Sunday, September 9, 2012

Review of Bob Dylan 2012 studio album 'Tempest'

The big question mulling around the heads of Dylan fans for the last few months was - would ‘Tempest’ live up to the hype? Well, now that the album has been released, does it?

For me, yes of course it does (did you expect anything else?!) I’ve listened to it maybe 5 or 6 times in the last 3 days, in many locations and on many devices – vinyl, headphones, in the car, iPod etc, and the album works amazingly well in all of those settings.

Firstly, it’s just a great listen and is a surprisingly complex and luxurious album, sound wise making 2009’s ‘Together Through Life’ seem a bit rushed and insubstantial by comparison. For me, it’s at least as good as ‘Modern Times’ (2006), Love & Theft (2001) and even ‘Time out of Mind’ (1997) – his three critically acclaimed albums since his so called ‘beginning in the late ‘90s’ comeback.

One critic ‘complained’ about how rootsy the album is and how far he has strayed from his ‘60s template – the period where he played a major part in creating modern rock music. My thought’s would be that pretty much ALL his albums since 1992’s ‘Good as I Been To You’ have been rootsy in one way or another, and that’s been 20 years, hence -nearly half his career. It’s just what he does now. And he’s never stopped very long in one exact genre now has he? - as soon as he’s done with something or mastered something (be it folk, rock, singer-songwriter, country, gospel etc) he’s done with it, keeps it in his arsenal and moves on. Albeit his best work is usually informed by his past experiences as a musician, as well as being informed by the artists who influenced him originally, many of whom are from the decades BEFORE the 60s. As he said himself, he is much more of a 1950s creature than a 1960s creature, and he’s got to play what he’s feeling, and this is what he’s been feeling in recent years.

And this album has the pre-rock era written all over it. Like Love & Theft (and Modern Times to a lesser extent) it is an exercise in pre’60s genres. But with (arguably) stronger songs than those albums (‘Mississippi’, ‘Workingman’s Blues’ and ‘Nettie Moore’ excepted). Also, the album is beautifully recorded and is very subtle for a Dylan album, superb musicianship - including exquisite guitar, organ, piano, accordion, fiddles, pedal-steel – all nicely sitting around the ever-versatile drumming of George Recile.

Plus, they really sound like a band, despite the studio setting. This is something Dylan (or Jack Frost, as he calls himself as Producer) and his band first really mastered on Modern Times. Since then the only changes have been swapping Denny Freeman for Charlie Sexton and adding in David Hidalgo (studio only) for some accordion sweetening. Plus, I really think these songs and these arrangements are very much informed by the NET (Never Ending Tour). You can almost picture Bob going in to the studio with these songs and all 7 men working on the arrangements much like they would when rehearsing for tours. I can already see how several of these songs will be just killer live songs.

And, even more importantly, Bob has taken considerable care with his vocals. We all know his voice has not gotten any stronger since the NET heyday (which in my opinion was approximately 1995-2001), but he still makes good use of what is now effectively a ‘growl’ in concert, and on this album it sounds just perfect for the music and songs he has created. You can tell he’s comfortable with this voice now, proof of which is evident in how up-front the vocals are in the mix.

Some other first impressions – no harmonica, no guitar solos really (just lovely ‘fills’ all over the place, and very few choruses (if any?).

As to the lyrics, in my opinion he has written some of his strongest in years for this album, and much less the ‘Dylan-by-rote’ lyrics which have appeared from time to time on his albums since the 80s. He seems to be engaging with the English language in a more innovative (and playful) way than he has in a long time. Themes of death, religion, anger (lots of the songs are very angry sounding!), loss and love abound – but all are interweaved with devilish couplets and black humour, lots of black humour. There are stories that wouldn’t be out of place in Westerns, gangster movies, even horror movies - alongside ballads and love-songs. I don’t know what his overall aim/theme (if any) was with the album, all that springs to mind is perhaps his bemusement/anger at the mess us humans have always made of things along with the general chaos and violence of life and nature. At the end of the review I will list a selection of the lines that stood out to me most on my first listenings.

