SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — "The Irish Never Quit!" say the soap ads, claiming a lusty sweat as the prime birthright of Irishmen ("Arrr, and their woomen too!") as they frolic themselves into a rustic lather. This is pretty much the kind of coverage the Irish get: trivialized stereotypes in commercials--further proud examples being those swillers of St. Paddy's green beer and the Lucky Charms cereal dwarf--and headlines about car bombs and snipings ("The Irish Never Quit!" indeed).
That Celtic folk possess a deeper character and tenacity is borne out by the work of Joyce, Yeats and Van Morrison, and it may be only a question of years before Luka Bloom's name can comfortably hang out with theirs. The Irish singer's solo acoustic show at the Coach House on Thursday night had hints of greatness to it.
Like his brother, folk renegade Christy Moore (Bloom was born Barry Moore), Bloom has a deeply romantic and distinctly Irish voice, full of the expansive spirit yet shadowed by "the troubles" of his sundered nation. Although his lyrics and patter at times recalled the droll whimsy of Lyle Lovett, there was no undercutting the engagement and emotion he brings to a song.
Bloom is one of the most electrifying acoustic performers around: His hard-driving delivery typically had him flailing at his guitar strings as the rhythm propelled him about the stage. And, in fact, his acoustic guitar was wired for a variety of electronic effects. The heavy compression and chorusing in many instances allowed a hypnotic swirl of sound and synth-like bass lines to emerge from his instrument.
But it also made one wish sometimes for the nuance and expression of an unadorned guitar. At certain points, only his marvelous voice saved the arrangements from sounding like a '70s Al Stewart album gone mad.
Bloom's 18-song set drew chiefly from his current "The Acoustic Motorbike" album, with a few songs from his 1990 debut "Riverside" and covers of T-Bone Burnett's "River of Love" and the traditional "Black Is the Color."
It was a tour de force performance, although he ignored what arguably are his strongest songs--"The One" and "This Is for Life" from "Riverside." "For Life," about a love that reaches through prison walls, may be one of the most achingly beautiful folk tunes of the present generation.
One of the songs that Bloom did perform was L.L. Cool J's rap "I Need Love," not something you hear an Irish guy with an acoustic guitar do every day. But Bloom delivered the romantic number compellingly, in dead earnest with no hint of novelty.
His own rap-inspired tunes, "Bridge of Sorrow" and "The Acoustic Motorbike," seemed more derived from Murray Head's 1985 singsong "One Night in Bangkok" than from black American rap. "Motorbike" did, though, prove to be a kinetic re-creation of a wide-eyed, tired-thighed cycle trip through Bloom's homeland.
After years in the States, Bloom, who is 36, only recently returned to Ireland, where he, like many others, had been driven by the lack of opportunity and stifling social conditions at home. "This Is Your Country" was a plea for his countrymen to return; it didn't gild the shamrock as it acknowledged the heart-tug for home even in this "age of the cruel and unkind."
(He told the audience he'd been amused that day by newscasters on every channel going on about " 'Get ready! Big storm coming!' I was sort of expecting, ' I'm going to die!' And the weather is only like a good day in Ireland.")
He wrote "Listen to the Hoofbeat," Bloom said, after seeing a documentary on American Indians' suffering. Rather than fill the song with true-but-tired rhetoric, he came up with a galloping celebration of the freedom that characterized America before the Europeans arrived, making his point through the contradiction between that spirit and the paved world we now inhabit. The song showed Bloom at his most abandoned, letting loose with war cries and strumming at a dead heat.
His set touched on the tragic, particularly in "Mary Watches Everything" and its tale of a woman whose world moves or changes only on her TV. Offsetting that, though, was the unabashed devotional romanticism of "I Believe in You," "Exploring the Blue," "Rescue Mission" and also a relatively hushed version of the Elvis staple "Can't Help Falling in Love."
Bloom, who played to two standing ovations, concluded the show with a sing-along of a new song Waterboys leader Mike Scott gave him--"My Sunny Sailor Boy."
Even a full band might have been hard-pressed to share the stage with an energetic performer such as Bloom, and local singer/songwriter Amie Bovee, who played the opening set, wasn't quite up to the challenge. A couple of her songs showed promise--notably her craftily melodic "Loving You Too Much" and torchy "Breakdown"--but most of that promise may be some time in redeeming. Most of her songs seemed over-long and over-sung, with blocky harmonic structures not holding up under repeated verses and vocal workouts only rarely animating her lyrics.