His voice rolls out of a deep place to tug at your heartstrings and alert your ear to something important, stories full of grit and passion, told with remarkable sensitivity when required as in the impeccable rendition of Shane MacGowan's "The Dunes", a chilling evocation of the fate which overcame those who wandered starving among the dunes of mid-19th century Mayo.
Other stories are told with a rollicking, searing kind of jollity which makes familiar anthems like McAlpine's Fusiliers and Dicey Reilly sound as fresh and potent as they must have, the first time he performed them in public with The Dubliners.
It's as if, with the aid of Mike Hanrahan's beautiful guitar, he has been able to revisit these word paintings and painstakingly remove the layers of disrespect shown to them over the years by all the rest of us who have beaten them to death in bars up and down the land in happy singalong mediocrity. (I was secretly glad he did not shame me by delivering my own so-called party piece Monto.)
Ronnie links up all these musical vignettes with the aplomb of an accomplished actor, wryly mining the comedy in his own life and the lives of those who were, and are close to him.
These narrative diversions included a side-splitting account of Ronnie, the not entirely proud father, recovering from a horrendous hangover in the uncomfortable surroundings of Dublin zoo's hot-houses with his young daughter at his side.
Or his sobering account of the fate that befell himself and Terry Woods from the Pogues when they let Barney McKenna attempt to drive them home because he "only had five pints." A hint: it leads into the Auld Triangle.
A shining moment occurs when he transforms himself unannounced into the person of Captain Boyle to deliver the magnificent "What is the stars" speech from O'Casey's "Juno and the Paycock".
His appreciation of literary life in Dublin has a nice cynical undertow thanks to his personal acquaintance with the citizenry of pre-Celtic Tiger Baggot St. and his own frank revelations about the paramount importance of whiskey in those circles. His sincere affection for Behan and Kavanagh comes through in his interpretation of some of their finest songs. Even Luke Kelly could not but have applauded Ronnie's interpretation of Raglan Road last Saturday.
Mike Hanrahan's guitar work provided the perfect foil for Ronnie's voice, particularly on Nora from Sean O'Casey. Hanrahan's own composition Garden of Roses was one of the musical highlights of the evening, a painful but deeply sympathetic evocation of the loss inflicted on victims of child abuse at the hands of the clergy.
The Swiss in attendance may have been puzzled at times but the Paddies working for the UN, the banks, SITA, DuPont, Proctor and Gamble, Immogen and the Red Cross were lost in the music, captivated by the words and transported back home for the evening.
And it was all in aid of a good cause. Euros 5,000 was given April 22 to Stu Flavell, international co-ordinator of the Global Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS and another Euros 1,000 is earmarked for an orphanage in Harar, Ethiopia, pending finalisation of the project proposal.
All in all, it gave a great boost to those of us involved in organizing the event, the Geneva Literary Aid Society formed to support the arts and people living with HIV/AIDS who are estimated to number 40 million worldwide in the greatest public health emergency the world has ever seen with 7,000 to 8,000 people dying every day.
The GLAS web site is in its infancy but you can check it out at www.theglas.org and photos of Ronnie and Mike will be posted there shortly. They have won a new fan base in this part of the world.
The Irish Times Review- Fintan O'Toole Friday 4th March 2005
There is a lovely sense, in Ronnie Drew's new solo show, of a circle being closed. The folk boom that started to roll in the late 1950s and the theatrical revival of the same era were in some respects intertwined. They gushed from the same wellspring of energy, the same rebellion against the drabness of an increasingly stale official culture.
The Dubliners in particular embodied the relationship. Luke Kelly was married to the founder of the Focus Theatre, Deirdre O'Connell. Ronnie Drew started his career as a performer with the actor John Molloy, and later worked with Niall Tóibín. The group performed, both as actors and as musicians, in Brendan Behan's last, unfinished play, Richard's Cork Leg, in 1972. Tom Murphy wrote The J. Arthur Maginnis Story for them in 1976.
This new show is not, strictly speaking, a piece of theatre, but it does explore the borderlands between folk songs on the one side and theatrical and literary culture on the other.
The world Drew evokes, and from which he himself emerged, is one in which writers and singers shared a common hinterland of story-telling, bohemianism and anti-establishment attitudes. In conjuring it up, he reminds us of the richness of that landscape and the way the shared terrain of music, narrative and performance has been explored by Irish playwrights from Sean O'Casey to Behan and from John B. Keane to Murphy.
The evening is loose, relaxed and intimate. Accompanied only by the often exquisite guitar work of Mike Hanrahan and against a changing backdrop of monochrome photographs from the National Photographic Archive, Drew talks, recites, reads and, of courses, sings.
The spiel is an engaging mix of personal anecdotes from his own drinking days, poems by Paul Durcan, Brendan Kennelly and James Joyce, and reminiscences of the likes of Behan and Patrick Kavanagh. The songs are chosen with the innate good taste that has made Drew such an immensely influential figure in Irish culture, ranging from the music-hall simplicity of Finnegan's Wake to the surreal wordplay of the Ballad of Humpty Dumpty from Joyce's novel of (almost) the same name.
