It’s a hard sell, a musical retelling of an event that happened 102 years ago. The centenary missed, what ever hoopla and interest that was drummed up over the Lockout in 2013 has long since dissipated, surely 1916 is now the prize. There are obvious connections between the struggles of the early union movement and today’s resurgence in grassroots protest movements but how do you market that as a night’s entertainment worth leaving the cosy confines of your house for in the depts of winter?
This hard sell is evident tonight as a barely half full Hangar/Andrew’s Lane Theatre crowd gather to watch The Spook of the Thirteenth Lock and Guitar Orchestra perform the debut of ‘Lockout’, their musical interpretation of the Jim Larkin-led Dublin workers fight for unionisation in 1913.
The orchestra, 17 members strong with one bass player and one drummer leaving a daunting 15 strong guitar section suitably armed with vintage Fender Jaguars, Les Pauls, Telecasters and Rickenbackers jacked into tube-tastic amps of a similar era. It’s pure guitar porn and the inner guitar fanboy nerd inside of me can barely contain himself as we wait for the off.
I had feared that all that hardware going through a seemingly under specced PA would come across muddied and murky but as the opening chord hits, as the bass drum rumbles and symbols crash, all fears are allayed. The sound is glorious, rich, textured and mountain stream crystal clear as it hits us like a wall. Each guitar section can be distinctly heard as their tones, colour and melodies familiarise themselves with each other and combine to create and form new harmonies and harmonics in the ether.
This bolstering of the Spook’s ranks has raised their sound to one of epic proportions. Mogwai (in their “quieter” moments) and Godspeed You… spring to mind as the goosebumps begin to subside after the initial wave crashes and breaks over us.
‘Lockout’ is a piece in four movements and the ensemble effortlessly move through the four pieces, pausing between each one as lead vocalist Allen Blighe offers a brief description of what events are to be covered in the next passage. Blighe’s vocals are composed of a mixture of speeches from the era, newspaper reports and eyewitness accounts. That coupled with a backdrop of photographic images from the time, old news reel footage and newly shot film bring an immediacy and intimacy to the proceedings that offer the audience an entry point in which to immerse themselves in the narrative.
The music is of a post-rock hue and at times teeters into the prog rock spectrum but it’s all grounded and centred by the core guitar section’s traditional-based melodies. The playing is deliberate and controlled and not one line is fluffed in the entire 50 minute performance.
Set highlights include ‘The Batons’, where the ferocity and savagery of a baton charge led by the Dublin Metropolitan Police against a union rally is musically recreated; and ‘A Storm Driven Wave’, which climaxes with Larkin’s immortal call to arms: “The great appear great because we are on our knees: Let us rise”. It is simply breathtaking and hair-raising as the intensity of the oration is matched by the white hot fury of the orchestra’s sustained crescendo.
Donal Lunny, the Trad Father, having warmed us up nicely before tonight’s main event with a set that included a further musical homage to another great Irish trade unionist – Moving Heart’s ‘Tribute To Peader O’Donnell’ – returns to the stage for the encore.
The band, with Lunny on bouzouki, treats us to Planxty’s death dirge, murder ballad, ‘The Well Below The Valley’. The tale of incestuous rape and infanticide, whilst not an exactly cheery note on which to end the night is a rousing climax with Lunny’s playing, as delicious as ever sitting very comfortably with the more modernised and updated folk sound of the Spook’s.
Like I said at the top, on paper this gig was a tough sell. Its premise sounding drier than a desiccated coconut vendors’ wares in a Saharan Desert market stall but it proved to be a very compelling and engaging piece of musical theatre. And if the show is performed again, as it thoroughly deserves to be, you could do worse than rally to the Spook’s call to join the spirit of the ‘Lockout’ once again.