The Irish band were very good. That's not much use to you if you live in the Colchester area, since they've been to the Arts Centre now, and as their previous visit was a decade ago they may not be back for a while, but you can still catch them at Westcliff-on-Sea, Arundel, Salisbury, South Molton, New Milton, Hitchin, and Nettlebed.
I knew nothing about them before going to the gig. After agreeing to go with my dad, I didn't even get around to checking them out beforehand on YouTube. There was no point, since I was committed to seeing them anyway. I'd vaguely assumed they must be a young band, since I'd never heard of them at all, but when the support act said he'd opened for them at a previous concert nineteen years ago I realised they couldn't be all that young. When they trooped on stage they weren't, apart from the fiddle player who looked as though he should still be at school. It emerged in the subsequent stage chat that by day he was a dentist, another reminder that the medical profession is getting younger and younger. First vets, and now dentists, albeit Irish dentists that played the fiddle on the side. Checking out their website afterwards, I saw that he was a stand-in fiddler, since he wasn't the guy named on their site who had been with them since 1986.
The name of the band was Craobh Rua. It's pronounced Crave roo-ah, and translates as Red Branch. All four band members came from Belfast, but their name, and the fact that their opening and closing greetings to the crowd were in gaelic, gives you an idea of where their sensibilities lie. They referred to themselves throughout as Irish. I was brought up listening to my dad's collection of Irish music and loved it. To me it was just that, Irish music, and it came as a real shock when I eventually saw on the TV news some Republican prisoners being released from jail, all carrying bodhrans, and I suddenly realised that even in making music you were making a sectarian statement.
Craobh Rua were splendidly traditional. The leader and co-founder of the band played the banjo and mandolin (not at the same time, obviously. The banjo is a great instrument, despite the prevalence of banjoist jokes. What do you call a banjo in a skip? A start. Cruel). Then there was a uilleann piper who doubled on the tin whistle, a guitarist who took lead vocals, and the moonlighting dentist fiddler. They played traditional tunes, sang traditional songs, had a good line in chat, and played everything absolutely straight. Splendid drive, timing, harmonies, the lot (though I would have liked a bodhran if they'd have one) and no jazz fusion, klezmer influence or any other world music, cross-genre indulgences. It was great. Not that I don't like a spot of jazz and klezmer fusion (it drives jazz fans potty when non-jazz people use the term jazz so loosely, and the rest of us know exactly what we mean) but it is refreshing not to get it all the time.
So if you can get yourself to Hitchin, or Nettlebed, or any of the other venues on the rest of their tour, you should have a very nice evening.
The main problem with live music is the rest of the audience. This can't be strictly true, since my dad and I would have felt very silly sitting in the middle of an otherwise empty Arts Centre while failing to enjoy a private command performance from Craobh Rua. But why can't other people be more like us? Or, in this case, why can't the Arts Centre serve drinkable beer? Through the course of the first half I kept getting strong whiffs of a very disagreeable vinegary smell, which after a while I began to pin down to the half pint of brownish liquid the man on my left was holding. I presume it had been sold to him in the guise of beer, and to judge from the smell it was the most off, rancid, frankly disgusting half being served in the whole of Colchester. In the interval he went and got himself a refill. Unless the smell was him, and not his drink. The coughing from the woman behind me was enough to make you think it was the beginning of the next SARS outbreak. At least there was no out-of-time clapping along to the music. I've said it before, Irish music in concert doesn't need clapping. If they had wanted a percussion section they would have brought a bodhran player.