UP IN the hills, somewhere in the wilds of Donegal, there sits a dilapidated two-storey building surrounded by tumbling sheds; dry stone, rusty tin, rotting timber and tar-paper, the yard surrendered to weeds.
This is The Mother’s Arms Singing Lounge, a quiet place where lonely farmers and weary travellers are drawn to while away the empty hours. The previous owner has recently been sent to prison and his daughter has returned from Louisiana to run the place but the banks are circling like vultures. It has been a long time since there was any singing hereabouts.
Then one beautiful summer’s morning a vintage automobile, driven by Taxi McDermott, founder of The Caledonia Highly Strung Orchestra, struggles up the hill and there begins a tale.
So begins The Mother’s Arms, the latest offering from the inimitable Little John Nee which offers up a comic, musical helter-skelter ride through a surreal, but frighteningly believable, rural Gothic landscape.
Interestingly, The Mother’s Arms Singing Lounge featured in a previous LJ show, Dead Rooster Blues, and while this new production ca be seen as a sequel to that show, Nee stresses that it is not necessary to have seen the earlier show to enjoy this one.
“This is a show with a good story, good music and good laughs,” he declares happily.
The show sees Nee joined by Jeremy Howard, Andrew Galvin and Orlaith Gilcreest, the quartet playing the members of the aforementioned Caledonia Highly Strung Orchestra.
From Donegal it came
The Mother’s Arms is not only set in the hills of Donegal but had its origins there also, as Nee reveals over an afternoon interview.
“I was doing a six-month residency in Letterkenny’s Grianan Theatre last year,” Nee tells me. “It entailed giving workshops and masterclasses and through that I met Andrew Galvin who had his own show in the Earagail Arts Festival.
“I was hearing a lot about Orlaith from people who had heard her sing and Jeremy is another musician who is a familiar face on the Donegal music scene. When the four of us got together and started playing there was an immediate rapport, it felt very organic and I found it really easy working with them.”
Nee’s collaborators bring an impressive array of credentials to the show. Howard is a film-maker and sound-track composer; Galvin is an actor and playwright; and Gilcreest is a singer and multi-instrumentalist who performs with a variety of ensembles, playing jazz, folk, blues, and classical. The show sees Nee and his orchestra play piano, sax, clarinet, guitar, bazouki and more – even petrol cans get to feature in their distinctive sonic palette.
The Mother’s Arms sees the foursome adopt memorably colourful personas. Little John is Sparkplug Callaghan, Howard is Scorsese Gallagher, Andrew Galvin is Jesus O’Donnell, and Gilchreest is Norma Eggstrom, the daughter of the bar’s prior owner.
Nee expands on her character: “Norma is quite an enigmatic character. She was christened Peggy Lee and has recently returned from the US which she was forced to leave after knifing a sailor. But as well as being handy with a blade she can also hold forth on the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism!”
A rural Buddhist bluesman
As well as the Orchestra members, the show also vividly evokes the various locals who populate the bar – such as the 70-year-old woman describing her recently-acquired tattoos. Nee also reveals that we are likely to be seeing more of his own character, Sparkplug Callaghan, in the future.
“I plan on doing a number of shows about Sparkplug over the next 10 years,” he says. “I recently did a kids’ show in Donegal called A Bag of Queens featuring the character. Sparkplug is kind of a rural Buddhist bluesman and he’s like an evolution or amalgamation of the characters I’ve portrayed in my shows down the years.”
Sparkplug’s rural identity is an important facet of his character, as Nee explains.
“There’s this assumption in big urban cities that country-dwellers are unsophisticated culchies but that is entirely contrary to my personal experience,” he says. “I’ve lived in both Dublin and London and I find the arts scenes there can be very narrow whereas you find less pretentiousness in the milieu of rural creativity, it’s just artists getting on with making things.
“Country dwellers can be every bit as clued in to city life and cultural trends as anyone else. I remember hearing Gavin Friday reminiscing about growing up in Dublin listening to David Bowie, but we were all listening to him in Letterkenny as well when I was young, and to all the other bands everyone was writing about at the time.
“And especially these days with the internet it’s so easy to keep up with everything that’s happening in the world. So I could be in a car with friends up some hill in Donegal and all of us listening to dubstep or hip-hop or any other genre of urban music. Sparkplug embodies that kind of contemporary rural character who is well up with everything that’s going on in the wider world.”
Nee also offers an entertaining economic analogy to describe his niche in the entertainment industry; “It’s like Tesco control the market but I’m like a small farmer with a field full of the best potatoes!”
Nee is also relishing the prospect of appearing again at the Town Hall. “I love performing there and I also owe a debt of gratitude to Mike Diskin. He has had a really positive effect on my career over the years through giving me the opportunity to perform there.”
Nee discloses that he and his fellow orchestra members are planning on collaborating on another show together. “We’re ready to start discussing ideas and working on one already” he notes enthusiastically.
In the meantime, Galway audiences can look forward to the sampling the heady delights of the Caledonia Highly Strung Orchestra’s residency in The Mother’s Arms. It is on at the Town Hall on Monday January 16 and Tuesday 17 at 8pm.
Tickets are €13/11 and are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie