Two flat caps and a porkpie hat

Borrowed this from their website. Hope they don't mind! www.firkinband.com

You wouldn’t believe me if I told you that it’s taken me this long to recover from my first Ír KocsmaSó (an odd assemblage of words that translates literally into  Irish pub salt but really means Irish pub show – punning in a second language is oddity only outdone by the little bags of salt we were given as gifts on the night). And a most peculiar night it was, too. Mistake No. 1 was to think that my Hungarian was good enough to get the gist of what was in store from the website. Yes, I realised it was in the sticks – the suburbs of Budaörs at the Jókai Mór Müvelődési Központ, affectionately known as JMMK. But I didn’t realise that it isn’t a pub… it’s a cultural centre. Yes, I realised that it was being headlined by Firkin, an Irish rock band, but I didn’t realise they weren’t Irish. And yes, I realised that Jamie Winchester was opening for them, but I didn’t realise he would be joining in their first set, not playing on his own. I had read something about Irish stew and free guinness (neither of which particularly excited me) but somewhere deep in my subconsciousness I was missing Ireland terribly and wanted a taste of home, no matter if that taste amounted to two things I least like about Ireland – pottage and porter.

So I convinced a couple of Hungarian friends who have been talking about going on holiday to Ireland that they should come along for the experience. In my head I imagined a smoke-filled room crammed with people sitting chatting and others milling around and more still propping up the bar. I imagined Whelan’s on Wexford St, perhaps, or some such venue in Dublin. I thought the crowd would be youngish and mainly Irish or at least British (given that they’re an Irish Irish band, mar dhea). And I was really looking forward to having the craic.

When we got there, there was a queue forming outside. When we went in (and we were lucky to get tickets and lucky that HÉ and TZs insisted on coming early) there were more queues inside – for the stew and the guinness and for the bar. The doors to the auditorium were shut. People were perched on windowsills lining what looked remarkably like a school corridor. The crowd was a little long in the tooth and instead of being in Whelan’s, in my mind’s eye I was back in the Galtee Mór in Cricklewood, North London. Where were all the fit fellahs?

Once the main doors opened, we packed inside. I’d been dreading theatre seating but all the seats had been taken out. Thank God for small mercies. At least there’d be room to move around. But then people started to produce chairs from nowhere, lining the walls and sitting expectantly staring at the stage. This wasn’t shaping up right at all. The Blackbird ír sztepptánc show with Éiri ír tradiconális zenekar came on and I offered a silent prayer of thanks for the marked absence of embroidered costumes and ringletted wigs! The dancers looked like they were having a whale of a time and the lead vocal certainly had a feel for those fadás. Mind you, the tunes being billed as popular Irish tunes were ones I’d never heard of (with the exception of I wish I was back home in Derry), and I was getting flashbacks to my own failed stepdancing career. Lovely and all as it was, this wasn’t what I’d come for. Judging by the exodus at the intermission though, it was what a lot of others had had in mind (obviously, they’d been able to read and understand the website!)

Somewhere during the tombola, the shapeshifters moved in and the crowd took on a new form. Then the lads took the stage – or more correct, six lads and a female fiddler. The prose-like delivery of the first verse of Whiskey in the Jar in a rather affected British accent had me a little worried but then the rockin’ kicked in and the gig took off. It seemed like everyone of them were doing their own thing and yet it all came together. There was nothing choreographed about it. The crowd went mad. I went mad. You wouldn’t have recognised me! I was mesmirized by the flautist (Janós Péter), leaping around the stage like a court jester without the hat, wearing a mic that looked a remarkably like a third eyebrow. The lead singer ( Marthy Barna) looked a lot like Colin Farrell without the chin. He’s a fine cut of a lad who does justice to the old Clark-Gable-vest-and-open-shirt look. It was only a matter of time before that shirt would come off and those biceps would get the airing they so richly deserved. The collective intake of breath from the female audience was nicely balanced by  Göttinger Pali on acoustic guitar and lead vocals. Pali looked like he’d stepped off the back porch of a Grizzly Adams set. With the flat cap and check shirt, I had a hard time believing he wasn’t Irish. Pitch perfect in his enunciation, he was a joy to listen to. All of which I know I told him afterwards, repeatedly. Am blushing to think I was so brazen. Can you just imagine me as a punk Irish groupie! Somewhere in the middle of Colin Farrell and Grizzly Adams is Marczis Attila (on electric guitar) who sported a short back and sides that made me wonder what he’d look like in uniform.  Szuna Péter (Bass) and Juhasz Robert (drums) made up the complement along with the dextrous Virag Lili on the fiddle. One of her first times out with the lads, she really made that fiddle talk.

