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Review: Gradam Ceoil 2019 – Waterfront Hall, Belfast

TG4’s Gradam Ceoil has been in existence since 1998 and is one of the foremost awards schemes for Irish traditional music with the recipients (there are no winners – it’s not a competition) receiving a unique hand sculpted trophy by John Coll as well as a small bursary.

There’s not much in the way of suspense or surprise at tonight’s ceremony, with this year’s recipients having been announced back in November of 2018. It is however, a great excuse to bring together some of the best and brightest talents in traditional music and let them play to a packed Waterfront Hall in Belfast. The compere’s for this evening’s show are two of Ireland’s best fiddle players, Dublin’s Doireann Glackin and County Louth’s own Dónal O’Connor. Each of the award recipients are set to perform, joined on stage by a range of other musicians and musical guests.

The opening act for the evening were the redoubtable Four Men and A Dog who took us through a couple of lively and infectious tunes. Actually, they began as six men, and for their last track they were joined on stage by Doireann Glackin and Dónal O’Connor, making it seven men, one woman and no dog.

The first of the award recipients was Galway accordion player Conor Connolly who collected the Ceoltóir Óg/Young Musician of the Year statuette. Connolly treated us to a couple of solo tunes and was then joined on stage by Andrea Pajandi and Michael McCague. Connolly is unusual in that he plays in a C#/D style, rather than the more traditional B/C tuning.

Thomas McCarthy was jaw-droppingly good as he picked up the Amhránaí na Bliana/Singer of the Year award, presented by Belfast’s own GOT/Derry Girls actor, Ian McElhinney. Singing two songs solo, McCarthy’s voice filled a packed Waterfront Hall; this was surely a thing of beauty, and the range and authenticity of his delivery sent shivers down the spines of the audience. McCarthy’s performance on the Waterfront stage would surely stand up against the great vocalists of world music.

The Gradam Saoil/Lifetime Achievement award went to Nicky & Anne McAuliffe who were accompanied by Mary Crowley, John Connolly, Maura Walsh, Michelle O’Sullivan and Michael O’Shea to delight the audience with a number of classic Ceilí numbers.

Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill was next to take the stage accompanied by her sister Maighread and was presented with the Gradam Comharcheoil/Musical Collaboration award. Ní Dhomhnaill has written songs that have been covered by Linda Ronstadt and it was touching to see a surprise video message from Ronstadt and Emmy Lou Harris congratulating her on her award. As an ex-member of the Bothy Band, it was maybe less of a surprise to see Paddy Glackin (fiddle) and Donal Lunney (bouzouki) arrive onstage to rattle through a few old favourites from their back catalogue, The Mist Covered Mountain and The Hag at the Churn.

The Gradam Comaoine/Outstanding Contribution award was presented to mutli-instrumentalist Brendan Mulkere who performed tonight with the world-famous Thatch Ceilí Band before bringing the Brendan Mulkere Quartet on stage to play the atmospheric and haunting The Dark Woman of the Mountain.

The final performer was flautist Catherine McAvoy who was selected as Gradam Ceoil/Musician of the Year. It was very much a family affair with McEvoy playing three tunes accompanied at various times by her brothers John and Paddy McEvoy as well as her husband Tom McGorman, and children Fergus, Ruairi and Jane McGorman. McEvoy displayed the skill and style for which she is justifiably famous and it is was fitting that McEvoy’s award is seen by many as the “Oscar” for traditional Irish music.

A short but riveting diversion via video to the Seamus Heaney Homeplace for a beautiful rendition of the poet’s gorgeous piece Digging serves as an introduction to the evenings’ finale featuring all of the award recipients in a rousing closing number.

All in all, a fascinating evening of traditional music with something for everyone on the menu. Older and more traditional artists and performances balanced against newer and more modern styles and at least one performer who had this particular reviewer scouring the internet for more material to listen to.

Photographer and sometime reviewer with an eclectic taste in all things visual and musical. Still struggles to understand jazz.