Lisa O’Neill in Whelan’s on 19th of October 2013

One thing you learn about Lisa O’Neill as soon as you find yourself in her presence is that trying to explain her by referring to other artists and singers would not only be insufficient, but also entirely misleading in giving anything approaching a suitable idea of what she is like as a performer and an artist. Example one is that it is Oscar-winner Glen Hansard who has come to help her launch her new album ‘Same Cloth Or Not’ in the Whelan’s main venue this Saturday night. It’s a bit of a change of scenery since he packed out the Iveagh Gardens over the summer, but a testament to the esteem Ms O’Neill is starting to win for herself in certain quarters of the music world.

Glen is as in his element onstage as ever with that familiar battered guitar of his getting a good charismatic strumming for the thirty minutes he’s there, besides the brief deference to the mandolin and the piano. His voice is one part soul, one part Sean Nós and two parts pure pathos, so that even this quick solo showing tonight gives an idea of the well-reported feelings of religiosity that permeate his shows with The Frames. He begins to play the opening to Her Mercy to finish his set when some good vigilant samaritans begin a chorus of shushing to quiet the chatterers. Glen stops playing and recounts a session in this venue not long ago in which a similar thing occurred and someone called up “fuck that, no whishin’. If you’re good they’ll listen” before continuing to strum and adding “I might take that back in a minute“. But he doesn’t.

Example number two of Lisa’s uniqueness is the voice, quite simply. From the moment she begins singing England Has My Man with Mossy Nolan on bazouki and Stina Sandstrom on fiddle you’re either in or you’re out. It’s a voice that puts you in mind of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave; if you spend your life hearing the voices of watered-down pop singers then when you finally hear the true sound of expressiveness and individuality – that Lisa is fast becoming the master of – of course your first reaction is to crawl back into the cave, out of that bright piercing sunlight. She is also possibly the only Irish artist who can sing in her own accent without it sounding corny.

She makes great use of her colloquialism with No Train To Cavan, which is one of the finest folk songs to come out of this country in many’s the year. It’s a quiet drone that breaks briefly before thumping back into a drone – similar to Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall – and its evocative lyrics of strange goings on at the border give a unique vision of that part of the world and its mythology. At this point we begin to glimpse Lisa’s capacity for transcendence as she stands now alone onstage with her guitar; arguably her purest form.

The third thing about Lisa O’Neill this night is the not so good thing. For how incontestably brilliant she is during Cowards Corner and No Train To Cavan there are also some serious downbeats in her set and they all come when she sits at the piano. As she says herself she’s no expert at that instrument but after the first song what first strikes you as her individualistic way of playing suddenly becomes tiresome. Her impulses are placed at the end of each bar, so instead of playing her songs in one smooth motion and seeing it as one continuous thing, she only ever sees as far as the end of the line.

The instrument seems to stifle her in other ways too and her song Apiana is a perfect example. Where in No Train To Cavan she shows her affinity with the guitar, throwing her personality into her playing and her lyrics are not just witty and amusing but poetical, in Apiana the lyrics become silly and uninspired. We know this is not because she can’t write great lyrics, it’s because for this song she just didn’t. The concept of following a piano from seed to death is an interesting one and could have been executed so much better. A touch of quality control at moments like this is what she misses.

The gig does contain these low points, which makes the impact of the high points all the more impressive. She finishes the play-through of her new album with Dreaming, which is probably the best song she has written and one of the songs of the year. Forever is a long time but at this point in the gig you’re quite sure you could stand in the smouldering venue and listen to this song for that long and how, you wonder, can the artist who wrote those opening lines “Tears come down in the kitchen/with Willie Nelson” be the same who wrote “I am a piana/I don’t eat bananas”. 

It’s the great paradox of Lisa O’Neill, and you can’t help but wonder how much greater this moment would be without those lows, if (forgetting that it’s an album launch for a moment) she went in the true folk style and sang the songs of others from time to time. Because while there are at least four songs from this new album that prove she can be a great songwriter, it is her personality as expressed through her voice and guitar playing that are her real appeal, and until she writes a full set’s worth of songs that make the most of this talent the odd sprinkle of the songs she loves could only make for a better show.

Lisa O’Neill Photo Gallery

Photos: Aisling Finn

Glen Hansard Photo Gallery