This article was due to appear in The Word magazine (Summer 2012) but unfortunately the magazine ceased publication before it could be used - oh well. Thanks to Mark Ellen for this piece and giving permission to use it here.
'Proof-reading days at Q Magazine in the late-‘80s were enlivened by harrowing tales of 1971’s Weeley Festival about the Hells Angels taking over “security” and interminable sets from Van Der Graaf Generator. The mid-teenage future Word correspondents Paul Du Noyer, Andy Gill and I all spent three rain-lashed days on the flood plains of Clacton in Essex watching T Rex, Barclay James Harvest and The Groundhogs and relayed our weather-beaten yarns to shiny-faced, awestruck youngsters like Adrian Deevoy as if decorated war veterans from Passhendaele which, for some reason, we thought was hilarious. Memories of this challenging event came flooding back the other night when I went past The Troubadour in Old Brompton Road and noticed fellow Weeley survivors Tír na nÓg were playing. I couldn’t resist wandering in. Here they were, Leo O’Kelly and Sonny Condell, still together and back – after 42 years, for God’s sake! - in the brick vault where Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon all played to a capacity crowd of 70 in the 1960s. I buy them a pint before they go on, a reminder that every bands’ life story is fascinating if you stop and listen. Slightly stiff in each other’s company - “we never meet for a drink, only to work” - they arrived in London from Ireland in 1970 “really as two solo acts clinging together for moral support” and were instantly booked at The Troubadour. Al Stewart was in the audience who “pursued us in his MG Sports car, turning up at gigs in places like Stevenage and asking to join the band”. Signed to Chrysalis, they spend four years playing their progressive folk music in colossal venues in support of Jethro Tull and ELP, ever championed by John Peel – “he always liked strange people and had a leaning toward the Irish, like The Undertones”. Do they remember Weeley? “Ha! Neanderthal Hells Angels attacking each other with saplings and cudgels backstage, yes we do!” Beefheart came to see them at the Albert Hall, “taller than you imagined”. They remember limos picking them up at 6am at Oslo airport, “pretty amazing when you’re only 20 and 21 years old. We make more money selling CDs after these gigs now then we ever at Chrysalis,” they add. “We’re lucky to still make a living out of it as it’s the love of our lives.”'
Mark Ellen - The Word
This next article appeared in 2008 in the American rock magazine, Paste.
The Other Summer of Love
By Andy Whitman
'The best music stays with you for a lifetime. You carry it around with you, and it opens up in new ways as the years pass. The bare facts are these: In the spring of 1972, when I was 16 years old, I went with my friends to a Procol Harum concert in Chicago. I expected to see a stately prog rock show. I left a few hours later thinking only about the opening band, a couple of gentle Irish folkies, Sonny Condell and Leo O'Kelly, who called themselves Tir na nÓg.
Nobody's ever heard of Tir na nÓg. They sold a few thousand records in the '70s, and they're almost unknown today. For the completists, they made three melancholy, Celtic-tinged albums of folk rock. They actually covered Nick Drake when he was still alive, and they once played their lovely tunes on John Peel's BBC Radio 1 show. But that doesn't begin to tell the story. Because in the days following that concert, my friends and I independently ventured out and snapped up the Tir na nÓg back catalog. We sat around, individually and collectively, listening to a batch of forlorn love songs that seemed to have been lifted directly from the pages of the diaries that none of us kept. It was a confluence of raging hormones and pressed vinyl that thankfully only happens once or twice in a lifetime, and those songs ripped us apart, and, conversely, brought us closer together as comrades in misery.
"Oh, you are still a mystery to me" Leo sang, and we all sat around and nodded in swooning agreement. None of us had actually mustered up the courage to speak to our respective loves as yet, and mystery pretty much came with that territory. But it didn't matter. We huddled in our bedrooms, our guitars in our laps, playing those albums again and again. We tried to puzzle out the alternate tunings we heard. We struggled unsuccessfully to master the fingerpicking patterns and to memorize all the lyrics because, for us, those songs were coded messages from the brothers we never knew, and we were caught up in the inexplicable telepathy of a couple Dublin hippies commiserating with a few moping Midwestern kids in the suburbs of Chicago.
