After three nights in the institutional comforts of the Ulster American Folk Park it’s good to wake up in our quaint and familiar farmhouse. Here we are free to linger in the common rooms in our underwear with whiskey or Guinness or both. We can pee in the grass by the roadside (at least the guys can), we can make our own toast just the way we like it. The Folk Park was fine, and there’s even some part of you that adapts quickly to the rhythms of institutional life: the strict meal times, the brief showers, the motivating sense of shame that gets you down to do your laundry right when they open it up.
But now we’re home. We probably got to sleep around 3 a.m. from our late night flight from Magherafelt, and are more than a little fatigued. PL has woken early and whipped up a lovely breakfast of eggs, toast, scones, jam, juice and tea. There’s even a few chocolate-dipped macaroons. This hippie guitar player can really set a table, folks. The Irish Catholic energy is welling up inside him, making for an Old World breakfast for us all. Marc and RW stumble downstairs from their bachelor attic dwelling and Victoria eventually emerges from the bathroom. The faux British/Celtish accents emerge. The travel hardened band dines together in the calm pleasure of not having a gig until 8 pm, and it’s close by, too.
We’ve been here over a week now, the jet lag has faded, our heads are clearing. Though the ache of missing the family back home is perhaps even a bit sharper, it’s also grown familiar. After breakfast, RW heads upstairs to charge his dying laptop. BOOM! What was that? The 6’4” singer has cracked his head sharply on one of the low-hanging two hundred year old beams. Uh oh. “What’s 12 + 15, Rob?” PL asks. “17,” Rob answers confidently. “Try again. What’s 12 + 15?” RW thinks for a minute, tries his best. “32.” Good God, Rob, that knock on the head has turned you into a musician! PL grabs the computer and heads down the road to Andy Peter’s wifi to check for concussion symptoms, sitting on the front steps with a jacket over his head like an old fashioned photographer. Looks like RW has about half of the symptoms, a mild concussion. Nothing an afternoon of rest and a bit of ice can’t fix. Luckily, the Hawks have not yet adopted the new NFL rules for such injuries. We take a rambling walk among the fields and stone cottages, as Rob recuperates. As the sun gives evidence, behind dark clouds, of heading towards the horizon, Andy and Jenny welcome us into their home for a cozy pre-gig dinner: lasagna, mango chicken, a piece of well-prepared fish for Vicky. Andy uncorks some fine Spanish wines and we start to really relax. The six of us can really get to yakking, the gift of gab on steroids. Uh oh! Time to go. We’ve got a gig, folks.
Returning to the Bronte is a mystical experience. Four years ago (or was it six?) we had our first gig off the plane at the Bronte Center. This deconsecrated church, originally built in 1760, was once presided over by Emily and Charlotte Bronte’s father Patrick “Brunty” Bronte. A graveyard surrounds the church that includes the often exhumed grave of notorious satanist Squire Hawkins. The valley below is many shades of bright green under black brooding clouds and the mist softened Mourne Mountains in the distance. Sweet ancient sadness and ghosts mingle with the raindrops. The history runs deep here.
With solid stone walls and a granite center aisle, the acoustics inside the Bronte are indeed holy, recording-worthy. We set up for a two-set acoustic performance and the crowd begins to fill in the pews. We spot Neve from the BBC and her fiance. Shelagh, from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, also takes a seat. The wind is blowing strongly outside and there are bursts of rain. We play the first set and light is still glowing, first through the clouds and then the windows even though the sun’s been down for hours. We take a break, say hello to friends and sign some CDs. Even as we take the stage again around 10 pm it’s not yet dark outside. Northern Ireland is indeed North, sharing latitude with Denmark and Canada. Our second set is loose and strong. The band has really found its sound. All those sets at the Folk Park have really paid off. Back through the rain to Cavan Cottage but not before taking Andy up on his offer of whiskey and TV. We settle in to a BBC4 documentary on Black Sabbath and truly relax. Seventies Brit metal memoria make us mellow and melancholy.
Morning comes too early once again. We’ve got to load up the van and head over to Letterkenny for the Earagail Arts Fest. Luckily, Andy will be driving us on this one. Jenny is coming too. Big noisy fun, every seat in the Volkswagon stepvan is occupied: three in front, three in back. This is old school road tripping at its most Irish. Andy once again pilots the van with the keen sense of an overly-cautious school teacher, bless his heart. He and Paul banter sharply about the optimal speeds for shifting gears of the cumbersome beast. We make our way through winding roads to the eastern edge of County Donegal. We all have our own rooms in euro-style tonight at the pseudo-plush Station Inn, downtown Letterkenny. My own TV! I feel like I’m back in the USA. The hotel is crawling with musicians from the fest as well as an alarmingly high number of Hen and Stag party attendees. Young ladies walk the halls wearing veils and carrying blow up sex dolls. Drunk guys sit crying in the lobby. What will happen when night falls?
