The first watching of Luke Kelly: The Performer on DVD leaves the viewer nicely posed on the horns of a dilemma. A man may take the pessimistic route, and sink into despair knowing that this magnificent, epic singer will never be heard again, or he may just thank God that Luke Kelly did come our way, if only for a brief time, and now this DVD exists in complement to the Dubliners' recordings, to remind us that in Irish folk singing there is Luke Kelly, and then there are the rest. Kelly's crown is undisputed, and the release of this DVD serves only to copper-fasten his kingdom as the King of Balladeers.
A man has to doff his cap to whoever it was that compiled this DVD - the entire planet was combed for footage. We see the Dubliners from the Ed Sullivan show in their sixties pomp, through the Jim McCann era of the mid-seventies (including footage of Kelly singing Kelly the Boy from Killane in Germany sporting an afro that would surely have nested every bird in the Ciffs of Moher), and on to the eighties, when Kelly was fighting the good fight against the Arch-bastard, that cruel, remorseless old foe that is cancer.
The footage is stunning in itself. It's hard not to remember that the grammar of how to film bands and singers hadn't been invented at this stage, and sometimes the band can seem startlingly raw to our eyes used to polish and sheen. In a lot of the early footage from the 'sixties, it's distressingly plain that these men have just rolled into the TV studio from a public house, and they're going to roll right back out again for a raft of pints once their duty is done. The shirts are startling also; there is one piece of footage of a performance of The Monto where Kelly is wearing a red shirt with a great, big brown tie with yellow spots. I guess it was the 'sixties, man, and anything went. Pity the tie didn't go as well.
Luke Kelly himself makes for fascinating viewing. All my generation remembers of Luke Kelly, visually, are that clip of him singing Scorn Not His Simplicity on the Late Late Show Tribute to the Dubliners (first broadcast 1987, if you can come to terms with that without weeping), and the clip that you may have seen before of Kelly singing Raglan Road in a TV studio with Ciarán MacMahúna and Ben Kiely. Other than those two, nothing. Only a reputation left behind, like the Cheshire Cat's grin. And because of that, this DVD is supremely fascinating.
Firstly, Kelly doesn't look that big. He doesn't look as physically imposing as you would expect from such a rafter-raising voice. In the early sixties he sang staring straight ahead, into the middle distance. By seventies he had relaxed a little, and was even showing signs of becoming something of a ham on stage. His hand gestures are surprisingly effete, for someone with such a man's man reputation. Very wristy darling, very wristy indeed. But the most stunning thing of all is just how much Kelly enjoys his singing, and how stunningly well he transmits that singing to the audience.
Track 10 of the DVD is Luke singing Dirty Old Town, on stage somewhere where I suspect English is not the first language. At one point the camera pans across to Barney McKenna, and it's clear just how much McKenna is getting into it. And that tells its own story. You have to remember that Barney McKenna is a banjo virtuoso. For Barney McKenna to play accompaniment to someone singing as simple a song, melodically, as Dirty Old Town is like sending for Nigella Lawson to make toast. It's a waste of talent, and it's rather boring for the maestro. So for Luke Kelly's singing to have that effect on Barney - for whom all this is just one more gig, if it's Tuesday it must be Gronegin - well, it's some goddamned singing, is what it is.
Because it's with the singing that it all begins and ends. All that other chat about the drinking and the wild red hair and the communist inclinations is just so much palaver. When all those hoary old stories have long faded away the recordings of that astonishing voice will last and be treasured as a remarkable human and artistic achievement. And now that we have the DVD, we can almost imagine what it was like to hear him live, or we can get as close as the fellas in Plato's cave got to turning around and seeing the real thing. This is a tough old world where it's hard for the worthy to last - to even have as little as do have is something to be celebrated.
What was so remarkable about Luke Kelly's voice? The astonishing power of it, that presence that can't be ignored. Ralph McTell says on the DVD that when he first heard Luke Kelly he was terrified, and terror seems the only sensible reaction to that remarkable power.
Power is too unsubtle a word. Kelly's voice wasn't particularly loud as such, although I'm pretty damn sure he could be heard at the back of a hall. As Paddy Reilly explains, Luke Kelly was not a bellower - because Kelly was naturally gifted in terms of technique, his singing mechanics were such that he actually sang through his nose, rather than roaring it out in the manner of the pub drunk. That's where the power and presence come from.
Kelly's phrasing was different too. Kelly's diction was marvellous - he carefully enunciates each phrase and gives it an appropriate weighing. Listen to the weight he gives "her" in "I saw her first and knew," from Raglan Road, for example. Such a parcel of rogues in a nation, rolling his r's and spitting out the world "rogues." And the damned barbed wire gets higher and higher, picking out the rhymes. Luke Kelly was a big Frank Sinatra fan, and Francis Albert has always been noted for his phrasing. Does that make Luke Kelly the first ever syncopated folk singer? It'd take a better musicologist than An Spailpín Fánach to answer that, but certainly Luke Kelly's phrasing was unlike any other folk singer I can think of.
But even then, when you talk about technique and voice projection, you're still missing something. There was something else in Luke Kelly's that he was able to draw on and transmit to an audience through his singing. Watching him singing in the DVD, it's like he's not so much a singer of a song as the song's conduit - that whatever Art is in the song has chosen Kelly to make itself known, and that Luke Kelly is the one man we've met or heard so far that can tap so deeply and so fully and so seemingly effortlessly into whatever place it is on Mount Parnassus that these songs actually live, and take them from the mountain-top to the people.
All of which sounds a bit precious. Maybe so. But the late Frank Harte thought that songs only every existed at the moment of their being sung; that whatever they were in their dormant, written or spoken state, they were only songs qua songs when sung. Not before, not after. If that's true, then there was never a better man to breathe life into songs into songs than Luke Kelly.
Luke Kelly will be 22 years dead on Monday - the brain tumour finally claimed him on January 30th, 1984. Reader, treat yourself. Spend twenty Euro on Luke Kelly: The Performer on DVD. It's like no singing you've every seen or heard before. And, to put you further in the mood, a taste and a treat: Luke Kelly singing Raglan Road in 1979 on a DVD show called the Humours of Donnybrook, as referred to earlier. Is minic a scríobhtar nach mbeidh a leithid arís ann - i gcás an Ceilleach, ní raibh a leithid ann sula seo ach an oiread. Go gcana do ghlór uasal go mbinn suairc fós ar ardán Pharthais, a Rí Mór na h-Amhránaí, Luke Kelly.
Ireland, culture, music, Dubliners, Luke Kelly