It couldn't and didn't last. Within a few months the fevered intensity passed. We moved on with our lives, and a couple years later my friends and I parted ways to head off to different colleges. But for a while there, in the summer of 1972, we were united by crushing despair, and by the love of a band that understood our deepest sorrows, wallowing in the ageless drama that was equal parts devastating beauty and delicious desolation. We were romantics who had just received our driver's permits. And if we were silly and ridiculously overwrought—and we were—then you can chalk it up to immaturity. Chet Baker, another overwrought romantic, once sang "Blame It On My Youth," and he had it right, too.
Everyone has encountered albums like these, and when they hit at 16, as they often do, they leave a mark. They arrive fortuitously at times of emotional upheaval or vulnerability, and they connect in ways that go deep down—as a healing balm, as a mirror reflecting our lives, as the soundtrack to our inarticulate longings. Periodically I ask myself if those three Tir na nÓg albums actually hold up to critical scrutiny. I think they do. They're lovely, unspeakably sad, full of deft fingerpicking, and the harmonies are characterized by a melancholy fragility, like two Nick Drakes for the price of one. But the music is so inextricably entwined with my life that it's impossible to be objective about it. All I know is that I take those three albums off the shelf a couple times per year now, those worn, familiar vinyl records, full of crackles and pops. I listen, and it all comes back. They sounded great at 16, during the other summer of love, the one that actually mattered to me. They sound great now.
There is, of course, also the wincing regret that accompanies those memories. I've been happily married for 25 years now to a woman who is most definitely not the object of The Undying Love of 1972. But music is powerful stuff, and it's amazing how quickly the emotions of those desperate days can be revived.
In Celtic mythology, Tír na nÓg is the land of eternal youth. It's off the edges of the map, not so much a geographic location as a hazy, nebulous region where memory and yearning meet and are perfectly at peace. I didn't think about it at 16, didn't know that the name would turn out to be a sort of prophecy, a foretelling of what I would experience 35 years down the line. It just worked out that way'
The following article was written by Joe Giltrap for the Irish Post in August, 2011, to help promote the September gigs. It never got published - The Irish Post ceased trading :(
Sonny Condell from County Wicklow and Leo O’Kelly from County Carlow, two young aspiring songwriters from totally different musical backgrounds, met by accident in 1969 and the rest is history. Sonny grew up on a farm in Wicklow and was influenced by a mixture of classical music and The Beatles while in Carlow Leo started playing with The Tropical Showband before joining a local psychedelic band (well it was the 60s after all). Leo went on to tour Europe and America with Emmet Spiceland - his first introduction to folk music.
He then started playing solo spots in the numerous folk clubs in
Dublin that were a great platform for emerging and established
acoustic musicians. With Dublin being so small it was possible to play several clubs on the same night so it was hardly surprising that Leo and Sonny should meet up. They were both thinking of trying their luck in London so they went into a studio and recorded some of their own material as well as covers and although they did not use the recording until years later it gave them the confidence to strike out. They picked up a resident
spot in London and were immediately signed by Chrysalis with whom they made three albums before the label lost interest. John Peel championed them and they recorded many sessions for him at the BBC.
Unquestionably they were ahead of their time but they split and went back to Dublin and although they followed separate careers there was always the nagging doubt that perhaps they had quit too soon. Sonny went on record solo albums and work with Scullion while Leo pursued a solo career. In 1991 they decided to have another crack at it and discovered that it all slotted into place quite naturally. Sonny Condell still gigs with Scullion and his own band Radar as well as performing solo and has recorded 15 albums to date. Leo also has solo albums on release and Tir na nOg have an album recorded in Cork called Live at Sirius on release. The live album shows just how tight this duo are with lovely harmonies and faultless playing and I have to confess that I found myself playing the last track Dante over and over again.
A Night With Tír na nÓg
Wexford Arts Centre, Ireland
19th Feb 2011
Tír na nÓg took to the stage last night, Sat 19th, in the Wexford Arts Centre. The extraordinary duo (Sonny Condell) and (Leo O’Kelly) rose to fame in the early 1970’s, and received widespread critical acclaim for their three magnificent studio albums (Radio presenter and music legend John Peel was a major fan of their work and championed them throughout his career). Tír na nÓg have toured internationally with bands such as The Who, Roxy Music, Procol Harum, Jethro Tull, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. With such staggering credentials one would expect Condell and O’Kelly to swagger like rock stars and bask in the limelight. Instead, the duo are incredibly down to earth, refreshingly unpretentious, and are truly as enchanting as the music they play.