But before I go in to a song-by –song analysis, can I urge neutral (or nay-sayer) readers to give this album a chance? It is a real ‘full-meal’ of an album and can be enjoyed on many levels, eg just allowing it to wash over you as a gorgeous exercise in pre-rock music, with great production, enjoyable lyrics, classic rasping Dylan vocals, danceable uptempo numbers, pleasant ballads and a few epics thrown in as well. It really sounds like Bob and band were having fun recording it, and it is definitely fun to listen to. Is it a masterpiece, on the level of, say, ‘Blonde on Blonde’ (1966)? No, of course not, but it’s an album I will personally enjoy just as much as any of those earlier masterpieces, and if I was forced to rate it as a piece of work, well let’s just say it’s knocking on the door of my Top 10 Dylan albums.

‘Duquesne Whistle’. Excellent little opening train number. Should work well live. As with quite a few songs on the album there are all sorts of types of music in here – country, jazz, western swing, rockabilly. Interestingly Bob is playing organ on it (not piano, like he mainly plays on stage now, since this summer). Very reminiscent of the ‘Love and Theft’ album.

‘Soon After Midnight’. Gorgeous old-fashioned 1950s country-pop ballad with nice Sun records style guitar licks over a loping rhythm. It’s this album’s ‘When the Deal Goes Down’ and that’s no bad thing.

‘Narrow Way’. Along with ‘Duquesne Whistle’ it is this album’s ‘Summer Days/Thunder on Mountain/Levee Gonna Break’ etc. This is a classic blues-rock or jump-blues number with a great slicing riff which really really swings and should be a highly energetic live number.

‘Long & Wasted Years’. A lovely talk/sing number. Reminds me slightly of ‘Brownsville Girl’ even though it’s a highly original number in its own right. It’s short too, but makes its point. Great vocal on this one.

‘Pay In Blood’. Bob doing the Rolling Stones and doing it very well. Excellent rock song, excellent vocals. Possibly could have done with a chorus, but I can see him playing nice harmonica fills in between the verses if he does it live.

‘Scarlet Town’. The most folky song on the album. Reminiscent of ‘Ain’t Talkin’ and as with that number is a song I admire more than enjoy. Gillian Welch comes to mind.

‘Early Roman Kings’. Well, it wouldn’t be a Dylan album without at least one electric blues song, this time a Muddy Waters inspired 12 bar romp through some strong lyrics about gangsters (possibly!). Interesting to see the accordion so prominent and effective in a song like this.

‘Tin Angel’. Maybe my 2nd favourite song on the album. Very strong mid-paced declamatory story-style son. Musically it is perhaps influenced by his recent live arrangements for ‘Blind Willie McTell’ and ‘Man in the Long Black Coat’. Very good lyrics, which you can just see him spitting out in a live context, centre stage. It’s a fabulous old-timey yarn, all sorts of things going on and a very nasty ending! Other songs it reminds me of are ‘Isis’ and ‘Arthur McBride’. One review I read also mentioned ‘Black Jack Davey’ – which supports my vague (!) theory that all this really began with ‘Good as I Been to You’

‘Tempest’. Well, what can I say about this number. A 14 minute 45-verse sea-shanty song about the Titanic?! Played in a slightly sentimental and over-the-top style! Is it original? Is it any good? Do I like it? Well, yes, actually – it’s probably my favourite song on the album. There is something extremely charming, warm and likeable about this song. It’s stately, but very catchy, his phrasing is exquisite – over the backing of guitars, piano, fiddle and pedal steel. Based apparently to some extent on a Carter Family song, it’s a bit like the old fashioned (pre TV news) method of writing a song about a recent event, almost like journalism – albeit in this case from an exact 100 year distance! The melody and phrasing remind me of ‘Cross the Green Mountain’ an overlooked masterpiece from a few years ago which wasn’t on any official album until it got a release on the ‘Tell Tale Signs’ collection. 3 days in, and I can’t stop playing it. Would love to see it live!

‘Roll on John’. Well, this was a song I badly wanted to like. I mean, Bob writing a tribute song to my first musical hero (John Lennon) and also it’s the closing song on one of his strongest albums for years. Well, I do like it, but just not quite as much as I expected to. But like so much about this album - it’s heartfelt and enjoyable and is quite a nice way to close the album, albeit I think ‘Tempest’ would have been a better closing song.

