The Gloaming at The National Concert Hall, Dublin on Wednesday 7 March 2018

To say that the Gloaming’s annual National Concert Hall residency has become a bit of a calendar event for music aficionados countrywide would be a bit of an understatement.  The numbers don’t lie: 24 consecutively sold out shows.  There are few groups which draw such crowds, yet with Martin Hayes and Co.’s excellent calibre of musicianship, it’s to be expected. While the numbers don’t lie, they don’t always tell the full story either.

There’s more to The Gloaming’s staggering success, both out and in of the studio, than ticket sales. The band have come to take on a considerable cultural significance. Their popularity speaks to the vitality of traditional Irish music as an art form. In an era where American sounds and images reign supreme, The Gloaming remind us as a people of our own cultural inheritance.

Whether the group are aware of their own importance remains a mystery. If they are, they do an excellent job of hiding it. The group come onstage just after eight o’clock.  They meet rapturous applause with the learned coolness of career musicians. No exuberant outfits, pyrotechnics or strobe lights. After a modest introduction, the group begin the show.

Iarla Ó Lionárd’s voice is a real thing of beauty. It has an ephemeral quality, demanding silence and attention from the listener. His mastery of the Sean-Nós style is obvious. While, sadly, many in the audience may not understand the lyrics as they are sung as Gaeilge, a sense of narrative can still be heard in the ebb and flow of his vocal delivery. There’s a predominant feeling of heartache in his melodies, one which sticks with you long after the performance concludes.

A thing worth noting is the band’s positioning on stage. Each of the five members spread out in a relatively straight line. From Thomas Bartlett on the far left to Caoimhin Ó Raghallaigh furthest to the right, no one member seems to dominate the stage.

This is perhaps indicative of the democratic power dynamic the group seem to share. Each of the five members, bar the enigmatic Dennis Cahill, takes a few minutes during the performance to talk with the audience.

This shared dynamic spills into the music itself. Some may expect six-time all-Ireland fiddler Martin Hayes to take the lion’s share of the musical spotlight, but he does not. The group instead opt to allow each of the five musicians to have their own space and figurative moments in the sun.

There’s a real bond between Hayes and Cahill. The rhythmic minimalism of Cahill’s folk guitar compliments the melodic lilt of Haye’s fiddle perfectly. On a track like The Sailor’s Bonnet the atmospheric additions of Ó Raghallaigh’s hardanger d’amore and Bartlett’s post-modernist piano are most fully felt.

Set highlights include the aforementioned The Sailor’s Bonnet and The Old Favourite, however, a group of musicians as skilled and emphatic as the Gloaming use their songs as mere starting points. Melodies and rhythms are constantly evolving and shifting into something new. Songs are purposefully and skilfully blended into one another. The group emphatically enforce the beauty of the improvised moment over any preconceived audience expectation. The show is every bit as much about the journey as it is the destination.

Having played for an hour and twenty minutes, the group take a bow and leave the stage to the sound of thunderous applause. A brief encore further enunciates the expression of awe on everyone’s face. The smart ones are marking next year’s residency into their calendar’s already.