The Songs I Love So Well
What will pass for nostalgia thirty, forty years from now? Will fireside stories about dial-up connections and abandoned MySpace accounts carry the same romantic haze we’ve seen in the faces of those waxing over phonograph records and eight-track tapes?
It was through an iPod shuffle (which held 125 songs! Had that much music even been recorded, I wondered, when it was new) that I first encountered the name Phil Coulter. A mobile device is little more than a strip of scotch tape one drags behind the cushions of the couch. Stuff from the Internet just sticks to it, and you have no idea where it came from. Such was a track called "Lament for the Wild Geese," a contemplative instrumental composed by Coulter. I didn’t know who this man was or how the tune wound up in my ears. Given its title, I spent years assuming he must score nature films.
But I played it over and over during many a late night subway ride, getting lost in its soft rhythms and bursting crescendos, and contentedly imagined waterfowl lifting majestically into flight thanks to James Galway’s flute.
Seeing Coulter live, in "The Songs I Love So Well," through Dec. 30 at the Irish Repertory Theatre, one learns that he is a maestro of nostalgia. Not to mention that "Lament for the Wild Geese" has absolutely nothing to do with Mutual of Omaha’s "Wild Kingdom."
Unfortunately, the brand of nostalgia on display seems salvaged from a cruise ship. The scenic design by Charlie Corcoran is in abject denial about the tiny space available, and can barely contain the grand piano Coulter is simultaneously planted at and stuck behind.
Lest we forget ’tis the season, Corcoran has further stuffed the stage with a wreath and a Christmas tree, no doubt purchased at the same Wal-Mart, and the room has been fumigated by an overactive fog machine.
When Coulter appears, one can’t help but feel he’s a tad overdressed for the occasion, but he only doubles down after the interval. The whole picture is supposed to invoke the Guild Hall in his native Derry, Ireland, but cramming a Vegas act into grandma’s attic would achieve the same feel.
The thing is, Phil Coulter shouldn’t have to try so hard. With tickets starting at $55 and a career going back almost half a century, if anyone shows up, chances are they’re already fans (or at least curious). And watching him play is a mildly thrilling feast for at least two of the senses, plus the imagination.
A stripped down look across the board would have made for a far more authentic and powerful experience. A bare stage, an open collar, and less rehearsed banter would have accentuated rather than distracted from the simpler, earthier pleasure of a talented man sharing his music.
As it currently stands, the show is a shoestring masquerading as a glass slipper. The video screen behind Coulter is only put to its best use on songs like "Coultergeist," "Appalachian Round Up," and a couple medleys towards the end, when it focuses on a bird’s eye view of his hands in action on some rather kinetic melodies.
"Appalachian Round Up" is noteworthy in that it highlights his innate expertise on the musical styles he has made his own. A combination of Scottish and Irish folk rhythms, coupled with the strains they became after migration to the American South, even a layman can recognize each influence distinctly, and marvels a bit when Coulter blends them with obvious ease and pleasure. When he sings, you hear not olive oil, but a voice hewn from knotted mahogany, as deep in tone as it is limited in range. It’s workmanlike, but it works.
Eventually, Coulter’s compositional methodology seems apparent: find a catchy refrain and repeat it as many times as possible within three minutes, stopping just short of numbing the listener to its pattern. If that doesn’t work, insist the audience sing along, even if you have to feed them the words. And make them sing it so many times that a kind of Stockholm Syndrome kicks in, and they sympathize with what you feel you have to do, if not the with material.
As for the words, what you hear are fairly predictable rhyme schemes, and lyrics that aren’t necessarily the best turn of phrase. Consider this from "The Town I Loved So Well," which Coulter acknowledges as his most famous song:
"There was music there/ in the Derry air."
It didn’t sound like he was trying to be funny or sophomoric when he sang it. The remaining lyrics took a rather dark turn, describing the damage wrought by IRA-infused unrest upon his hometown.
But whether the cheese is intentional or not, the production feels slightly sad and desperate when you think about the gifted composer trapped underneath, trying to be a showman, eager for his due. A cameo by wife Geraldine Branagan fails to lift the gloom.
But lopsided as it is, Coulter hasn’t forgotten that anonymous piece of heaven that is "Lament for the Wild Geese." Fighting valiantly against the schmaltz, it’s still sublime.