What does an Irish musician have to do to get some respect these days? Several hot music tours this fall will tell...
Best known as half of The Swell Season (and star of the 2006 film, Once), Dubliner Glen Hansard is heading out on a much-anticipated 20th Anniversary Tour of America this November with his other band, The Frames.
U.S. music fans are familiar with The Swell Season's Oscar-winning Once theme "Falling Slowly," but many may not realize that the tune also appeared on The Frames' album The Cost, or that The Swell Season's touring band -- which garnered up to $40 per ticket for a sold-out May, 2010 concert at Atlanta's Symphony Hall, for example -- is essentially The Frames' lineup plus Czech vocalist Marketa Irglova (Hansard's Swell Season partner, one-time girlfriend and Once co-star). Onstage, both musical configurations deliver the full melodic spectrum of Hansard's songwriting with requisite levels of intimacy and intensity, yet The Frames' upcoming shows offer tickets at around only $25 apiece.
So, when Hansard exchanges his Oscar-winning act for a similar live concert experience in the U.S. market under a different name, does he suddenly become less valuable? Is it because The Frames' appeal is more Irish? Promoters might argue it's simply a case of economics (and the subtraction of Irglova, a talented singer and songwriter in her own right), although I think there's more to it than that.
For the sake of argument, it seems to me that every Irish band who achieves a certain level of international success eventually goes back to being Irish again, regardless of how many gold records they have on their walls or how much cash is in their pockets. But what does that mean, exactly?
Ticket price discrepancies between The Swell Season and The Frames aside, the notion that -- for better or for worse -- Irish musicians are inextricably linked to their country's musical traditions and national pride is not far-fetched; with such rich heritage, it's no wonder four out of five of Ireland's biggest-selling acts in the rock era (Van Morrison-yes that's Northern Ireland, I know, Enya, The Cranberries and The Corrs) have each vacillated between the commercial and the Celtic in their careers. Only U2 (obviously Ireland's biggest band of all-time) has thus far escaped the trappings -- or, conversely, the lure -- of typical Irish instrumentation (although it did employ some fiddle on 2002's "The Hands that Built America"). Nonetheless, after three decades of world domination, U2 still proudly refers to itself as an Irish band.
As staunchly close-knit as the Irish community in America has always been, it's no surprise that the Irish music scene in the states has also long taken care of its own: In early-1990s New York, the coffehouse-turned-hip-music-venue Sin-e fostered new American talent (Jeff Buckley, Ben Folds) while also providing a safehaven for Irish performers (Sinead O'Connor, Hothouse Flowers). Around that same time Black 47, a Celtic-fusion rock band based in the Bronx and named after the Great Irish Famine, became known as "NYC's house band" and unofficial ambassadors of Irish culture due to its omnipresence in every pub and festival, even though its original members were a diverse group of American, British, and Irish.
Sometimes seeming less Irish can work in a band's favor, internationally. Take, for instance The Script, a Dublin trio who, after signing to Sony music in 2008 and relocating to London, went on to perform at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert later that year and serve as the opening act for Paul McCartney's U.S. tour in 2009. The Script's soul-tinged power pop has gotten beaucoups of stateside radio airplay, and the band currently has two singles on Billboard's Hot 100 -- but chances are only a handful of Yanks (those who listen closely to The Script's lyrical shoutouts to Grafton Street nightlife or happened to hear about the trio's triumphant show with U2 in front of 80,000 at Ireland's Croke Park last summer, for instance) actually know that these guys are Irish. Audiences will discover just how Irish The Script is when they catch the band on its second-ever U.S. headlining tour this fall.
Another case in point: Two Door Cinema Club. Historically there's been little distinction between Northern Irish music and Irish music, although this Bangor teenaged electropop trio (also on tour this fall) couldn't sound more UK if it tried. Lauded by several American publications as the next best thing in melodic indie, its crave-able ditties have been making waves on this side of the pond since its debut, Tourist History, was released this spring.
More often than not, though, being part of the Irish music community is a safe and supportive place -- at least for Colin Devlin, whose music you may not know you know, but whose debut album (with brother Peter, as The Devlins) won four stars in Rolling Stone back in 1994. Since then, American audiences have heard The Devlins in dozens of television programs and movie soundtracks (Closer, Batman Forever, HBO's Six Feet Under) and onstage with the likes of REM and Sheryl Crow. Although Colin Devlin performed at the festivities at Utah's Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and was nominated for a 2010 Meteor Award (the Irish Grammys) -- thanks to the 2009 release of Democracy of One, a lush solo gem produced by longtime Sarah McLachlan collaborator Pierre Marchand -- upcoming appearances at two prestigious Irish events in the U.S. may help him gain more of a foothold stateside. And he won't be alone: Both New York's "Wee Craic" festival honoring the best Irish short films of the year and The Los Angeles Irish Film Festival feature a host of luminaries getting their Irish on.
(Wanna get your Irish on this fall? For more information about The Frames' US Tour, including dates and tickets, click here. For The Script's tour dates and tickets, click here. For Two Door Cinema Club dates and tickets, click here. To see Colin Devlin at the Wee Craic at Stella Artois in New York on September 17, click here. For information about the Los Angeles Irish Film Festival (featuring a tribute to actor Richard Harris and a closing ceremony performance by Colin Devlin on October 3), click here.
*Writer's note: A longtime follower of The Devlins, I contributed a gratis biography for Colin Devlin's Democracy of One in 2008.