One of the clearest things about music is its frequently changing nature. It means different things to people based on elements like culture and location. For those who’ve never ventured outside of their own country, however, it may be difficult to imagine the differences between experiencing live music in another part of the world, as opposed to doing so on familiar turf. Many music-lovers in America are familiar with the unfortunate situation of attending a show that happens to be the antithesis of lively; There are shows where the audience appears to be so on edge – or, in other situations, just plain bored – that it takes away from the gig. Fortunately, there’s Ireland—the land of sprawling green hills and endlessly flowing pints of Guinness.
How Does America’s Music Scene Compare to Abroad?
Ireland is a country that loves music and where musicians – good musicians – are just as common as the pubs. Ireland seems to be a place that takes the best aspects of live music in America, and spreads it throughout its cities and villages. For fans of live music, a good show is generally not difficult to find on the Emerald Isle.
Irish venues are not too different from American venues; they each have the typical theaters and stadiums hosting big-name acts, but perhaps the largest and most interesting difference exists in the utilization of pubs as venues. Although there are bars in America that host live music, it seems far more prevalent in Ireland. Nearly each pub boasts a live act every night, often making it difficult to determine which pub to visit based on this facet alone.
The crowds in Irish venues outside of rural areas often contain a wide-ranging audience, as evidenced in one of the top pubs to catch live music in Kilkenny. The pub, Lanigan’s Bar & Restaurant, happens to also serve as a hostel. Both local and foreign revelers flock to this pub on Mondays and Thursdays, when they’re treated to the sounds of a traditional band, Cu Chulainn. The band is frequently joined by Irish dancers who perform together to create an engaging show. During these shows, in this pub and others, a large difference between American live music and Irish live music grows a little more obvious. Listeners turn into dancers and, unlike many American men, Irishmen appear to be far less hesitant to join in on the dancing.
As with many American gigs, there are certain songs that raise spirits and create a sense of unity within the audience. In Ireland, when anthems such as “The Wild Rover” and “Fields of Athenry” are played (the latter especially in Galway, where Athenry is just a short drive away), the pub becomes engulfed in a roar of voices singing together.
Before jetting off to Ireland, I decided to take in one more local gig. This performance occurred at Sayreville, New Jersey’s Starland Ballroom, a more structured music venue than the Irish pubs. While it should be noted that, as most performances I’d seen had taken place in pubs, there are bound to be clear dissimilarities between a pub and a venue like Starland Ballroom, namely in size and organization. However, there were also many parallels between these spots.
Primarily, the level of interaction between band and audience was largely on par with each other. As at the Starland Ballroom concert, bands in Ireland tend to acknowledge the fact that they are playing to a group of like-minded people. Whereas in some gigs, namely large arena concerts, there’s often a pretense placed by the band – the notion conveyed that although the performers are playing for the audience, they aren’t the same. Some audience members are keen to agree with the idea, treating musicians as subjects of idolization. It’s often in the smaller American venues that artists establish a unifying connection with their fans, a factor that is present in nearly each performance I caught in Ireland.
Aside from the audience/performer relationship in Ireland, there’s a general air of camaraderie among pub-goers. As opposed to some bars in America, where it may be more probable to see people remaining in tight groups for the majority of the night, good conversation can be commonly anticipated in Irish pubs. For those who may feel a bit timid at the prospect of conversing with strangers, these bars provide a more comfortable atmosphere to enjoy yourself in.
Another difference that became very evident to me very quickly was the nature of the audiences. While they’re often very aggressive in America, audiences in Ireland appear to be far mellower. This could, of course, be credited to the nature of the venue where the performances occurred, or the type of bands the pubs were hosting. Regardless, it was a welcome change to see an audience collectively enjoying the band without the hassles of being surrounded by overly raucous listeners.
It was also intriguing to witness Irish musicians occasionally playing American songs. “Wagon Wheel,” the country song covered by bands such as Old Crow Medicine Show and Darius Rucker, was a fan favorite in many pubs. For a moment, upon hearing the first few chords of the song, it felt as though I’d left Ireland and had been transplanted back to the bars of my former Pennsylvanian college town. There was an appreciation among Irish music fans for many American bands; in a few instances, Nashville natives Kings of Leon were named as favorites, demonstrating truth to the globalization of American culture.
One of the most important things to remember, for those looking to experience live music in Ireland, is not to enter with any expectations. Although Irish and American gigs tend to have many differences, there are a few elements that remain consistent: enjoyment, escape and immersion in the music.