Oct 31, 2023

Review of Grada


27th October 2023
ToiToi, Hastings, New Zealand.

Review by Rob Harbers, (originally published by Ambient Light) photography by Andrew Caldwell.

From India to Ireland, via Aotearoa, such are the adventures possible on Pitsch’s Magic Carpet Ride! After the previous night of the Hawkes Bay Arts Festival, which saw a union of musicians from Aotearoa and India, this night featured a similar cross-cultural combination. This time the external element came from another former English possession beginning with I, and the proportion of the mixture was reversed, but in any case, this was another prime example of what can be achieved when cultures come together.

As mentioned, the makeup of Gráda is a cross-cultural one, with members coming from County Clare, County Donegal, County Galway and County Poneke! They are currently on a reunion tour, having been apart for 14 years, and are visibly enjoying the experience. An enjoyment that was shared by the audience as we were taken on an emotional journey transcending time and culture, one that showed afresh the healing power of music across what would otherwise divide us – and isn’t that a power the world could do with in these dark days?

The evening commenced with a medley of reels, before the lament of “Butcher Boy”, a dark-edged love story indeed. “No Linen, No Lace” conveyed the loneliness of the long-distance traveller (and those left behind), the Irish contingent being about as far from home as they possibly could. The French “A L’Envers” showed the commonality of this musical strand across countries, calling back to the Celtic history of France.

The contemporary “Cooler At The Edge” expressed the feelings of the outsider, in this song specifically on a cultural basis, but readily applicable at a wider level, and also including the opportunity for audience participation. Singer Nicola Joyce then shared the tale of a man whose origins were not far from hers, in County Galway, but whose journey was somewhat different – travelling to America, joining the Army, but changing sides in the Mexican-American war and, with other like-minded emigres, forming the Batallón de San Patricio. Cross-culturalism once more!

Being that the makeup of the band is 60% Irish, it should come as no surprise (at the risk of perpetuating a cultural stereotype) that there was a considerable degree of between-song talking, fleshing out both the songs and the journey on which the ensemble has found itself. Among the highlights of this was the tale of Alan Doherty, the flute player’s unwitting recruitment of Peter Jackson as his coffee boy on the Lord Of The Rings set! Another anecdote, accompanying “Out In Otaki” related the dangers of excessive consumption in a way that should (but won’t !) serve as a warning to others.

In a similar spirit of unheeded warning, the song “18th Of June”, taking its name from the date of the Battle Of Waterloo, resonated down the years with its theme of the futility of war and its impact on those caught up in it. Cross-culturalism once more arose in the rendition of the toetapping Danish “5 Jumps” accompanied by the tale of the band’s first appearance outside of Ireland in the “alternative “enclave” of Christiania – an eye-opening experience, it seems! “Pretty Polly”, a murder ballad from the 19th Century heyday of the genre, was another highlight.

The final song of the main set provided an opportunity for solos by bassist Andrew Laking and Tola Custy on fiddle, while the first part of the two-song encore was taken by guitarist Gerry Paul’s “Tugboat Song”, a charmingly prosaic musing on the life, thoughts and motivations of these stalwart warriors of the sea.

But, let’s be honest here, me reeling off a stack of song titles doesn’t come close to doing justice to the spectacle that this show was – an ensemble of truly skilled players, reuniting in renewed pursuit of the shared dream. A performance fully worthy of its place in this schedule, and a great lead-in to the final weekend of this year’s Festival!

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