How do you push a musical project forward and balance the art with commerciality? It’s a question more and more artists and arts organisations are pondering in these uncertain and choppy waters of 2012. Austere times are here again – but who says we can’t sing through them?
The Irish Sea Sessions entered its third year last week with the format still working like a charm. True, executive producer Simon Glinn and music director Bernard O’Neil have shaken things up a little, introducing new tunes, classic songs and (cue chants of “Judas!”) even an electric guitar!

But the tried and trusted format is still the reason the Philharmonic Hall was packed close to a sell out last Friday night – without even the sniff of a recognised headlining name. The punters trust the annual event and come to be taken on a wild, untamed ride across the rivers of anticipation and into the seas of satisfaction.

Excitement grew when the traditional show opener – Ian Prowse’s ‘Does This Train Stop On Merseyside?’ – became the bona fide folk classic it always has been, as the 13 strong ensemble joined in on a wonderfully evocative version. The stacked harmonies added massive poignancy, with the Justice for the 96 campaign still very much in the collective spirit of the city, and the song now intrinsically linked with said group.

We then left port and headed out to sea on a musical ship of jigs and polkas. Frank Kilkelly and Alan Burke’s guitars were our rhythmic rocks and the misty colour came from John McSherry’s gorgeous uilleann pipes, Stevie Dunne’s tenor banjo, Dave Munnelly’s button accordion, Gino Lupari’s percussion and the vivid violin work of Belfast’s Meabh O’Hare.

The singers soon took centre stage and it was newcomer Pauline Scanlon who caught the eyes and ears of the Phil. A former vocalist with The Sharon Shannon Band, Scanlon captivated the crowd with moving laments and tender tunes, sung in both Gaelic and English. ‘My Darling Brother’ being a particular highlight.

The first half of the evening moved a little slowly but Sea Sessions veteran Damien Dempsey picked up the pace and lightened the mood with a masterful interpretation of ‘Paddy On The Railroad’. The tune may have been sung since the 1800s but never with such a combination of light and shade – talk about a singer suiting a song!

We went into the interval with a surprise: Prowse plugged in a Fender Telecaster and led the folkies into a lilting take on The Beatles’ ‘Come Together’. It took the crowd – and perhaps a few of the musicians – a verse or two to get into their stride, but by the sing-a-long outro we were flying and the place was rocking.

The uplifting turn carried on in the second half with Prowse’s Waterboys-esque ‘Maybe There’s A God After All’ sung with real delight before ‘McSherry’s Waltz’ got hands clapping and feet stomping. From here on in, the show gathered momentum and became another of those Hope Street hoedowns, as we all joined in to celebrate songs and singing.

Scouse songwriter Lizzie Nunnery, returning to the sessions after a break in 2011, proved her worth with some lovely harmonies and a new tune of her own. ‘Poverty Knocks’ hit home hard and brought the evening into the here and now – protest songs of strength and heartbreak belong at the Sea Sessions and this one was a winner. As was Dubliner Dempsey’s own ‘Almighty Love’ – with lyrical nods to John Lennon, Tony Benn and Mahatma Gandhi, the song has all the makings of a modern folk anthem.

The flute of Terry Clarke-Coyne returned following his debut in 2011 and his own ’15 April 1989’ was a massive instrumental highlight. With a blow of his heart and soul, the man from a famous Liverpool-Irish family hushed the Phil into tender awe. O’Hare’s fiddle joined in and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house as a melody that seemed as old as time itself, revealed the inner thoughts and feelings of a determined city.

Local hero Prowse stepped back up with the electric guitar to deliver a fast and furious version of Ian McNabb’s ‘Liverpool Girl’, before bodhran star Lupari took the mic and answered him back with a gentle lullaby, ‘Irish Girl’, featuring Pauline Scanlon, that both teased and tempted the crowd into shouting for more.

The show returned from the Irish Sea with a Gaelic intro to ‘The Leaving Of Liverpool’ from Scanlon and then docked back home, as the voices of Nunnery, Dempsey and Prowse took a verse each of the folk classic and led the Phil in a massive celebration of timeless music.
The Sea Sessions has moved to the very forefront of the Liverpool Irish festival and taken its place as one of the most anticipated events in the city’s music calendar. Great art never stands still – and to shift so many tickets without mainstream clout, while not losing sight of the creativity that brought you to the dance, is commendable in hard times.

There may now be great expectation for the years ahead – but, as a concept, The Irish Sea Sessions is still busy being born.

Pic: Mark McNulty