Studying abroad in Ireland, there are some certain things one must learn in order to survive and thrive in the Emerald Isle. These lessons derive a few essential rules:
- Dublin has some of the best live music in the world.
- Guinness has calories…like triple digits.
- No city reveres American music as enthusiastically as Dublin.
Each city has its own distinctive feel when music is concerned. There’s a laid-back rock ‘n roll vibe permeating from our very own Chicago. The rootsy blues twang that echoes from Nashville is a distinct culmination of alternative-blues-country fusion, and the guitar fuzz of take-no-prisoners grunge punk is distinctly Seattle. Each city is its own pulsing musical machine that cannot be replicated, each completely consumed by its own musical by products. And Dublin is no different, with a musical identity all it’s own–except there’s more beer and less ego. There are a few pivotal musical experiences that led to a few musical universals that apply all throughout Dublin, and the only way to chronicle them is through a little musical story time.
On Night One of Dublin, it was obvious that a pub-crawl was priority number one. No group of travelers can arrive in Ireland without that idea at least ruminating in the back of their minds. The pub-crawl began with an art deco looking bar called The Globe. Passing its dim windows and sleek, modern signage, it was easy to see the construction of a drum kit underway. “Oh, there must be a rock band playing tonight,” the group thought with reprehensible naïveté. And I say naïveté because we were terribly, terribly wrong. Finally after whistling down an annoyingly nonchalant bartender and carrying rounds of Guinness the audience took place at various dimly lit, rickety wooden tables. And with hopeful ears perked in the air and a pit of apprehension (or was it the cardboard airport grub?) in our stomachs, the mysterious drinking became a source of tension. And it was, indeed, there for a reason, but not for the right ones. And thus arises the first realization made in Dublin.
Irish Music Lesson #1: Ireland has Dubstep, and it’s just as awful as it is in America.
With candles flickering in the dark corners of the pub, an old man wielding a Dubliners vinyl under his arm and vintage headphones around his neck approached a DJ deck in the only vacant corner of the pub. As he booted up a laptop and positioned a projector so it hit just the right height on the spackle-ridden wall. Other pub-crawlers looked at one anther for reassurance but were only greeted with mutual befuddlement. With a quick flourish accenting the mundane click of an “Enter” button on his MacBook, the Irish geriatric Skrillex started to spin.
Heavy bass attacked bar hoppers and assaulted then with electronic synth loops in the key of disaster. The “music” could not have gotten any worse, but everything else about that night certainly did. Not long after the interminable mandolin-synth-bagpipe mash up, the projector finally revealed its use with a coordinating video. You’re probably thinking, “Wow, the only way this could possibly get worse is if this guy played some really freaky cartoon PowerPoint shit.” But yeah, that happened.
Accompanying the most inappropriate dubstep known to LSD-dropping 21st century man was a montage of black-and-white Betty Boop cartoons. How one Dubliner found a connection between an electronic movement and one of America’s most-beloved cartoon characters and deemed it appropriate will haunt me for the rest of my dubstep dreading existence.
While we so widely revere foreign countries for their innovations–musical and beyond–it’s easy to forget that other countries emulate the States, both our triumphs and our missteps. Among these includes dubstep, a genre in which my feelings are overwhelmingly evident. But if some old ponytailed Irishman seems to find it appealing, there must be others like him too. I attempted to create a profound metaphor about cultural unifications, but like any fist pumping dubstep ballad, it ended slightly off mark and left us all, especially the creator, confused.
Irish Music Lesson #2: Dubliners cover American songs…and they’re better than us.
After embarking on the aforementioned Dublin dubstep Disaster, a bright red Temple Bar look-alike seemed to be a hopeful source of refuge. And thank the four-leave clovered gods that there was a goldmine of musical talent hiding in the Dame Tavern. Never witnessing a septuagenarian man pick up two gorgeous Irish girls in their late 20s is never seeing a true Casanova in action. (Major props to this guy, by the way.) It was also to his advantage that he was one of the swiftest, most skilled guitarists I’ve ever heard. And he covered a full version of “Sweet Home Alabama” with boundless enthusiasm and originality. It’s hard to believe that he was real, not some cruel musical fantasy.
In another pub, the tender fingerpicking reminiscent of 90s pop rock floated through the Temple Bar district. Following further investigation (i.e. charging inside and demanding another pint of Guinness), it was found to be an Irish student covering Red Hot Chili Peppers. As a set list full of classic American songs, including Tom Petty, progressed, it was obvious that American music was a recurring theme throughout Dublin. It seriously cannot get more all-American apple pie than this.
But, oh, it gets better. Groups of friends relax in cafes bobbing their heads to painfully overplayed Adele, hipsters clad in wool sweaters and flannel shirts declare their love for “Bahn Eye-vair,” and hearing two Irish girls sing “Party Rock Anthem” a capella nearly split bystanders’ ear drums. Same shit, different continent.
Somehow the Irish just understand American music. They sing with fervor and empathy. Music is much deeper than chords and lyrics—it’s an emotional experience that serves a purpose. Whether it’s conveying a story, emotion, history. And just like the old flirt in the Dame Tavern covering “Sweet Home Alabama” as he is ogled by girls half his age, the Irish approach to music is with both passion and a sense of humor. And that’s a pretty spot on approach to life, too, isn’t it?
Irish Music Lesson #3: The Irish are in love with Johnny Cash. No, they’re obsessed with him.
It may be because the legendary Man in Black’s 80th birthday was just last month, or that Johnny Cash is a pinnacle American country pioneer, but not one night at the pubs was absent of a Cash cover. While the source of the song’s mass appeal still remains a mystery, but every damn time it was “Folsom Prison Blues.” The vicious hisses of the verse and steady guitar provided an aggressive foot stomping crowd pleaser, but its prevalence was surprising. The Irish musicians seem to have a shameless idolatry for Johnny Cash, but it doesn’t go unearned. Like any other songs, Irish musicians seem to truly empathize with Cash. So in order to better understand this fascination with Cash, asking one of the many guitarists at the pub, Michael O’Neil, to explain.
Pop ’stache: So I keep hearing Johnny Cash on the streets and in pubs all over Dublin. Why is that?
O’Neil: He’s just got something about him. The rock aspects together with southern influences. His music has so much sorrow, which resonates with the Irish because of our history, all the tragedy. Cash’s music gets right here (points to heart).
P: The Cash song I keep hearing in particular is “Folsom Prison Blues.” Any reason behind this?
O: It’s a really angry song and it’s quite fun to sing. Like (starts stomping feet for a rhythm), “But I shot a man in Reno/ Just to watch him die/ When I hear that whistle blowin’/ I hang my head and cry.” How do you get any more rock bottom than that, now? In jail, with no hope…it’s a real good song to get a crowd going. The older ones grew up in Cash’s time and we all grew up with his songs playing in the house. It’s certainly a roundabout.
P: Why do I hear so much American music in the pubs?
O: Well, the States really have a lot of great music, especially jazz and country. You guys have so many of the greats. Ireland’s a relatively small country; we just have more music to be influenced by coming from the states.
Apparently America is not only a diplomatic superpower but a musical one as well. We seem to have a far-reaching influence that’s much more than military and fiscal policies—it’s the arts. And what better way to bond two countries than though music with an entire ocean of separation? Music holds no political party, no ulterior motives; it’s a constant connection that can rarely be compromised.