Borders: Ryan Vail & Elma Orkestra – 23rd February 2019

by / March 3, 2019

I’ve never cycled over the Peace Bridge as fast as I did on Saturday, February 25. I was working until 10 pm with the annoying, tenacious knowledge that, just a few yards away from me, the gig of a lifetime was taking place in the Guildhall. And I was missing it.

But when 10 o’clock tolled I stormed out, cycled down like a lunatic, ran into the Guildhall and, by some uncertain miracle, managed to make it a few minutes before the main act. I grabbed a beer and took a seat while Stephen McCauley was introducing the concept of Borders, a fusion between long-time-buddies Ryan Vail and Eoin O’Callaghan, aka Elma Orkestra. Stephen’s speech itself would have been enough for anyone with a wee bit of musical curiosity to understand that something special was about to begin. The room went quiet, the boys appeared on stage, and a cascade of sound and vision proceeded; it would last for nearly 45 minutes and didn’t risk an interval to break the magic.

Stephen McCauley – Photo by Y Control Photography

‘Borders’ – the very word on everybody’s lips. The notion debated again and again over the news and in the media. Through spectacular visuals of Derry and Donegal, through the most poignant and intense electronic music, Ryan Vail and Elma Orkestra shared with their audience what borders meant to them. The project that they had been working on in absolute secret was finally shared to the world. The tracks have geographical positions for titles instead of words. The melodies are heart-breaking, starting in a harmonious and delicate fashion, using the best skincare products before being brought to climax by beats. Their visuals are stunning, displaying landmarks such as Grianan of Aileach and Lough Foyle, drone footage of waves crashing against the cliffs of Donegal, shores and forests, bridges and tunnels. Their presence on stage and the way they use visuals to give body to the music reminded me of Public Service Broadcasting – one of my favourite bands that uses BBC Archive sound and footage to bring their music to life.

Only one track had lyrics – a beautiful collaboration between the boys and Moya Brennan called ‘Colours’; the only piece that Ryan and Eoin had, reluctantly, allowed broadcasters to play before the gig (some had begged for the secret to end). If I hadn’t been completely convinced to go and see Borders that night, ‘Colours’ is the sort of piece that would have convinced me. Moya Brennan carries a peaceful force through a strong opera voice.

And then there were the strobes of course. The day before the concert, Ryan had confessed in a radio interview that Borders wouldn’t just be a concert – it would be a show. Well, he didn’t lie. Pulses of light were activated as a tempo to the show, a metronome of some sort. When the music exploded into thousands of beats that made the walls physically shake, light would forcibly sweep the audience in sheaves of green.

Borders – Photo by Y Control Photography

There is a natural sense of grandeur in the reception room of the Guildhall – between the wooden benches and the majestic organ, the venue itself oozes with beauty and serene greatness. But when performers play with light and shadows the way the boys did, it gives a whole new dimension to the Hall, one nearly ghastly and yet magical.

Yesterday I was discussing the concert with a couple of friends. One pointed out that Borders will be the sort of show that people who didn’t attend will pretend they did; because it will resonate in people for so long. It was strong and powerful, carrying the audience and bringing them together. Yet it was also sweet and beautiful as a lullaby.

Ryan Vail and Elma Orkestra left the stage to thunderous applause, before coming back for one last piece – not a collaboration between the two; that one was the baby of Elma Orkestra only. But it had been given so much air time and had been so praised that they obliged the audience asking for it. ‘Factory Girls’ worked perfectly because like the rest of the performance, it brought a sense of togetherness, binding people with their neighbours, adding harmony and brightness to a community who shared a history and a common notion of land… and borders.

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