On November 24th, the White Horse Guitar Club invited guests to an intimate and unusual gig. It was intimate, not because the musical space was small, but because their sound created an atmosphere that placed the audience at its centre; their voices and instruments enveloped those who came to enjoy a magical evening and they were not left wanting. It was an unusual concert also because it was a celebration of song cocooned in the walls of Cork City Gaol. If the walls held any stray spirits from a time when the building contained only screams and silent laments, then they too must have gazed in wonder when the eleven unique voices on stage were eventually joined by a grand piano and then a gospel choir. Perhaps it should have created only a cacophony, a clash of disparate vocals and chords. Instead, it conspired to immerse the lucky audience in a fusion of sound – and that is what the evening offered: fusion. Of Irish and American; of past and present; of the free and of the incarcerated; of music and of silence.
I spoke with club member Anthony Cotter immediately after the gig…
I’m here with Anthony Cotter from the White Horse Guitar Club after an epic gig in the Cork City Gaol. Where does the club go to from here?
Anthony: It’s an epic night, but it’s only a stepping stone for future events. We started three years ago and we’ve done many gigs – in Germany, in Utrecht, in Italy – and this is the culmination of a lot of hard work, a lot of comradeship, a lot of hours’ practise. It’s our biggest gig yet in Cork. But it’s only a stepping stone for what’s to come for this guitar club. There’s lots of surprises in the hat, so to speak.
What do ye see happening?
Anthony: Well, in the next six months we’ll have our full album coming out. That’s been recognised by Tim O’Brien and Darryl Scott, who we’ll be supporting in the White Horse in March and they’ve already sanctioned our music and the way we’re interpreting their songs so already we’ve been sanctioned by Grammy Award-winning artists, so that’s a huge plus for us, them giving us the nod to sing their songs. And we have other songs that are four hundred, five hundred years old; doing them justice and keeping them alive is probably the biggest thing that we’re doing. We’re keeping this kinda soulful gospel music alive, from the Appalachian mountains down to Kentucky.
How did ye choose the songs ye sang tonight?
Anthony: Very carefully, because there’s eleven of us there with eleven different voices, as you can imagine yourself eleven people with different voices it just has to work so we can’t just pick any old song and belt it out. So it’s very carefully picked, songs that have stood the test of time. There’s other songs that are obscure, they haven’t ever ever hit the limelight, we take them and we might resurrect them. Some day we might get them to the fore, the writer might be dead or still alive. We’re going to do our damnedest to get those songs into the public domain.
There seemed to be a division in the audience about whether to clap along and sing along to the songs and actually listening to the words of the songs. Each song has a story. How do you feel being up on the stage – what do you want your audience to do?
Anthony: Absolutely whatever they want to do. They can clap, sing, jump around, pull the chair from underneath each other. This is an all-encompassing concert – there’s no age limit… it’s music for all ages. We do seem to have an age group of probably fifty-plus that has followed us from the get-go, but we’re seeing a lot more young people coming into our realm in the last two years. People are going back to the old-style, honkytonk, American music and it’s just absolutely magic.
Does every song have a link back to Ireland?
Anthony: Absolutely, yes. A lot of people, we’re talking about the Irish-Americans such as Tim O’Brien who’s a multi-award winning artist who has won accolades across the globe, transatlantic sessions, he’s been involved in every single one of them. So a lot of those people have come from Ireland, the roots of the songs would have come from Ireland from the Famine years over to America down to Kentucky into Tennessee and they would have equated their struggle with the Irish struggle and they would have brought it to the Tennessee struggle, if you get me. So absolutely, they’re transcribing what their forefathers would have went through into what they’re now going through and that would have gone through generations and they’re singing it in the last fifty years and it’s coming to the fore.
As a gig, you had a renowned concert pianist, you had the Carrigtwohill Gospel Choir backing you as well. What did that mean to you?
Anthony: Do you know what? It’s like a wall of comfort.
When you hear the songs that you’ve been singing for the last four or five years and trying to harmonise and get them into the best shape as you can and then you hear this wall of sound in perfect harmony from fifty people – it’s just nothing short of spectacular. And then you have the multi-award winning David Syme, concert pianist, the man is a virtuoso in what he does, he’s an enigma, and to have him playing… ah, we’re pinching ourselves, basically.
And finally, Joe Carey spoke about the venue being the special guest, the star of the show. How did you feel, sitting next to Joe at centre stage about the surrounds, the history and the mystery of the walls surrounding you?
Anthony: That’s a great question and very much so, you sing and you hear the hallowed echoes. There’s been a tough, tough time has happened in this prison and to release a bit of energy – good energy – in this place, that’s what we were trying to do tonight, trying to release a kind of a bond, freshness, freedom. This isn’t a place that can dwell on hardship and the bad memories of what’s gone on before, this is now a place of laughter and cheer among concert-goers. Long may it continue and let there be more concerts like this.
Anthony Cotter, thank you very much.
Anthony: Thank you very much, Mark Evans.