The last time I got beyond the gates of The Cork County Cricket Club, on that magnificent, tree-lined stretch out in the west of the city, a small group of us were making an unofficial, no-budget video for ‘The Summerhouse’ by The Divine Comedy.
The last shot in that clip, which was for the fledgling No Disco series, features my late friend, Philip Kennedy, on a hired old bicycle, shakily making his way up the narrow pathway, being hunted off of the premises by an official – was he a night watchman ? – who threatened to call the guards on us.
In keeping with the general spirit of that series, and the cavalier mood of the time, we had no permissions in place, no facilities and were pretty much making it all up as we went along. And so we’d spent the early part of that quiet Sunday lunchtime rambling around by The Shaky Bridge, absolutely on the fly and with the minimum of film stock. But once we spotted the small pavilion inside the hedged surround of The Richard Beamish Grounds, it felt like we’d made it home. And off we went: the closest any of us had ever been to a summerhouse.
Many years later and Sean O’Hagan, once of Microdisney and Stereolab, now of The High Llamas, once of Luton, briefly of Cork and now resident in Peckham in South London, wanders into that same, small premises and casts a fond eye across what, on every level, are lush surroundings for any engagement. It’s a long way from the room in Bennigan’s Bar in Derry where, a couple of nights previously, he began his short, four-date acoustic tour and, back in Cork, an appropriate place in which to conclude it.
The walls inside the pavilion remind us of some of the great merchant princes of Cork sport, former captains and international players who, with their first names captured in double and triple initials on mounted wood panels, graced the crease and the outfield beyond the wide bay-windows. There, among them, a familiar name I recognise from our old school, the former Cork county captain and Ireland all-rounder opening bat and military medium bowler as required, Ted Williamson. From a staunch, well-known Northside family steeped in hurling and football, I wonder, in the worst Cork traditions of social stereotyping, when Ted became T.E.J. Williamson and how he ever ended up here ?
Which is a question that Sean O’Hagan too, from behind his acoustic guitar and hired-for-the-night keyboard, might well have asked himself at various points throughout his sparkling, soft and magnificent set in front of a packed house in the small, fancy function room inside the clubhouse. Organised, he tells us, through friends and like-minds using social media and, for a change, plugging nothing, tonight’s show has all the hallmarks of an over-due visit back to see family and to catch up with old friends and a smattering of anoraks. To this end, it feels like a civil ceremony that’s been gate-crashed by a handful of well-wishers, many of them lavishly bearded.
Half-way through the supple, sixteen song set, and with the doors and the windows open out onto the verdure and with the low, late-evening light clinging on for life, he reminds us who he is and mentions his band, the excellent High Llamas, with whom he’s now compiled a formidable back catalogue. Lest anyone in the room – and it’s nicely full – think that he might pull an old Microdisney oddity from the pack and bring it up for air, he doesn’t. The closest we get is the dead air when someone in the front row mentions ‘Horse Overboard’ after Sean tells a soft yarn about a rural scene he saw out of the window of a speeding train on the journey down from Dublin earlier.
It’s been thirty years, more or less, since the fabled Cork band he back-boned with Cathal Coughlan pulled the shutters down on their premises one last time and, in the decades since, he’s made number of fine, fine records: more than enough to draw a wide-ranging set from. And he does, scattering the evening with dreamy personal testimonies and under-stated vignettes as he explains away the background to some of his material. Culled from a solo career that began in earnest with 1992’s ‘Santa Barbara’, tonight’s set is dominated by cuts from the three High Llamas albums issued immediately thereafter, the wonderful ‘Gideon Gaye’, ‘Cold And Bouncy’ and the formidable and defining 1998 monster, ‘Hawaii’.
Stripped back to skeletal form, and without the multiple layers of brass, strings and chintzy keyboards, Sean is kept nicely busy all evening working the frets as he reaches his head back, stretching his soft voice to tip the high end of his register, and often beyond. His playing style is as gorgeous and gracious as it’s ever been and, without the blankets – The High Llamas boast more a temporary partition than a wall of sound – the source of the magic at the heart of much of that solo work is clear. Often as redolent of the fresh, balmy bossa nova that dominated Everything But The Girl’s fine debut, ‘Eden’, other times sprinkled with soft jazz shapes, I’m reminded, fleetingly, of the delicate core of Microdisney’s early releases and opt, correctly as it happens, to keep that much to myself.
A dedication to the late Mary Hansen, the Australian guitarist who played with Sean in Stereolab, prefaces ‘The Dutchman’, again from ‘Gideon Gaye’ before Jerome Kern’s ‘Ol Man River’ closes the innings for the night, tenderly political and prescient, soft and telling. And then he’s done, gone, and back into the arms of friends and well-wishers beyond in the bar.
On the walk up to the show hours earlier, I passed the small building that, years ago, housed the old Elmtree studios and that faces almost directly onto the flower-lined pedestrian gate at the County. The small plaque that identified that bunker for years, in among the back garages, has been painted over in beige. But it was here that, in the company of the likes of Peter West, Dennis Herlihy and Ger O’Leary, many an aspiring local outfit laid their first, tentative shapes onto tape. Any roll of honour on the walls here would capture honourable statesmen like Cypress, Mine !, Belsonic Sound, Burning Embers and The Frank And Walters, among a host of others: Elmtree was, indeed, where another strata of Cork society sported and played.
At the end of a warm, classy night in the company of one of the great, unheralded names in the history of music in Cork city, you’d be thinking that, if you can’t put your arms around your memories, you need to capture these kinds of moments while you can.