Before Tír na nÓg’s arrival, whispers and excited chatter surged through an audience composed of all ages. Not surprising considering the impressive forty year career the duo have built together. The lights came down, a hush fell. Within seconds, and to rapturous applause, Tír na nÓg were on stage. From the outset it was clear that Condell and O’Kelly had some magic about them. Condell sat, acoustic guitar in hand, while O’Kelly stood, his guitar draped around his neck, a somewhat darker figure, hinting at his musical influences. (The Doors, The Velvet Underground.)
Although the men looked worlds apart, the music they performed together was harmonious, exquisitely played, and conjured up imagery so rich that the audience were entranced from the very first song. In fact, so beautiful were the lyrics in their simplicity and emotional depth that each audience member appeared to be lost in their own memories of the past. By the second track, the hauntingly beautiful “Mariner’s Blues” the Wexford Arts Centre had been transformed from, not so much a venue, as a gateway, to the past and to the future. Crowd favourite “Two White Horses” followed soon after. This track proved that Tír na nÓg had the audience in the palm of their hands. With songs reminiscent of early Led Zeppelin, and some with a hint of Nick Drake, it would be easy to categorise Tír na nÓg as progressive rock, or acid-folk, though truthfully it is impossible to pin down a definitive style, so diverse and wide ranging is their sound and so universal are the themes of their songs.
The banter that Condell and O’Kelly shared between songs was highly entertaining and, along with a loose set list, added a pleasant and informal feel to proceedings. Watching Condell and O’Kelly sip at glasses of red wine it was easy to forget occasionally that you were at a concert and not lazing in your own living room. The mood shifted however when Condell unleashed his dark side on a cover of the Rolling Stones track “Playing with Fire” reminding the audience of the great power that the duo possessed. Shifting effortlessly from light hearted quick ditties to emotional and heartfelt ballads to dark brooding pieces and back again, it was clear that Tír na nÓg are incredibly gifted musicians, and that their legions of fans are well deserved.
One of the most exciting parts of the gig came when O’Kelly launched into a floor stompingly powerful rendition of “Venezuela,” a song that he wrote between takes while the band recorded their first album. The duo are equally gifted as writers as they are musicians. Creating beautiful lilting melodies that are impossible to shake from your mind, and painting poetic pictures that are so vivid you will catch yourself day dreaming into the worlds they create.
They also performed an exhilarating version of the Nick Drake track “Free Ride” which had people literally rocking in their seats. Tír na nÓg have an incredibly rare combination of humility, astounding talent, and a powerful stage presence.
It is clear from Condell and O’Kelly that they care about their fans and are appreciative of the support they receive. One charming moment came when O’Kelly dedicated the fun and heart warming track “Daisy Lady” to a couple in the audience. Soon after he informed the crowd that the bands first album, also entitled Tír na nÓg was forty years old this year. With such a long and glittering career Tír na nÓg are every bit as powerful and vibrant today as they were four decades ago.
They do not shy away from the rich cultural heritage which Ireland provides as a source of inspiration for their songs, but they are by no means dependent on it. In fact, many of Tír na nÓg’s songs focus on human relationships, in all of their happiness, hilarity, sadness, and anger. Their songs could possibly be best described as modern day folk ballads. Whatever way you describe Tír na nÓg, it’s very clear that these two can do it all.
(Murt Brennan Writing - Blog)
TÌr na nOg
The Greystones, Sheffield
Friday 25 March
“You were probably expecting much older men,” quipped Leo O’Kelly as he and Sonny Condell took the Greystones stage on a balmy evening in March. And given that their debut LP was released forty years ago, the two chaps do indeed look remarkably sprightly. Sonny is as leprechaun-like as ever, even without his inadvisable ‘70s beard; and Leo is positively Byronic in teddy-boy jacket and cascading locks. Well, TÌr na nOg does mean the Land of the Young, don’t y’know...
The duo were two Irish lads of twenty short years apiece when they made landing in England in 1970. They were speedily snapped up by Chrysalis Records and given the pleasant chore of opening for the likes of Jethro Tull and Procul Harum. Their last time in Sheffield, Leo recalled, was supporting Tull at the City Hall. Three rather tasty albums and a programme profiling them on BBC2 helped generate a sturdy UK fan base, most of which seemed to be squeezed into the Greystones for their long awaited return to the city.