The latter is one nugget in a seam of literary songs that includes Behan's The Captain and the Kings and Shane McGowan's The Dunes that highlight Drew's unique mixture of the rough-and-tumble street singer and the sophisticated artist.
It is, above all, his voice, that volcanic rumble from somewhere near the centre of the earth, that holds together what might otherwise have been a scattered series of reflections.
The voice is in great shape: the advantage of sounding ancient when he was still in his 20s is that he still sounds the same now that he is edging into his 70s.
In the course of a very funny anecdote about one of his encounters with Kavanagh, he remarks of himself that he is not a conventionally fine singer but has "a storytelling kind of voice". This sums up the reason his show hangs together so well. The transition from speaking to singing is just a shift of register between telling stories with and without tunes.
The voice, sweet as paint-stripper and smooth as sand-paper, also makes nostalgia impossible. Even if he tried to be sentimental - and he doesn't - it would come out sardonic. Anyone else telling yarns about Behan and Kavanagh would almost inevitably be sucked into the swap of rare-oul'-times Dubbalin melancholy. Drew's tone whether singing or talking, is so dryly mordant , however, that the anecdotes retain their sting.
He has, besides, the right to tell these stories. He knew these people, and he himself occupies the same semi-legendary space of half-remembered, half-invented stories that the city has created around their memories. He tacitly acknowledges this by weaving stories about himself into the fabric of tales about the dead writers.
For funny, engaging, entertaining and absorbing as it is, An Evening with Ronnie Drew is also a chance to encounter a genuine national treasure.
Anyone over 40 will relish the chance to meet one of the genuine heroes of Irish popular culture in such an intimate setting. Anyone under 40 should go along to learn that even without Elvis we had our own rock and roll.
A REVIEW FROM NEW YORK
"Drew paints a Dublin picture" (Irish Echo, 8-14 December 2004)
At the start of this past Sunday's matinee performance of "An Evening with Ronnie Drew" at the Irish Arts Center, the star neglected to plug in the cord that powers his electric guitar.
Drew's performance partner, Mike Hanrahan, jumped to his feet and remedied the situation. It was a nice gesture, but Hanrahan really needn't have bothered. Drew has sufficient natural energy to drive the show he and Hanrahan will be doing through this coming Sunday, without additional help from Con Ed or anybody else.
The key to Drew's considerable clout as a performing artist involves at least two of his dominant attributes: authenticity and honesty.
Born and raised in Dun Laoghaire on the south coast of County Dublin, the singer, guitarist and tale spinner reflects the city that made him, from his harsh Dublin vowels to the candor which reverberates in virtually everything he says and does, whether he's reciting a sardonic poem by Paul Durcan or giving the audience his version of a song by Shane MacGowan.
The Durcan stanzas describe, with considerable bitterness, the social snobbery the poet feels has accompanied the arrival of the Celtic Tiger in Irish life. It's a point of view with which Drew appears to agree without qualification.
The MacGowan song leads him into a pungent anecdote about a noontime concert in which The Dubliners, the celebrated group of which Drew was a pillar for more that three decades, shared a Dublin stage with the Pogues, the aggregation of which the rowdy young sister was a part.
Standing ramrod straight through the two halves of his show, each about an hour in length, Drew manifests the intelligence, clarity and articulation which have characterized his performing from the start, whether he's relating a yarn about Brendan Behan's longitude as a housepainter, or sharing details about the life and personality of the Monaghan-born poet, Patrick Kavanagh.
There are glancing references to the years Drew spent as a keystone of The Dubliners, from 1962 through about 1995, with brief acknowledgement of vanished colleagues, Luke Kelly among them. But Drew's show is by no means a career retro, a Dubliner's equivalent to the "and then I wrote," or "and then I did" ventures to which so many American performers seem addicted.
Drew's swiftly paced presentation resonates with the singer's unsentimental view of the times of which he has been a part, and, among other things, with a clear-eyed vision of the changes, positive and otherwise, which have influenced Irish life as the decades have passed. He stands, dressed in black, except for the white cardigan sweater he adds when there's a chill in the theatre. Drew confronts his audiences directly and unyieldingly, as though he expects them to contribute intelligence and perception to equal his own.
Drew is a familiar figure on the Irish music scene, with his well-groomed head of grey hair and his abundant beard, square as a spade, but what intuitive audience members are perhaps most likely to take away with them is the memory of his directness. You get the distinct feeling that not only has he observed, close at hand, the things about which he speaks and sings, but, more to the point, he's thought about them and understood them, deeply and thoroughly.
Very seldom, perhaps at just one or two points in his program, does Drew seem to be performing something because it's expected of him, because it's a song or story that's inextricably connected to his own life. His performance is as literate as it is musical, with reflections and reference to the work and life of such Irish greats as Sean O'Casey, James Joyce and Kavanagh, to name just a few of the artists whose work is woven into the fabric of "An Evening with Ronnie Drew."
Mike Hanrahan, the former lead singer of Stockton's Wing and a native of Ennis, Co. Clare, has been teamed with Drew since 1997, when they joined forces to create "Ronnie I Hardly Knew Ya." The show enjoyed an eight-week run at Dublin's Andrews Lane Theater and then toured Ireland, the Continent, and the United States.