Hearing with Wild Rover sung with a Hungarian accent was fantastic. And where have I been all these years that I never heard  bitchin’ in the kitchen before? The night was only beginning when they finished with yet another go at Whiskey in the Jar – this time in Hungarian! It was quite surreal in a way, a bit of a time warp. Suddenly I was 21 again, and back home in Dublin. I only wish I’d woken up from this particular delusion in time. Despite the wonderful company of hedgehogs, griffens, and ministering angels, there’s simply no getting away from the fact that I just can’t hack the long nights and small hours any more.  Give me another few weeks to fully recover though and I’ll be in the front row of Firkin’s next-but-one BP gig …Gödör Klub 23 April.

Hey Mr Squirrel

Photo courtesy of Marcus Frakes

The last time I sat in a room listening to a man with a guitar, a mouth organ, and a sense of humour was on a rainy night in Dublin. The man: Kris Kristofferson. The venue: the Point Depot. Fast forwarding about six years to a rainy Saturday night in Budapest, I found myself in another room, listening to a man with a guitar, a mouth organ, and a sense of humour. The man: Bob Pike. The venue: Manga Cowboy.

You’re mad, I hear you say. You’ve lost all sense of scale. The Point holds thousands; Manga holds maybe 40. Kris has billions of fans; Bob, well, maybe not quite as many….yet. Kris has sold millions of albums; Bob has yet to cut one. Kris has a beard. Bob has a shadow. No matter. Both have a story to tell, if you want to listen.

I don’t mind, if you don’t mind. We’ll take our time till closing time. Last call!

Last night at Manga Cowboy, in the first of a series of acoustic gigs at that venue, Bob met his public. Outside, pedestrian umbrellas battled it out with the wind and the rain. Inside, Bob battled through the emotional upheavel of marriage, divorce, and Irish dancing. I’m no expert but I know what I like: a good tune with thoughtful lyrics; a song that both sings to me and talks to me.

I’ve had my fill of Babe Ruths; I want your apple pie

Some were listening; some were passing notes; others were chatting amongst themselves. Some were dancing quietly in their chairs; some were tapping out a beat with chins and hands and heads and feet; others had just come along for Manga’s American fusion food and excellent Hungarian wine.  But when the lyrics hit home, you could see it: the momentary start of surprise at hearing your thoughts in song; the quiet smile acknowledging a shared experience; the quick flash of memories revisited; the out-loud laugh at something that traversed the ridiculous to the sublime.

Hate to see you go

I cried in public when I heard that Johnny Cash had died. I’ve missed this sort of music; these sorts of raw lyrics. I’m tired of being told what to think, and what to expect and how to feel. I’m sick of authors who signpost their books; playwrights who leave nothing to the imagination; scriptwriters who fill in all the blanks. Show me, don’t tell me. Give me a melody that I’ll still be humming a week from now; give me a lyric I can quote; give me a story I can relate to. And show me that you mean it.

He says he hasn’t done this in a while. Voice a little rusty? Maybe. The man himself a little reticent? Perhaps. As his wit was watered, he seemed to relax. The humorous asides, the short explanations, the clever commentary – all added to the music in what was a marathon set. But I wanted more of it: that conversation between the man and his public. I wanted people to shut up and listen; to give the man his due.  I saw him wow the audience on stage on Wednesday night at the Gift of the Gab speech slam with his take on nose hair and being Bob.  Last night, that witty, irreverent, piss-taking comic was replaced by a thoughtful, introspective, slighly zany singer/songwriter. Both equally clever. Both equally entertaining. Bob Pike, boys and girls, is one talented man. I’m glad I dug out my umbrella!

And not a pair of knickers in sight

IMG_4149I’m not quite sure what happened this evening. I can’t decide if I’ve had a great night or simply one that will take a while to recover from. I think I’m in shock.

