Luka Bloom, Iron Horse Music Hall, Northampton, MA,May 14, 2014
On a lovely spring evening in May, Irish singer, songwriter, guitarist Luka Bloom triumphantly returned to the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton, Ma, after a nearly six year absence. He played a wonderfully energetic, expanded set that encompassed music from his 1990 debut album, all the way up to his latest CD Head and Heart.
Luka Bloom has, in a sense, had two musical careers. He was born Kevin Barry Moore in Newbridge, County Kildare, and is the younger brother of famed Irish musician Christy Moore. As Barry Moore, he released three albums of both traditional and original folk songs, and from 1983 to 1986 he was the front-man for the Dublin based band Red Square. In 1987, Moore moved to the States and began performing under the stage name Luka Bloom, as a way of distinguishing himself from his brother’s rather formidable reputation. He chose the name Luka from the title of Suzanne Vega's (then current) song about child abuse, and Bloom from the main character in James Joyce's Ulysses. In 1990, Luka Bloom released his debut album Riverside, the first of fifteen excellent albums over the last twenty-four years.
Bloom's 2004 acoustic mini-album, Before Sleep Comes, was recorded while he was recovering from tendinitis. In 2005, he released the album Innocence, which featured Bloom playing classical guitar, a marked departure from his dynamic attack on electrified acoustic steel string guitars. While all of these changes have deepened Bloom’s scope and depth, the result had mellowed his music a little. With his latest recording Head and Heart, and the subsequent tour, Bloom has once again embraced the dynamic style that made his 1990 debut so exciting. His gig at the Iron Horse Music Hall found him energized and highly engaged with his audience.
Opening act Jenni Alpert provided a fine set of songs that ranged from intelligent Joni Mitchell-inspired confessional folk, to cool, finger-snapping jazz. Vocally, she lies in the sultry range of Maria Muldaur’s mid-career work. Her guitar and piano playing was exemplary on songs such as the jazzy “Untied,” and the Carole King-ish piano tune “Listen to Your Heart.” “Simple Tune” gave her a chance to show off her impressive guitar chops, and some sensual scat singing.
Bloom bounded on stage and launched immediately into the first of 23 songs he would perform that night. “Diamond Mountain” from the excellent Turf album (1994) tells the tales of hardship faced by Irish people forced to immigrate to Australia; lines such as “The cruel sea calls the unwilling traveler” left the audience with chills. Later on, he spoke of growing up in a house of strong women, who taught him many things; “Particularly when I think I’m right, I’m wrong.” In this spirit, he dedicated his song “Love is a Place I Dream Of” to Christine Noble, an Irish woman who founded an international non-government organization, dedicated to serving the world's oppressed and marginalized children.
Bloom also performed such fine early and newer songs as the haunting “Primavera,” the Rosa Parks inspired “Freedom Song,” and “Here and Now,” which was a song he was reminded of this past windy winter in Ireland. He debuted several songs from his new album of cover tunes, including a stunning rendition of John Martyn’s classic “Head and Heart,” a heartbreaking version of the traditional “The Banks of the Lee,” and he brought the house down with his sensitive (but never sentimental) reading of Ewan MacColl’s lovely “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.”
Other highlights included the Dalai Lama-inspired “As I Waved Goodbye,” sing-a-long renditions of “Where is My Tribe?” and “Sunny Sailor Boy,” and a rousing tribal stomp on “I’m Bog Man.” He dug deep into his early catalog for songs such as “Jacqueline's Gone to Pablo,” “Exploring the Blue,” “Love is a Monsoon,” “Ciara” and “You Couldn’t Come At a Better Time.” His dynamic playing on three different guitars lay to rest any fears that he hadn’t fully recovered from his bout with tendinitis.
After each song Bloom would take a fighter’s stance, crouching low, shuffling from foot to foot, as if to challenge the crowd to make this journey with him. Between songs his gift for gab was displayed in humorous or poignant stories, and a real affection for his audience. When the time came after the last song to do the ritual shuffling off the stage and waiting for the crowd to call him back for an encore, he professed; “I don't feel like going down to the dressing room and playing hard to get. Is that alright?” The two song encore included the syncopated rhythms of “Heart Man,” Bloom’s ode to nonviolence among men, and a beautiful, spiritual reading of Bob Dylan's “Every Grain of Sand.”