They opened with Time Is Like A Promise and followed it with Mariner Blues, which made me wonder whether they were going to play their entire first album in sequence. Not so, as it turned out; but by the end of the night they’d mined it for more than half of its glittering lode. The rest of the set drew generously upon A Tear And A Smile (1972) and Strong In The Sun (1973), supplemented by a brace of Condell compositions from his time with the superlative Scullion (though not announced as such), O’Kelly’s atmospheric Venezuela (from Proto, 2001), and a couple of well-chosen covers: Nick Drake’s Free Ride and The Stones’ Play With Fire.
Physically at least, O’Kelly’s is the dominating presence on stage. He remains standing throughout, fenced in by a lunar semicircle of effects pedals, and does most of the talking in an amiable, slurry Carlow brogue. Condell by contrast sits hunched over his guitar and introduces his songs in a laconic, almost apologetic half-whisper. Nevertheless, TÌr na nOg are a union of equals. Their guitars wind and mesh gorgeously together, their voices likewise; nor can you separate them for the quality of their songwriting. Songs like Condell’s Our Love Will Not Decay, Eyelids Into Snow and Two White Horses, and O’Kelly’s Piccadilly, So Freely and Looking Up—these are as good as anything Ireland’s produced in the past four decades. True, you’ll get the occasional trope of earnest hippy whimsy—”Three elfin painters with their jars of sunbeams colour your window”—but hey, we were all young once. Even so, I had my fleeting doubts when they encored with Dante, a portrait of, er, a shepherdess and her “fat lambs”. But why not? It’s one of Condell’s shapliest, most summery melodies, and the chiming open-tuned guitar figures have an almost otherworldly lustre. A delighted audience demanded a second encore, which momentarily nonplussed them. Leo asked for suggestions. “No, we don’t do that one... Sorry, can’t remember that...” A call for Sonny’s Scullion-period masterpiece The Cat She Went A-Hunting went up from our table. “Ah,” said Leo drily, “that’s from Sonny’s other band—the one we don’t mention...” Finally, they elected to play Time Is Like A Promise again, and nobody seemed to mind.
Raymond Greenoaken, Stirrings (issue 147)
Tir na nOg
The Greystones, Sheffield.
Friday, March 25th, 2011
The Greystones underwent major refurbishment last autumn and the result is something to be proud of. This is a large public house with a back room (aptly named ‘The Backroom’) which is a comfortable, spacious, atmospheric and, most importantly, self-contained area for those coming to enjoy the music – and that’s exactly what this audience did.
With no announcement or fanfare, Tir na nOg unassumingly took to the stage and were instantly met by a wave of applause and noisy appreciation. It had been nigh on forty years since they were last in Sheffield, supporting Jethro Tull at the City Hall, and this packed audience intended making up for lost time. Sonny Condell, seated with guitar (and occasional African drums), and Leo O’Kelly, standing with guitar (and occasional violin), went straight into ‘Time is Like a Promise’ and suddenly the years melted away. The quality of their voices and musicianship is timeless. But the evening wasn’t just about the nostalgia. Yes, they played many classics including ‘Two White Horses’, ‘So Freely’, ‘Looking Up’, ‘Strong in the Sun’ and ‘Piccadilly’ (with Sonny, on jew’s-harp, conveying a rhythmic interlude) from their three inaugural albums, but for some in the crowd this would have been their own initiation into this style of progressive folk music. The set list also included songs from both their respective catalogues, including ‘Alcohol’ from Leo’s new album ‘Will’ and Sonny’s ‘Eyelids into Snow’, which is now a firm favourite of mine and which sits perfectly within the Tir na nOg repertoire. Added into the mix were the quirky and humorous ‘Bluebottle Stew’ and ‘Aberdeen Angus’, Leo’s powerful and forceful ‘Venezuela’, the slow ballad ‘Dante’ and also a couple of their favourite covers (Nick Drake and The Rolling Stones). The audience was captivated.
The harmonies arising from the contrasting vocals interwove beautifully with the intricate dovetailing of guitars. This is, and always has been, the trademark of Tir na nOg, who are enjoying bringing their music back to these shores for us to continue to savour and admire. During a recent radio interview Leo commented that something special happens when he and Sonny play together. The audience sensed this and we were so grateful that Tir na nOg were playing at such an ideal venue A second encore was demanded and requests were called out, but they decided to revisit ‘Time is Like a Promise’ - with a promise to return sooner rather than later.
Pete Needham -Classic Rock Society magazine
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