Final thoughts – the album is a wonderful addition to the canon and what better way to mark Bob’s (un-hyped) 50th anniversary year (it’s 50 years since his first album) than with a fine new studio album (and more endless touring – good shows this year, so far), as compared to the over-hyped way the Rolling Stones are celebrating theirs (with a flabby cash-in greatest hits album and rumoured 4-show high-ticket priced tour). Ok, so the album doesn’t quite have a ‘Visions of Johanna’ or even a ‘Not Dark Yet’, but it’s highly accomplished, extremely consistent and will stand up to years of repeated listening. No weak tracks at all. So, and not wishing to end with any sort of negativity - my advice is - listen to your old Rolling Stones albums, listen to all the old roots music which influenced Bob and led to this extraordinary career and to ‘Tempest’ (and check out his radio shows for a fascinating glimpse in to those influences), but most of all – buy ‘Tempest’ and listen the hell out of it! I’m giving it 9/10 and most likely it will be my album of the year.

As promised, and because I’m impressed with the lyrics so far, I’m going to finish with some of my favourite lines.

‘Two-timing Slim
Who’s ever heard of him?’

‘I wear dark glasses to cover my eyes
There are secrets in them I can’t disguise’

‘Man can’t live by bread alone
I pay in blood, but not my own’

‘If love is a sin, then beauty’s a crime
All things are beautiful in their time,
The black and white, the yellow and brown
It’s all right in front of you in Scarlet town’

‘All the early Roman Kings in their shark-skin suits
Bow-ties and buttons, high-top boots
Driving the spikes in, blazing the rails
Nailed in their coffins in top-hats and tails’

‘Ding-dong Daddy, you’re coming up short
Gonna put you on trial in a Sicilian court’

‘I’ll have no more of this insulting chat
The devil can have you, I’ll see to that
Look sharp or step aside
Or in the cradle you’ll wish you had died’

By Ken Cowley (2012)
Please visit my website and consider buying my autobiographical e-book on my experience of the Irish financial crisis, and my response to it, with plenty of coverage of things I am passionate about, such as music and running.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

There's a feature/interview with me about my e-book on P.93 of the new issue of Hot Press magazine. Please consider buying my book (only 7 euros) and/or supporting my campaign, more info at

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Bruce Springsteen review Dublin 2012

