I’m going to tell you a couple of stories about discovering new music.
The first one happened three days ago. My wife D mentioned to me that she’d heard, late at night on a college radio station, an unknown band covering a lesser-known song by The The. Within twenty seconds on Google, I’d identified the song, the band, and the obscure compilation CD on which it had appeared. Within another four minutes, there was an MP3 copy of the track sitting on our hard drive. Common enough story. Happens all the time.
Now rewind twenty-some years. It’s 1988. D, not yet my wife, has just turned 19. The Pogues are touring behind their breakthrough record, If I Should Fall From Grace With God, and the Orpheum is packed to the rafters. The crowd is raucous, and anticipation runs high; the room hums with energy, even an edge of danger. The opening act tonight has a thankless task ahead of him.
Then a spotlight comes up and it’s just one guy, a lanky beezer with a baggy tee and a crewcut and a guitar about as big as he is. He sets up a blazing rhythm, his pick hand strumming too fast to see, almost too fast to hear. And within about four bars of his opening number — appropriately called “Delirious” — he’s got this big rowdy crew eating out of his hand. He’s an Irishman, a brother to Christy Moore, he tells us, and he goes by the name of Luka Bloom.
It’s an astonishing set. Luka’s a one-man band, putting his big electro-acoustic jobbie through a battery of effects pedals and a range of open tunings, and as the set goes on he sounds like a cathedral — not just the sheer size of his sound, the ringing bass notes and glittering highs, but a sense of something spiritual, almost holy. He fills the space with sound, but on the slower ones he finds a sense of stillness. He does a song about the suicide of Picasso’s second wife, Jacqueline Roque, and for a moment you can hear a pin drop. Then he plows through a cover of “This Is the Sea,” and he’s got a chorus of 2,700 singing along with him, voices filling the air like steam.
The next day I walk up to the little record shop down the street from my house, and I look through the racks. I look under B, and I look under L. I go to the back of the shop and look in the folk section, then I go through the World Music section to be sure. Nothing. I will look again next week, and the week after that. In fact, I will look every week for the next nineteen months before I find anything.
I’ve got no guarantee I ever will find anything. That’s how it is in those days. In 2010, every kid playing guitar is his bedroom will have a video on YouTube; every unknown, unsigned artist will have a MySpace page. But in 1990, a band can arise, gig around for a while, and then vanish, leaving behind nothing but a few yellowing gig flyers and maybe a demo tape, mouldering in the cart library of a local radio station. Sometimes they don’t even last long enough to get their names in print anywhere.
As time goes by, I forget how the songs go. I only remember the feeling of them — the way the guitar swept over us and squeezed our hearts, the volatility of the voice. I literally dream of finding the record; in my dream, it turns up on vinyl, in a curiously textured gatefold sleeve, like brown flocked velvet. I wonder briefly if I’ve dreamed up the whole thing, until evidence of Luka Bloom’s objective reality turns up in the form of a credit on the first Indigo Girls record. I take courage, and I wait. When the record finally turns up, on February 15, 1990 — twenty years ago today, as I write this — it’s called Riverside. It doesn’t look like it did when I dreamt of it, but it sounds a lot like I remember.
When he said he was a brother of Christy Moore, I thought maybe he was speaking figuratively, but no — turns out that back home in Ireland, the guy’s got a few records credited to his birth name, Barry Moore. When tendinitis necessitates a reinvention of his guitar-playing style, he seizes the opportunity to recreate himself, taking a new name in homage equal parts to Suzanne Vega and James Joyce, edging out of the folk tradition towards modern acoustic pop.
Riverside is like the show I remember; by turns frantic and soothing, passionate and funny. Much of it is solo; there’s some subtle fleshing-out by guest musicians, including members of Hot House Flowers. The lead single, “Rescue Mission” (download), rocks a full-band arrangement, with big, booming drums, and the video briefly garners some airplay on VH1.
It’s not a perfect record, by any means. Luka wears his heart on his sleeve, and though sometimes the sentiment lands on the right side of corny — the rousing New York City love letter “Hudson Lady,” , the prison romance “This Is For Life” — there are a couple of cringe-worthy moments; “The One” is a painfully earnest cautionary tale, while the shaggy-dog story “An Irishman In Chinatown” has toxic levels of whimsy and a chorus of Popeye-style skiddley-aye-dum-diddle-dohs.
All in all, though, it’s worth the wait. “Gone To Pablo” (download) is present, albeit in a slightly fuller form — not quite as heartbreaking as the solo version, but wonderfully understated. And tucked away near the end of the album is its most successful fusion of folk and pop, “You Couldn’t Have Come at a Better Time” (download). It’s a burst of pure joy, all sunny strums and streaking fiddle; later in the ‘90s, I will play in an acoustic duo with my brother, and we will open every show with this song.
After Riverside’s release, Luka Bloom assumes a minor presence on American radio. He starts making the rounds of pubs and folk festivals, winning new fans. He will make other records — his next, The Acoustic Motorbike, will be even better than Riverside — and people will know his name. And it isn’t like it was before, and isn’t like it will be; the delicious frustration of the waiting will be no more. He is a known quantity now, and that’s different than it was; there’s something lost, I think, some mystique. I love living in the future, and the instant gratification of being to hear any new song within moments of hearing of it — but there’s a romance to being part of a select circle, to having claim to the statement I was in the audience the night when…, when you’d pick up the backstory in drips and drabs, from stray mentions in magazines and other artists’ liner notes, when all you had were your memories and your hopes; when for eighteen months the bottle was in our hand and the cork was out, and we were gazing into the smoke, looking for a sign of the genie.