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Gig of the week – Christine Tobin

February 1, 2018

As a jazz lover who reads a lot of contemporary poetry I was pretty excited when a favourite singer, Christine Tobin, planned a set of songs using words by Paul Muldoon – perhaps the most influential living English language poet (he was born in Armagh but has taught in the US for many years). The resulting CD, Pelt, was one of my 2017 favourites. Jazz and poetry don’t come together all that often, and results are often mixed. This time, the combination works beautifully. I’ve said a few times that for me it’s the best collaboration like this since Annie Ross sang songs with words by Christopher Logue more than fifty years ago. (If you don’t know that set, Loguerhythms – which features Peter King and Gordon Beck – it’s on Spotify these days).

So it’s also exciting that Tobin, who spends much of her time in New York now along with partner Phil Robson, has fixed a tour for this new music. More, with Arts Council England backing, she’s bringing the eight strong band that graces the CD. The means we get Robson (of course) on guitar, and the likes of Gareth Lockrane on flute, along with drums, guitar, violin and cello, and piano. You can read about them all here.

What to expect? The arrangements are hugely diverse. This nice review from the Irish Times sums up the CD well.

Singer and composer Christine Tobin hooked up with Belfast poet Paul Muldoon at the Kilkenny Arts Festival a few years ago, and that one-off collaboration has grown into this sprawling, enthralling song cycle of mock epic proportions.

Pelt strikes that most elusive of balances between familiarity and strangeness, by turns recalling Tom Waits, Kate Bush and Joni Mitchell, without being beholden to any particular genre or influence.

The Dublin-born, New York-resident singer has set Muldoon’s wittily nuanced words (and some lyrics written specifically for the project) to music that veers from grungy, post-industrial grooves to wispy romanticism to abstracted contemporary classical, all played with punkish attitude by an excellent ensemble.

It all sounds like this brief rehearsal sample…


The words are pretty good, too. There are a couple of poems from Muldoon’s vast published output (the aforementioned Pelt from his most recent collection A Thousand Things Worth Knowing, and Longbones from Hay back in 1998.) The rest, I think, were all written as songs* – Muldoon has produced lots of those as well, and written interestingly about the distinction. Worth mentioning in case you know his work and think the songs might be hard to follow as, it’s fair to say, some of his long poems are. Not so. He’s a master communicator as well as a master of language, and knows exactly what to do to create words that invite you in to the music. Tobin, on the other hand, has written superbly varied settings that complete each one. It’ll be great to hear them live with this extraordinary band. They’re at the Lantern at Colston Hall on Tuesday 7th, and you can also catch them the night before in Cardiff at the RWCMD if you’re over that way.

*Not so – there are several more poems (Tobin talks** about “poems and lyrics” on stage.) They are mostly from very early in Muldoon’s output, which is maybe why I missed them when checking my Collected Poems. I also blame downloading the music, so I don’t have the notes!

** During the gig, which was fantastic!


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