Declan O’Rourke & Vishtan

7 October, Blyth Performing Arts Centre
Hawke’s Bay Arts Festival 2017

“When you live by the weather every wind has a tale”

A single line from one of Declan’s songs seemed to encapsulate this evening of music for me.

The performance began with Vishtan, a Canadian trio from remote regions of eastern Canada, twin sisters Emmanuelle and Pastelle Leblanc from the small Evangeline region of Prince Edward Island, and Pascall Miousse from the far-flung Magdalen Islands.

Their set began with piano accordion, mouth harp and fiddle playing with a frantic energy. The style is a very specific one, called Acadian, which has its roots in rural France and the Celtic lands in the 17th century, so the fiddle and percussion are at the core the genre. Emmanuelle explained that in times gone by the Catholic priests weren’t fond of the percussion, it allowed the devil in, and led to frivolous dancing and worse, so traditionally the music was played sitting down. The priests would regularly walk by and look in the windows, unable to see the complex rhythms being beaten out by the feet.

The songs played were either original compositions or handed down over generations, and it felt as if we were privy to a gathering in a tiny village hall on the harsh islands of the Atlantic, where, as one song told, the storms bring in eighteen feet of snow.

The banter was funny and educational, the music was masterfully played, stirring and although flecked with the familiar, was a totally new sound to me. I felt totally invigorated by their performance.

After an intermission Declan O’Rourke took to the stage. Declan is a singer songwriter with a fine reputation and an impressive list of collaborations with well-known artists from around the globe, including John Prine, Paul Weller, James Taylor, Rosanne Cash and Laura Marling.

He walked onstage with an easy swagger, flashed a charming smile, greeted us in beautifully enunciated Māori, and launched into song. My first impression was of the calibre of his voice, flitting from a wind-carried lightness to a deeply sonorous depth that carried the timbre of a didgeridoo at times.

The Blyth is a large venue, and I was sitting toward the back, but I was drawn in very close. He is a master lyricist, beautifully honed phrases appear throughout his songs, his guitar playing is there to underlay the lyrics but at times shines out and shows his comfort with and mastery of the instrument.

The content of the songs is wide ranging, from Galileo discovering the firmament above us and, in doing so, helping us to understand the nature of love, to the longstanding grief of losing a beloved pet in ‘Sarah’.

O’Rourke’s soon-to-be-released album takes us back into Irish history, the ongoing war for liberty, and it was the songs from this album that left the deepest impression on me.  One stand-out in particular, ‘The Children of ‘16” had tears rolling down my cheeks. His use of the kick drum to emulate canon fire, the at times funereal pace of the song, the use of his voice as such a pure instrument all filled the venue with a chilling dread as the story was told.

I think for many in the audience, Declan’s performance was an introduction to his music, and I am certain that many will be delving into his back catalogue to discover more.

The evening at The Blyth took us deep; to tiny, harsh French Canadian settlements, to heart-wrenching moments over an Easter weekend 101 years ago, and most of all, into the transformational power of music.


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