What a show! I know I’m always saying how good Bruce is live, but seriously, this was the goods. He may not be in my top few artists (album/songs/voice wise), but not many put on anywhere as near as good a live show. Faced with an austerity-led choice between the Tuesday and Wednesday shows, I opted for Tuesday, but was then forced to switch to Wednesday (for work reasons), and boy was I glad. Even though the reviews of Tuesday were excellent, it seems Wednesday just topped the first show for those who went to both, PLUS I definitely preferred Wednesday’s setlist – he played SO many of my favourite songs (switching 16 of the previous night’s 32 song setlist!), and really just a killer show, and maybe the best Springsteen show I’ve seen (having seen him about 15 times). From the off, things looked good, we only got there at 5.30 and amazingly got a pit-wristband (the area in front of the stage limited to the first 3,000 of 30,000 fans, and settled on a nice spot about 20m from the stage in front of the right stack. Bruce came on 45 minutes late with a nice low-key acoustic ‘This Hard Land’. The only negative tone I will strike in this review relates to all this hyperbole/moaning from Bruce/band/fans/press about curfews (further to having the plug literally pulled at the London Hyde Park festival show) – my attitude is if artists were so concerned about curfews they wouldn’t come on stage 45 minutes late! That said, I take the point that it wasn’t Bruce’s fault at the London show that earlier artists ran late, and his stunt at the 1st Dublin show with the power-switch was genuinely funny. ‘Nuff said. Tonight’s show really kicked off though when the band trundled on for the 2nd song – a storming ‘No Surrender’. Right from the off it was clear this would be an excellent concert, as the sound was absolutely perfect – the typical big E-Street sound, now augmented with sparkling horns – quite incredible how tight and effortless and perfect (but not overly rehearsed or sterile) this band is - every instrument finds it’s space, with a never-better-sounding Bruce voice nicely riding on top of the music. From there it was in to some early poppier numbers, a catchy one-two of ‘Two Heart’s and ‘Ties that Bind’ before playing his latest hit ‘We Take Care of Our Own’, the first of many well received songs from ‘Wrecking Ball’, then doing ‘Badlands’ and seguing from there in to a beautiful ‘Something in the Night’, a song which nicely shows off how Bruce’s voice has matured and got more expressive over the decades. I’ll try not to mention EVERY song played – tricky due to there being absolutely NO clunkers on the night – so I’ll skip quickly by a solid bluesy ‘Adam Raised a Cain’ and on in to one of many really powerful performances of the new songs, the strong crowd reaction to this strong rendition of the title track of ‘Wrecking Ball’ quickly followed by ‘Death to My Hometown’ showing that his new album must have shifted a lot of copies in Ireland. It goes without saying that some of the themes of the album (recession, solidarity) speak loudly to an Irish audience in 2012, and the whole show struck a lovely balance between good-time rock’n’roll and a feeling of hope for better times to come for all of us. One of several big highlights for me was ‘My City of Ruins’ with Bruce’s eloquent introduction of it as being a song that has come to have several meanings, plus it’s a song that benefits incredibly from the new horn section, with a lovely New Orleans feel to it. One of my favourite latter-day Springsteen songs and a highlight of this tour. Next up was a swaggering ‘Spirit in the Night’, a fan-sign-inspired (rare) ‘Jackson Cage’, then ‘She’s the One’ (not a song I’m wild about), then ‘Jack of All Trades’ – again a very topical song for these times, followed by two huge crowd pleasers, ‘Atlantic City’ and ‘Because the Night’. Bruce has really re-taken this song back in recent years (not that there’s anything wrong with Patti Smith’s version!), and a lot of it has to do with the show-stopping Nils Lofgren guitar solo, which never fails to get a crowd to erupt. The next few songs were nothing extraordinary, but fulfilled their various objectives (‘Darlington County’, ‘Easy Money’ and ‘Waitin’ on a Sunny Day’), before the band strolled off and Bruce gave us one of the top moments of the show – a gorgeous solo piano rendition of the ultra-rare (well, prior to this tour!) ‘The Promise’. Another good reason to have chosen the Wednesday show! Just beautiful. Finally for the main set, Bruce and band gave us 3 big crowd pleasers in ‘The River’ a visceral ‘Backstreets’ (yippee, he played this instead of the over-played ‘The Rising’) and set-closing ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’ – again, a song that was just crying out for some horns, and I was glad to see that the live version harkens back more to the version he debuted back in 1999 (I think?) than the slightly experimental studio version which appears on ‘Wrecking Ball’. Anyway, the night was of course, far from over, as Bruce slammed straight in to a rocking 8-song encore, kicking off with the two ‘Borns’ ( the USA, and Run), ‘Glory Days’,’ 7 Nights to Rock’, ‘Dancing in the Dark’,’ 10th Avenue Freeze Out’ (complete with lovely Clarence Clemons tribute), and then taking a slight gamble by slowing things down to play a gorgeous ‘Rocky Ground’ the ground-breaking gospel/rap/rock hybrid duet song from the recent album (I love the lyrics on this one), before cranking things up again to box off the show with Bruce’s ‘Irish-ised’ version of the Seeger penned ‘American Land’. In conclusion, life might be a bit rubbish right now for many people in the countries Bruce has visited on this tour, but for 3 hours 20 minutes last night, it was anything but. Slightly expensive tickets? Maybe, but if you look at it, it really was great value for money. After all, what a performance we got from this most energetic of 62 year olds! And in my opinion, we now have the perfect E-Street Band, a full horn section (plus the extra backing singers) really makes a difference – in some ways it’s like a composite E-Street/Seeger Sessions Band, never tighter, never more in tune with each other, and with its loyal audience. I haven’t seen that many gigs this year, and many of those I have seen were excellent, but I don’t think many 2012 shows will come close to Wed 18 July in the RDS!

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Bob Dylan Berlin review 2 July 2012