"An Evening with Ronnie Drew" clearly reflects the modesty and lack of pretension which both men manifest, as well as the respect and affection they so obviously feel for each other as creative artists and as performers.
There is a kind of darkness, a kind of poignant sobriety to much of what Ronnie Drew and Mike Hanrahan have chosen to perform, along with the brisk and bright recollections. Their choices include reflections about loss and death, and even touch upon subjects as risky as sexual abuse involving the clergy.
The program the pair have constructed is all the more powerful for the
intelligence and courage with which they have assembled it.
More NEW YORK REVIEWS DEC.2004
"Drew's Rare Auld Times" (Irish Voice, 8-14 December 2004)
Drew's two hour show is a throwback to a Dublin and a style of performance that is slowly disappearing from the landscape. How many of today's "artists" could regale an audience with comedy, story telling, literary anecdotes and social commentary and still come out with the line, "I'm not really known for my voice!"
Drew is joined on stage by Mike Hanrahan, formerly of Stockton's Wing and one of Ireland's foremost songwriters. Hanrahan's musical skills on the bodhran and guitar expertly blend with that unique, gravelly singing style of Drew.
That the two spend a large part of the performance chatting only adds to the show's experience. The audience is given a crash course, a who's who of Irish literary characters, interlaced with little sound bites of the Ireland and world of the time. The politically correct brigade obviously hasn't managed to gain access to Ronnie yet. Thank God. He takes audience members to "The Dunes" of Connemara with Shane MacGowan and a lament for all the poor famine souls who couldn't afford a proper burial. General O'Duffy's blue shirts get a mention as does the other general, Franco.
Brendan Behan turns the tables on a famous U.S. talk show host. Patrick "Paddy" Kavanagh advances the education and bank balances of some eager American students.
The story that best defines Drew and the performance revolves around his first and only foray into the world of "pensionable jobs." During the course of his tenure and the telephone exchange he had the privilege of chatting with the minister for communication's rather proper wife.
This turned out to be Drew's last day on the job. We are all the better for it.
The heart of this performance is the music. Ten years removed from his long time group the Dubliners, Drew is still a powerful entertainer.
Old favourites like "The Auld Triangle" and "Mc Alpine's Fusiliers" are included in the set, as is a touching rendition of "Raglan Road," a tribute to his old friend Luke Kelly.
The beard might be a little greyer, but the Drew wit is just as sharp and the voice just as unique. Excusing himself to clear his throat, he explains that a matinee is not the ideal performance time for his voice. "I'm normally only getting out of bed at dis time," he jokes.
The intimate setting of the Irish Arts Center, long an oasis for Irish culture in New York, provides the ideal platform and the perfect Seisiun atmosphere for this two man show.
Ronnie Drew and Mike Hanrahan represent a style of Irish entertainer that we less see and less of today. Coming from Dublin, maybe I'm biased. Coming from Ireland I certainly am.
Go see this show while the opportunity is still there. Ni bheidh a leithid ann a
"An Evening with Ronnie Drew and Mike Hanrahan"
(Irish Emigrant, 6-12 December 2004)
Wearing a white cardigan and black shirt buttoned up to the collar, former Dubliners front-man Ronnie Drew stepped on to the stage at the Irish Arts Center the other night for a very enjoyable evening of anecdotes and accompaniments with former Stockton Wings' front-man, Mike Hanrahan.
"People say he's a legend," Gabriel Byrne said to me during the show's intermission; he is a legendary part of the original folk movement to come out of Ireland in the 60s; friend of Behan and Kavanagh, he's a chronicler of a Dublin that's for the most part gone.Before each ballad there was the preamble, as Ronnie remembered, among other things from, fellow drinking buddies and balladeers poets Brendan Behan and Patrick Kavanagh.After a few minutes with this man you can see that he's as much a showman and a character as the poets themselves.
Through song and story, this veteran seanachai, chanted and chartered a course through the streets of Old Dublin, Famine Ireland, and the plight of the Irish laborer in 60s and 70s London.
"Mc Alpine's Fusiliers" remembered, with some revulsion, the Irish laborer and his plight in the England of the 50s and 60s and the total lack of tolerance they endured from construction firm founder, Mc Alpine, later made "Lord Mc Alpine" by Her Majesty.
Typical of his charming, and at times controversial, character, Ronnie quipped that Mc Alpine apparently remarked on his death bead, in that awfully aristocratic accent he could muster up, up "Keep the mixer going and Paddy behind it." You had to laugh, as everyone did, at the wry wit of the man.
Through the verse of contemporary Irish poet, Paul Durcan, the irascible Irishman poked fun at the New Ireland and her new elites, the "Fine Gaelers," as Ronnie called them.
The chorus, "We had it all; we had the best of times. We had a life that dreams are made of," delivered half way through the evening really summed up, in song, what the evening was all about, and what it felt like to be there - for myself and evidently for the audience.
It really was an evening of the best times and this veteran and venerable entertainer undoubtedly enjoyed it as much as we did.