Let’s dispense with the pachyyderm in the parlour. Luka Bloom is Christy Moore’s brother. He looks a bit like him and sounds a bit like him, but that is where the similarity ends. Luka (Barry) Bloom (Moore) is his own man. He’s a singer who can turn his voice to any musical genre. He’s the folk-pop version of Christy. He’s Moore The Merrier.
Bloom has been flouting The Rules of Folk Rock since he began recording back in the 70s. He’s covered LL Cool J songs and once played a solo acoustic version of Prince’s ‘When Doves Cry’ live on 2FM. A folky covering Prince? Go on out of that. It didn’t quite work, but it was ballsy and quirky and showed an unwillingness to be pigeon-holed.
On ‘This New Morning’, Bloom continues to shake up the genre with clever chord sequences and arrangements, while still retaining folk’s core values of story-telling and commentary.
Bloom is primarily known in Ireland as a solo guitar and mic man. Here, he has gathered together a Who’s Who from the Irish folk pantheon. This New Morning sounds like a band album – and what a band: Hansard, Lunny, Ó Lionaird, Eimear Quinn, Steve Cooney and Conor Byrne. The playing is magnificent throughout. Bloom co-produced this record with his old sparring partner, Brian Masterson, and together they have created an album of outstanding beauty, sensitivity and… fun.
On the opening track, ‘How Am I To Be’, Bloom gives a singing masterclass which should be compulsory listening for all aspiring singer-songwriters. Falsetto, followed by soaring vocal, followed by ear-nuzzling softness: Bloom’s voice has an extraordinary range. Listen closely and you will hear Christy Dignam, Damien Dempsey and even Mary Coghlan in the grace notes. They are only grace notes however. Bloom, as previously stated, is his own man. His voice is muscular, yet tender. Knowing, yet vulnerable. It has authority. His guitar-playing, too, is uniquely his own. It’s dynamic, yet tempered to suit the vocal.
Like his elder brother, Luka likes to comment on the issues of today. ‘A Seed Was Sown’ was inspired by the Queen’s visit to Ireland and the moment she bowed before a monument to our fallen heroes. ‘She lowered her head down/And held the pose/My tears flowed freely/God only knows/She remembered our losses/She remembered her own/And in that moment/A seed was sown’. It’s a nice heartfelt song, with some some fine orchestral moments, although cynics may say it suffers from the simplicity of its message.
Did she really sow a seed, or just nurture one that had already germinated? It’s a moot point, but Bloom’s sincerity is never in doubt.
‘Across the Breeze’ is critical of the EU law prohibiting the cutting of turf on raised bogs. It’s an issue that is said to strike at the heart of rural life. Bloom may overplay his hand on this track. The criminalising of the country’s bog folk by Europe is a sensitive issue, but it’s treated here with a little too much peat-smoke-in-the-eye. It has the tragic feel of a ‘Fields of Athenry’, where perfidious Albion has been replaced by perfidious Brussels. ‘I see the turf smoke rising/Carrying our stories and songs’…
It seems a bit trite when compared to the following track, the powerful ‘Gaman’. ‘Gaman’ is Japanese for ‘endure the unendurable’. Bloom wrote it after witnessing the devastation of 2011’s earthquake and tsunami. It’s a sophisticated, thoughtful and moving piece of songwriting. ‘Life isn’t easy/so much to face/I hope I meet adversity/With just a little grace’.
On a more upbeat note, ‘Heart Man’ is as chirpy as a nestling and one of the album’s stand-out tracks. Máirtín Ó Connor’s barely-there accordion playing sounds like a sweet harmonica weaving its way through Bloom’s lyrics. Glen Hansard and Samuel Arnold’s declamatory backing vocals give it a slight Sinead O’Connor ‘Faith and Courage’ feel. There is one jarring moment on the track, however: a wail towards the end which sounds like Hansard being punched in the crotch. It’s only a minor blip, though.
‘Capture a Dream’ features Donal Lunny on bodhran, Eimear Quinn and Iarla Ó Lionaird on vocals, Steve Cooney on guitar and Conor Byrne on flute. Cooney’s moody guitar work is sublime and perfectly matches the tone of the vocal.
‘Capture a dream in a photograph/Before the rainbow fades/Gather a dream in a photograph/The rain washes the days away’. This is a beautiful late-night-with-a-glass-of-wine song. (Or possibly even a bottle of wine.)
‘The Race Runs Me’ was inspired by runner Sonia O’Sullivan. Bloom’s sleeve notes say the song’s rhythm came from watching Eamon ‘Chairman of the Boards’ Coghlan’s world record run in 1983. Cooney’s flapping guitar and Robbie Harris’s galloping cajon give this number a spiked-shoe kick in the butt. It’s a cracking little song and the ‘breathing, running, breathing’ refrain is irritatingly catchy.
‘You Survive’ is a song about suicide which showcases Bloom’s gift for being able to sing about sensitive themes (apart from turf-cutting) without sounding mawkish. He knows when to restrain himself. ‘You stood at the edge last night/The dark came in/A need for closure/Crept under your skin/You planned it for days/Simple and clear/Struggling was over/Past the point of fear’.
‘Riverdays’ is a welcome return to the light from the darkness of suicide and depression. It has a classic ballad structure and features some lovely guitar, mando and banjo playing. A little gem.
‘Your Little Wings’ was written after witnessing young girls drunk out of their heads. The verse is sung ‘a capella’, while the chorus is bolstered by Caomhín Ó Raghallaigh’s fiddle. ‘I can’t protect you from the world/I can’t protect you from yourself’. Unfortunately, the refrain sounds like a priest intoning from the altar. That’s not to say this a preachy song. It’s just not a personal favourite.
Continuing with the contemporary theme, ‘Dignity and Backbone’ is about the arrival of the EU and IMF: ‘There is no cavalry coming over Vinegar Hill/These boots I stand in are the only boots I must fill’. Bloom sings that ‘being a soverign people is not determined by finance but how we are with each other and how we work and play’. It’s a nice message and he’s absolutely correct, of course.
From being ridden by the IMF and the EU, we now saddle up for the most open, simple and enjoyable musical jaunt on the album. ‘I Think I’ll Go for a Ride’ is a classic. Here Bloom gets on his bike and pedals down the old bog road, name-checking everyone from Sean Kelly to the late Mic Christopher. You can almost feel the breeze on your face, and taste the dead insects in your mouth.
Bloom sounds most like his sibling here: “I Think I’ll Go For A Ride’ is ‘Lisdoonvarna’ on two wheels. Freewheeling dobro, mando, banjo and bouzouk all joyfully conspire to put a smile on your face.
The curtain falls with ‘No Big Deal’, a sweet, sparse song with some fine guitar playing and graceful vocal acrobatics. Bloom’s guitar flicks from fretted to harmonic, from woody to airy. That sentence sums Bloom up too. He swoops, then soars with ease. He is as free as an artist can ever dream of being. He is a man who would be comfortable in any genre.
This New Morning is a treasure: beautifully sung, played and produced. It’s blooming great.
By Dave Kenny
Dave Kenny is an author, journalist, musician, and is often to be found strolling the narrow streets of Dalkey, mostly in the vicinity of Finnegan’s. He sometimes gigs in McDonagh’s supporting the Moogies. More info on www.davekenny.com.
For info on Luka Bloom’s upcoming gigs visit www.lukabloom.com.