Stephen James Smith- SJS to the scene- is one of the wonderboys of Irish Spoken Word. I first met him at the Electric Picnic in 2007. He made a beeline for me after I had finished a performance on Marty Mulligan’s Word stage. Without ceremony, SJS introduced himself as a fellow poet and we talked a little about poetry and performing it, and how to go about getting into the scene. He gave me a cd of his selected work so far, one with a photocopied cover and a scrawled-out track listing. I felt I was being passed contraband, which is always a great feeling. I felt like the boy at the back of the class getting passed the tippex for a sniff, and maybe the tippex had a little something extra in it this time, going by the total lack of glint in the other boy’s gammy eye.
Anyway, along with most of my marbles and all of my pride, I had lost that CD by the end of the Picnic. Never mind; since then, in a few short years, SJS has gone from unknown to nearly unavoidable on the spoken word scene. SJS’s rapid rise to prominence is a good allegory for the progressive and accelerating displacement within contemporary Irish literature of academic or ‘page’ poetry by more publicly accessible and audience-oriented forms. You’re as likely these days to hear a great Irish poem as you are to read one. And there’s a good chance that, whether on t’internet or at the slam, the Irish poet you’ll be hearing will be SJS. His youtube viewings run into the tens of thousands and not a week goes by that he isn’t performing somewhere.
SJS’s contribution to the Irish Spoken Word’s development has been twofold. First, he has provided a welcoming venue and an earthy, raucous, open-minded audience for up-and-coming live poets and singer songwriters with his famous weekly Glor Sessions in the International bar in central Dublin. The Glor sessions, currently on hiatus, are always packed, and nearly always provide a good night’s entertainment. It’s the most successful regular performing arts night in the country and many aspiring poets have found their voice, and their ears, at it. The whole spoken word scene owes SJS a big fat one for this. But it hasn’t all been selflessness, of course. It never is, with anyone. SJS has made a lot of useful connections, coming into regular contact with dozens of scene makers from all over the country and the world. So his profile is massive, and we can be sure that Arise and Go will have plenty of listeners as a result. Again, a good thing for everyone interested in advancing the mouth’s cause.
One of those fruitful connections SJS has made is with the singer-songwriter Enda Reilly. Unlike dozens of his kind, Reilly hasn’t committed artistic suicide by imitating either of the two woeful Damiens, sensitive Damien and hard-chaw Damien. Instead, Reilly carves out his own quiet and somehow esoteric space on stage, from which the sounds of enchantment soon began to emanate. He’s an expertly melodic finger-picker and his understated style and personality are a good foil for a full-on Tallaght horse-of-a-man like SJS.
The second thing that SJS has done for Irish poetry is reinterpret, reposition and revivify through live performance some of the poems of WB Yeats (who was a terrible, over-affected reader of his own work and ruined it if he tried), in particular the classic poem of political anger and idealistic disgust with one’s corrupted countrymen, September 1913. SJS’s live performances of this poem are powerful and inspiring, and ever more relevant. He’s definitely the best reciter of Yeats I have ever heard, bringing the complex, gyring oral flow of Yeat’s mouth music, missed by silent readers, into the foreground as never before.
It seems a logical progression then, that in Arise and Go, Reilly and SJS give us interpretations of six pieces from what can be broadly called the Irish tradition, all of them romantic or romantic nationalist, as well as one of SJS’s own compositions, the soft-hearted A Gardener. The album is completed by Reilly’s original composition Donal Na Fag. The danger is that in being so heavily shrouded in the tricolour, we will end up with a kind of wax museum for the ears. But the power of SJS’s voice, and Reilly’s exploratory tune-making, help, mostly, to avoid the album becoming a set of lovesongs for the land of the twee.
Track by Track:
Mise Eire. Beautiful melody here and recited with a soft and convincing passion by SJS. The mixture of SJS singing in english in the foreground and Reilly intoning in gaelic in the background works very well.
The Lake Isle of Innisfree. Continues and deepens the romantic melancholia of the first track. The reading is perfectly timed and Reilly’s extended melody sounds like the escape to beauty the poem treats of. Easily the best thing that has ever been done to this poem.
The Sons of Roisin. A zippier feel to this one, and a well chosen change of pace at this stage in the album. You’ve all probably heard Luke Kelly blast out this Irishman’s apocalyptic J’accuse. SJS and Reilly were brave, and I think mistaken, to take this one on, considering Kelly’s version is ubiquitous and seems to me an eternal standard for the track. A disappointment given the brilliance of the previous two tracks.
Donal Na Fag: Reilly sings this fast-paced original, strumming taking over from picking. He sounds so connected with the guitar and the music here, and so happy being so, you wonder how he ever brings himself to stop playing.
A Gardener. This is definitely SJS’s best poem, by far, and is well known on the scene. Very touching, courageous words about his complicated and sometimes painful relationship with his aging mother. Reilly stays in the background, wisely. Really gorgeous.
September 1913. Again, the best thing that has ever been done to this poem- though not as mighty as SJS’s live version. Nothing else to be said, except Listen!
Raglan Road. They should have left this one alone too. SJS interpretation is poor, subtracting far more from the words then he adds. Reilly’s singing of it isn’t bad, but why take on Luke Kelly’s standard again? It’s like getting back into the ring with Joe Joyce five minutes after he thrashed you to your second last breath.
Amhrán Na Bfhiann/A soldier’s song. I can’t decide whether the guys are being serious are taking the piss with this one. I hope it’s not serious.
In conclusion, I have no doubt that this album will reach the wide audience it deserves, and recommend downloading the Yeat’s tracks and A Gardener in particular. I would like to hear SJS and Reilly do a whole album of Yeats interpretations- their undoubted forte- and hope they will do so soon. In the meantime, they are touring and the live impact of much of this work is not to be missed.
Arise and Go can be downloaded at ITUNES and the video for September 1913 can be found on youtube along with many other videos of Stephen James Smith and Enda Reilly.