Some musical acts are much more redolent of the era in which they came to prominence than others. Martin Carthy, for instance, little suggests the 1960s, nor Kate Bush the late 1970s. Tir na nOg, on the other hand, are so utterly 1970. And anything utterly 1970 is splendid by me.
For the uninitiated (they are not houshold names, I know), this duo, multi-instrumentalists and singer-songwriters Leo O'Kelly and Sonny Condell, became Tir na nOg (named after an otherworld of Irish mythology; hence strange capitalisation) in Dublin in 1970, sailed over to Britain shortly after, and became immediately popular with the cognoscenti, going on to produce theree albums for Chrysalis Records before splitting in 1974, to continue on a low-key basis from 1985.
Tir na nOg were one of many bands influenced by the wondrous Incredible String Band, who gave full rein to hippy idelalism and whimsy in meandering, ethereal acoustic psychedelic music. In particular, Sonny Cordell, a singer and songwriter, reminds me of ISB's Mike Heron.
Tir na nOg ground the audacious romanticism in the timeless earthiness of the folk tradition. Cordell as a youth worked on the land, and agricultural imagery is prevalent in his compositions. O'Kelly does his bit to leaven the flower-power with earthy anecdotes of life on the road, peppered with jokes like 'at the hostel you had to make your own bed. I didn't mind, as I was a dab hand at carpentry'. In fact O'Kelly has a classic 'lived a bit' appearance and manner: both old hippy and garrulous Irish drinker. The combination of this sense of a full life lived ruggedly with the innocent aspirations of the songs and music is emotionally complex, fascinating, and for me winningly poignant.
While O'Kelly is the unslick raconteur, the more self-contained Condell sits calmy under his hat, playing mostly guitar or bongo drum. O'Kelly also plays guitar, as well as a pleasing fiddle.
The first album was well represented: Mariner Blues, Daisy Lady, Aberdeen Angus, Piccadilly, Our Love Will Not Decay, Dante. Bluebottle Stew and Two White Horses were highlights from the second album, while from the third album we had the great Strong In The Sun and an uptempo cover of Nick Drake's Free Ride (according to O'Kelly, the only Drake cover released in his lifetime, apart from one by, of all people, Millie).
One pleasing aspect was that new songs such as You In Yellow and Andrea were every bit as good as the old ones, and very similar. The duo are currently recording new material.
Time Is Like A Promise was their first track on their first album, and their first number tonight. It's a thought one can't quite get one's head around, but how deeply poignant an a sentiment it is, forty-two years on. A very fitting one for Tir na nOg.
Writer: Rychard Carrington