The last time I saw Sir Tom in the flesh, as it were, he was strutting his stuff on stage in the RDS in Ireland back in the early 1980s.  Girls my age were losing track of their grannies as the old dears rushed the stage to cast their knickers at the King. His trousers were painted on him. And when his oversized rhinestone beltbuckle caught the light, you could have seen it glitter from Mars. Women older than my mother seemed to have lost their reason. I distinctly remember a group of women from the Irish Countrywomen’s Association flinging a pair of enormous bloomers onto the stage embroidered with ‘We love you, Tom’. I was fascinated. The music was great; the entertainment value was excellent; and when I got over the bout of prudishness brought on by the gyrations, I kinda fell for him… in an I’ll-keep-my-eyes-shut-and-you-just-sing-to- me  kind of way.

De Wimmen bought me tickets for tonight’s gig in Budapest .(Yes, I know the photo says Prague but had I seen this photo before mentioning that I wanted to go, I wouldn’t have gone. The Budapest PR posters were a lot kinder. To say that he’s had a nip and a tuck here and there goes no where near the truth. It is scary. Really scary. Really, really scary to see what a 69-year-old man can look like, if he has money.) Anyway, we all headed off to Papp László (KG and her lovely new boots and me) and were in our seats just before 8pm for the warm-up act: Felicity Rawlings. Great voice. Nice girl But no Delilah. And I was there for Delilah.

Sir Tom took his own sweet time coming on stage. And I was getting a tad fed up. It was 9.10pm before the band arrived and then another five minutes of strobe lights and SFX before the man himself appeared singing Sugar Daddy, a song penned for him by Bono and The Edge. It was downhill from there. Six modern, poppy songs later (all from his new album 24 Hours) we finally get Delilah. And this is where my confusion started.

I’d been slowly seething, like an auld wan, about not getting what I’d paid for (even though technically I hadn’t paid for anything). I’d expected a trip down memory lane, to drop in and see if the old home town looked the same and to learn all about never falling in love again, maybe even see what was new with pussycat. Instead, I was watching some ould lad in leather strutting his stuff on stage as if he was 29, not 69, and Mick Jagger he ain’t.  Tom’s wiggle was a very poor imitation of a bad waggle. Don’t get me wrong.  I’m all for doing as much as you can for as long as you can but honestly… this was embarrassing. The man has a fantastic voice –  still as good as it ever was (the eyes-shut trick still works). He was certainly on form and when, an hour later, I finally got a sniff of the green, green grass of home, I started to relax a bit. It seemed as if the modern stuff was over and he was back to the fellah I met all those years ago.

But as we flipped back and forth between old and new and detoured through the southern United States (I had to open my eyes at this stage to make sure it was still him on stage), I lost myself in an internal debate about concerts. Ticketgoers pay to see a performance and have expectations. Performers are in it for the money and to promote their new stuff. You’d imagine that it was all about satisfying the punters’ needs. So why then, when the crowd was on its feet, in rapturous applause for an oldie, why didn’t he stick with the tried and true instead of all this flash?

I’ve been to four really great concerts in my time: BB King many many years ago in Dublin; Kris Kristoffersen in Dublin a few years back; and both Leonard Concerts, this year (Budapest) and last (Amsterdam). All were low-key with minimal, if any, SFX or lighting effects. Tonight was electric…literally. Louder than loud.  Why? Why? Why? …. Delilah. 

The Knighthood didn’t make the crassness disappear and the women love him all the more. The crowd was on fire. They wanted more and more and more (oops, that’s Joe Dolan, isn’t it? I’m getting my shapers mixed up!) But I really didn’t know what to make of it all. Yes, of course, plug the new album (and respect to the man for still putting it out there), but a little more of the good stuff would have been nice. Actually, in fairness, the title track 24 Hours has a hint of Johnny Cash about it… and had I heard it at home, I might have been rightly impressed. Maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m just too old for anything but the unplugged version. Bitching aside though, he did actually play all his big hits… it’s just that he didn’t have that many!

A garden of freshly cut tears

IMG_2967Budapest, Hungary. Monday, 31st August, 2009.

“We don’t know when we will pass this way again, so we’re going to give you everything we got.” In his mid-seventies, face deeply etched by a life that has been lived, Leonard Cohen gave us his all, and more besides. He was on stage for three hours, played six encores, and held a mainly non-English-speaking audience in the palm of his hand for every minute.  In Dublin, additional dates had to be added; I think he sold out three concerts, if not four. In Budapest, another thousand people could have easily fit in the arena where he played one night only.

