Every trip I take to Ireland, there is at least one defining moment when I ask, "Why don't we live here?" Admittedly, this sometimes happens as a multi-pint "I love you, man" moment... but tonight it happened in the pouring November rain on Dublin's main thoroughfare, O'Connell Street, with the unexpected convergence of two of my favorite things: sentimental holiday tradition and, surprise, my favorite Irish band.
It happened on Sunday, our second day in Dublin, when I took my Soul Sister to see downtown Dublin. M-I-L drove us to Connolly Station, and we ambled down Talbot Street, before turning onto O'Connell Street to pick up one of the open-top, hop-on, hop-off doubledecker city bus tours. Our 23-stop tour included all the expected sights, all of which I'd seen before but not in succession: Grafton Street, Trinity College, home of the Lord Mayor, Dublin Castle, Trinity Church, St. Patrick's Cathedral, the Guinness Stores and back along the quay to where we'd started... when the bus took a short detour, skipping the Parnell Square loop because O'Connell street was to be closed down for the annual Christmas Tree Lighting ceremonies. Soul Mama's radar went straight up. I'm a sucker for that s£$!te.
We had time to kill, but planned to return. We hopped off the bus, wandered back toward Grafton, had a coffee and a sandwich in the famous Bewley's, and took in a few tourist shops before making our way back to the tree lighting at 6:00. When we arrived, a choir of carolers was singing the known carols on a festively decorated outdoor stage, and we escaped the pouring rain by tucking into the portico of a lingerie shop until the automatic blinds came down at 6:00.
At the appointed time, and after a round of speeches from local city VIPs, the gathered crowd shouted a countdown, then the tree was lit. Ah, the tree--a 25-foot tinsel and steel construction. A stack of glittering balls, far greener than a real tree because it was lit by 78,000 LED lights (generously provided by the ESB--the electrical board--so the Lord Mayor told us in her introductory remarks).
And then, the unimaginable happened. The emcee told us to stick around for two more bands, the highlight of which was the psychedelic Irish traditional informed but world-music inspired Kila.
What better place to watch the seven-piece band than sandwiched between a stack of shimmering balls, the 120-meter stainless steel "Spire of Dublin," affectionately known as "the Spike on the Dike," and the historic GPO--the General Post Office, site of the first battle of the six-day Irish insurrection of 1916, a rebellion that was initially unpopular but that eventually touched off the Irish War for Independence.
The scene was not lost on Kila, who commented on it. Awareness of the world around them seems to be a hallmark of the band, whose music is a sort of trance-Irish malatov cocktail. Made up of fiddle, flute, and uillean pipes fired up with guitar, bass, drumset, and bodhran (on some... on others, a cajon). I have characterized this band as the Irish traditional answer to the Grateful Dead, only with refined talent on Irish traditional instruments, and, it seems, a more sharply honed sense of social consciousness. But, like the Dead, their performances can be trancelike communal experiences, enhanced with stilt walkers, acrobats, tightrope walkers, giant puppets, pyschedelic lighting, and the occasional fragrant smoke clouds...
Until the Kila show, we'd had a somewhat limited pallette of music. Our city tour had included about six rainbow sightings (testament not to some mystical magic but to the fact that it rained heavily about every fifteen minutes)and sampled an array of tourist shops from couture of Kilkenny on Nassau Street to the shite-and-shamrock of Carroll's on O'Connelly Street, each blaring something quintessentially Irish over their loudspeakers. I admit, there's nothing like the relentlessly ebullient pop-tinged Sharon Shannon to send you dancing and lilting up to the till, Aran sweater in hand. In between the shops, and everywhere on the streets were the Romanian gypsy street musicians, duos of alto sax and piano accordions playing some sort of tango-esque polka. And one lone woman on Grafton Street, playing a concertina.
Kila was an exciting change. They played about a 45-minute selection of tunes I recognized as "hits" from the six or so Kila albums in heavy rotation on our home stereo. The highlight for me was "Last Mile Home," title track from a recent album, and a song that lead singer Ronan O'Snodaigh introduced as a Christmas song that honors the plight of Dublin's homeless. I stood there entranced, and so appreciative that they were really saying something about the city's homeless, one of which knocked me out of my daze, reeking of the sweet sour smell of a long day of whiskey and trying to entice Soul Sister and I to dance. I admit, with a little embarassment, that I did not dip in my pocket to share spare change. Instead, being one of two women alone together at night in a foreign city, I chose to completely ignore him. He stood beside us, swaying for some time, but occasionally talking to imaginary friend on the handset of a white 1970s-era wall phone, which was connected by a curly cord to the base, inside his jacket. Completely mad, the poor creature. Which is how homelessness begins, so often.
Kila finished their set with "Silent Night," sung and played on acoustic guitar by the flute player, joined by the multiracial gospel choir that had preceded their set.
The festivities thus concluded, we did the only proper thing: headed for a pint. We walked 100 yards south and turned west along the quay of the LIffey, and ducked into the Arlington Hotel, a 6,000 square foot wood-and-brass rich pub that boasted "Irish music nightly." Well, it being only 7:30, the only music being blasted over the loudspeaker was, you guessed it, Sharon Shannon. This time alternating with the Dubliners and Christy Moore.
We left the city at 9:30 on a Malahide Train, getting off at our Kilbarrack stop, and arriving "home" to a meat-and-two-veg dinner cooked by Soul Mama-in-Law, and the loving embrace of my girl, who'd spent the day with Nana and Grand-dad.
I didn't practice a note on Sunday, but this thought has been running through my head: "How much do you need to practice?" The answer: "It all depends on how good you want to be, and what you're willing to give up." I wouldn't have changed one second of my day. Today, I was willing to embrace a fun-filled life of high-level mediocrity with not one regret.