his father’s musical footsteps, by the time he was 19 years of age Martin Hayes had already been crowned the All-Ireland fiddle champion no less than six times. He swapped his native Feakle, East County Clare for Chicago, Illinois in the mid-1980s and since that time has further developed his talent with numerous musical collaborations and projects, whilst becoming one of the most inspired and interpretative players in Irish traditional music today.
It is one of those collaborations – his most recent, in fact – that brings Martin Hayes back to the Howard Assembly Room tonight. He is here with the Martin Hayes Quartet, his first new project since forming the so-called “Irish supergroup” The Gloaming seven years ago. The quartet of Hayes, his longtime duo collaborator and Irish-American Dennis Cahill on guitars; celebrated jazz composer, arranger and musician Doug Wieselman on bass clarinet; and their fellow American and hardanger d’amore player Liz Knowles first got together at Bantry House in West Cork in late 2016. They went on to record their debut album The Blue Room there (the title coming from the room in the historic 18th century house in which they recorded).
The Blue Room was released last October and it is to that record the quartet immediately head, opening up with ‘Easter Snow’, ‘My Mind Will Never Be Easy’ and ‘The Boy In The Gap’. On what is only the second date on their first ever tour of the United Kingdom, and with a broad smile on his face, Martin Hayes tells us that they are “really getting into it now”. Joking aside this opening salvo of airs and reels does affirm Hayes’ sentiments and his quip also reflects the spirited good nature with which the four musicians interact and perform.
‘Port Sadbh’, also taken from the new record, sees the quartet improvise over the tune’s original melody and this rather glorious free association brings to mind, somewhat improbably perhaps, The Grateful Dead at their most fluid and explorative. For five or six quite spellbinding minutes Haight-Ashbury is transported into the Northern Quarter of Leeds.
Another incredible moment from The Blue Room occurs during ‘Mo Mhúirnín Bán’ as the four musicians translate Mary Bergin’s slow air into a work of even greater beauty, allowing Doug Wieselman both the time and space for a magical solo during which his notes appear to float just over the song’s surface.
During this carefully weighted 90-minute set, there is also ample opportunity for the quartet to step outside of The Blue Room. We get the wild and raucous ‘Joe Bane’ (a traditional reel named after the flute and whistle player from the Feakle area), capturing perfectly the noise, energy and, as Hayes himself puts it, “the moral decrepitude” of the early Irish dance halls. ‘Frank Keane’s Reel’ evokes similar memories as the Martin Hayes Quartet succeed in shifting the past to the present. They then bid us a most cheerful of farewells with ‘Monasteraden Fancy’, having started the Howard Assembly Room’s schedule of live performances for 2018 with a most suitably rousing flourish.
Photos: Simon Godley