I saw him live in Amsterdam last year. An outdoor venue. Me, JD and a few thousand aging hippies, high as kites, standing in a field, in the rain. That night was special for many reasons and is forever etched in my bones. I knew I was in the presence of greatness, of humility, and of something else that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.  Tonight…tonight, I finally got it.

What Leonard Cohen has is respect. He puts it out, he gets it back. He wasn’t sure when he would pass this way again, so he gave us everything he had. And more. He thanked us, as he did in Amsterdam, for keeping his songs alive all these years. There was none of this ‘Budapest, I love you’ crap that modern-day megastars seems to enjoy bellowing at an audience who have paid through the nose to hear their pitiful, between-song rhetoric. There was none of the egotistical prancing and strutting around the stage (Grafton Street, God, and what’s-his-name come to mind). There was none of the flashiness or pomp that is too often used as an excuse for talent. Am I jaded? Perhaps a little.

The man kept it simple. He bowed to his band. He repeatedly acknowledged their talent and how important they are to him. He even thanked his bus drivers and the girl who looked after their hats. The man knows people; he appreciates what he has; and he understands the importance of humility and respect. So his voice isn’t what it used to be but the poetry that is his music is all the richer. I heard words tonight that I’ve never really heard before although I have ironed my way through his songs a hundred times. But the experiences of  mindless singing along and really listening to what’s being said are light years apart. Tonight, I had the time to listen.

Back in the day, we’d light our matches or wave our cigarette lighters in the air at concerts: the ultimate accolade. Tonight, the luminous screens of mobile phones lit the arena, as people recorded songs to listen to later. I was reminded of something Tiziano Skarpa wrote about in his book Venice is a Fish. He reckons that as tourists, we’re too busy taking photographs to really see what it is we’re looking at; too busy capturing the memory to really experience it at the time. And I wonder, of those who could understand the words, how many really heard them.

Tonight Leonard Cohen spoke to me and said: ‘My darling…I hope you’re satisfied.’

Yes, Leonard, I am.

Eating out with architects

IMG_2726Every Wednesday morning for the last eight weeks or so, I have been wandering through the 8th district, at the Kálvin tér end… on Múzeum utca. After class, I’ve walked past Épitész pince and have never ventured in. Last week, I decided to treat myself to lunch as my curiosity won out. Budapest is full of surprises. Behind high walls lie beautiful courtyards (udvar). Romanesque colonnades are nearly two a penny and the city is swarming with statues. Vibrant colours on painted walls are offset by so many shades of green that even Johnny Cash would have paused for thought.

The daily menu (napi menü) is a very reasonable 970 HUF for three courses (about €3.50, $5, £3) but clever as they are, if you opt for this, you have to eat inside in the pince (cellar). It was a glorious day and I was rather taken with the statues, the greenery, and the ivy-clad walls, so I treated myself to roast goose leg with baked cabbage and apple, and onion potato and sat outside. Plate piled high, I was transported back to my days in Valdez, Alaska when food portions for one would feed three. It was excellent. Everything I wanted and more.  IMG_2729

Épitész is Hungarian for building and this building houses the School of Architecture. I didn’t know this at the time, which makes my train of thought that day even more curious. Mind you, perhaps the group of four solid-looking chaps pouring over blueprints of some kind should have rung a bell. But hey, I was still in aperture land!

Eating on your own, without a book to keep you company, can leave you wondering where to fix your gaze. Even the most exquisite plate can only hold your attention for so long. Between bites of fresh orange and apple, I couldn’t help noticing what a wonderful architect nature is. Admittedly, the building itself IMG_2724is lovely and it comes with a picturesque courtyard, regal statues, an amazing wrought iron staircase, and well-trodden stone steps. Somehow, though, I felt it had grown into itself. Ivy covers the walls and frames the windows; the occasional red flower makes the greens seem even darker than they are. The marble statues are almost human, reflecting as they do years of inclement weather. Long, trailing creepers hang from glass ceilings, weighed down by time. The pebbled courtyard still echoes the horse-drawn carriages drawing up to take the ladies of the house to the ball.

I could live here. And maybe in a previous life I did. But then, if that were true, I’d have know what  Épitész meant…mmmm

If you find yourself in Budapest, take the 47/49 tramIMG_2721 to Kálvin tér or get the No. 3 metro (blue line). FromKálvin tér head down Múzeum utca to  Ötpacsirta utca. Turn right and look for the yellow building on your left. Open every day except Sunday.