We soak up the solitude of our own rooms for a while and then it’s time to head off to the fest. It’s not too far, just up a series of hills at an old Irish Army military base/Stewart family mansion that seems like it’s been in every WWII movie since 1950. You’d recognize it if you saw it. It’s the place where the Allies have set out the big map in front of the fire place to show how the final D-Day attack will occur. The festival organizers have a tent set up outside on the grand lawn overlooking the grand fields below, green and perfect, and it appears we are in for some fine dining tonight. Also, turns out we’re early. We have a bit of a stink-eye contest with the other band to see who goes on first. They are a (very) cool duo called Hat Fitz and Cara. They have seriously hip retro outfits. At least one of them is from Australia. They seem perfectly engineered for the summer Euro festival circuit. It’s not looking good. Yet somehow we win (lose) and will play second. More time to kill. We wander the grounds. There’s some huge Luminarium that we wish was open. We find an abandoned Military Police shed, get out the cameras, and start improvising a film (clips to follow). We get fed a delicious meal of crab cakes and salad with a choice of lovely Spanish wines. Uh oh, we have a gig. And Hat Fitz and Cara have killed it, a unique blend of perfectly executed Irish fiddle and wind instruments, sweet vocals, and the heavily masculine tremeloed out blues guitar–beauty and the gentle beast. The crowd adores them, and we begrudgingly admit they’re kick ass and a tough act to follow. We finally get re-plugged in on the waterlogged and woozy stage as dessert is being served. We seem to have missed the peak of the night but we still rock it as the more rugged diners dance in the aisles. The crowd is excited to see two female drummers in a row, and rocking it. Back to the hotel, we dodge Hen parties, have a few drinks at the bar with Andy and Jenny, and make our way up to TVs and beds. Thank you, generous Earagail hosts.
It’s now gray morning July 8th and suddenly it’s our last full day in Ireland. The excess of good food and wine slows our exit from Letterkenny, Andy scolding the late rising slow breakfasting band. Of course if Andy managed to hit 60 mph on the motorways east, we wouldn’t be sweating arriving for our last gig on the Emerald Isle. We have a gig at a place called the Comber Recreation Center, in a kind of low lying delta area next to a huge bay on the east coast of Northern Ireland. Interesting. We arrive a bit late and make our way past the lovely green football pitch. It really is a soccer club of some kind. Inside it all starts to make sense. It’s a pub! A sports pub! A blues club! Locals only! And that rocking energy that only locals generate, counting only on themselves, not TV of the big city, is the craic. The Legendary Craic, we’ve found it! There’s a solid all-Irish bluegrass band on stage, the Down And Out Bluegrass Band with a banjo player that could tour with Del McCoury, he’s that good, and the low ceiling room is packed with families, kids, grandparents. It’s a scene. We meet up with the promoters, nice folks who run a night called the Enler Delta Blues Club. They take over the pub on Sundays for their shows and they’re glad to have us. Irish Johnny is back! He’s taken the bus up from his village, the sweetheart. Radio host George Jones shows up too with bass in tow. Our set goes over great but the real fun comes afterwards when a spontaneous bluegrass jam develops. We Hawks are in bluegrass heaven. We lead the Irish boys through what turns out to be a fairly complex tune, our own “Golden Girl,” but they blast through it. The pints flow and flow and everyone is singing along. Some stocky toughs on the bench behind burst into a harmonized parallel song in the middle of an instrumental verse. This is a very musical land. A real highlight to end the Irish leg of the tour.
The six of us hit the road, band, Andy and Jenny, somewhat southward, sad and satisfied. Our Ireland farewell looms, and where did the time go? This is Jenny’s turf, and she guides Andy down twisting back roads, dales and vales, with gentle but barbed instructions. No one can bicker like the Irish. Pure entertainment. This is lovely and mysterious country, layered in ancient tales and modern strife and peace. In a tiny town we stop for Indian food. The Hawks are a bit skeptical, for this would be like stopping in Beaumont or Rialto for dining. But the glassed in restaurant serves one of the best Indian meals we’ve ever had. The mysteries are endless.