Due to the generosity of a recent 40th birthday present, yesterday saw me make a whistle-stop trip from Dublin to Berlin for the 2nd show of this latest chapter of Bob Dylan's Never Ending Tour. Most legs of the N.E.T. come and go these days without much fanfare, due to the sheer number of shows he has played in the last few decades, but this one is already making a splash. Mainly for one reason! As reported yesterday on many of the world's leading music websites (Rolling Stone, Uncut etc) - Bob has decided to bring a grand piano along on this trip - and very welcome it is too, meaning he is now playing 4 instruments (5 if you include what he does with his voice!) on stage, guitar, organ, keyboard, harmonica. And in general, playing them pretty well(Dylan's musical eccentricity notwithstanding). However, the grand piano isn't the only development of note. Also of note is the sheer number of new arrangements. They were obviously busy during the 3 days rehearsals in Poughkeepsie! Ok, no major setlist surprises, other than the reintroduction of 'She Belongs To Me' after a 4 year hiatus, but some of these new arrangements are almost like new songs. Which is a good thing as far as most of us are concerned, although possibly not for the casual concert goer, nor indeed the casual concert reviewer. I go to a lot less shows than I used to, but regular (?!) readers will know I've been enthusiastic about Bob's return to the front of the stage (which he does these days for about half the show) and his renewed animation and engagement with the audience, since circa 2010. I'm glad to report all of this has been notched up yet another gear thus far on this tour. And with the prospect of the new album out in September, all really does seem to be rosy in the garden. Hell, he even had a costume change of sorts in Berlin, wearing shades and NO HAT (when was the last time he wore no hat?) for the first 4 songs, before whipping off the shades and popping on a hat for the remainder.. Last night, the animation didn't kick in properly until the 3rd song ('Leopardskin Pillbox Hat' had been the usual lively opener, and 'It Ain't Me Babe' with Bob on guitar, had been perhaps a little hesitant. But for a spell of about 6 or 7 songs from 'Things Have Changed' on, Bob was as animated as I've seen him for years. Older fans will remember that when he was in his 50s he moved like a man in his 70s, now that he's in his 70s he moves like a man in his 50s! Albeit not like any man in his 50s I've ever come across. His stage movements and expressions range from bizarre to limber, and really have to be seen to be appreciated. For anyone who's never seen him live, I strongly recommend that now is the time to do it - and get down relatively close to the front when you do. Just be prepared for eccentric arrangements and, of course, eccentric singing. But, back to the piano. He first sat down at it for 'Lovesick', and stayed at it for most of the rest of the show. It has a couple of affects on the show. Firstly, it's a welcome change from the 'circus-sound' of the Korg organ he usually plays, and has a lovely classic piano sound. Ok, so he's no Oscar Peterson, nor even Elton John, but he has a nice style all of his own, and seems to be playing in a much less percussive style than the keyboard (pre-organ) style he gave us from 2002-2006. Visually, it works too, as he doesn't just sit there, but fidgets a lot, and swivels around to engage with the audience, and band, at will. Now, let me get to some of the song highlights of the Berlin show. Vocally, he seems to have staved off the decline of the latter years of the 2000s, and has worked out a way of expressing himself in a (mostly) musically interesting way with what's left of his voice, only rarely lapsing in to ridiculous OTT phrasing. The first major rearrangement was 'Cry Awhile', Bob out-front with just harmonica and voice, a really excellent Chicago-blues type arrangement in what is now almost a trademark 'Bob-and-band' stop-start style. Anyway, it was very powerful and a reminder that Bob is just as likely to recast his recent work as his more famous older work. Next up was the biggest surprise of the night - a lovely country-ish version of 'She Belongs To Me' with a nice descending riff on the 2nd half of each line and a surprisingly prominent Donny Herron pedal steel sound. As we know Bob's N.E.T. band is always evolving it's sound slightly from tour to tour, but this arrangement took a nice step back in that it strongly reminded me of the Larry Campbell years. Maybe the best and most impactful song of the night was 'Lovesick'. As this was only the 2nd show with the grand piano, it was our turn in Berlin to hear it for the first time. A really powerful new version of this song, reminding me a little of the great 1920s sounding 'Blind Willie McTell' Bob played at the Scorsese tribute earlier this year. Old-timey in a good way. 'Levee's Gonna Break' on piano was maybe less successful, but towards the end of the song, Bob found a little riff he seemed to like and the band soon adapted and kicked in around that, and finished the song off well. 'High Water', the 2nd song ('Cry Awhile' being the other) from 2001's 'Love and Theft' album, has also been given another makeover. I really loved this one. Less overtly powerful than earlier arrangements of the song, they've given it a lighter touch - kind of bluegrassy/country-blues on it, and it really swings. 'Highway 61 Revisited' is a bit like a bus not coming, it gets the same old arrangement for years, and then we get 2 in 2 years - and this one is not bad. For me I've heard this song so many times, I can only enjoy it if they make it 'danceable' in some way, and I can focus on whatever groove the band is getting in to. And this one was certainly that, and as ever is a song the casual rock fan attendee will always want to hear. The rest of the show perhaps didn't quite reach the levels of that middle run, with a pleasant stab at 'Simple Twist of Fate', a novel (for now!) chance to see Bob play some boogie-ish piano on the likes of 'Thunder on the Mountain', the usual show-stopping 'Ballad of a Thin Man' - and by the way - any music fan who has not seen Bob do this song post 2009 or so is missing a big tick on his/her 'Rock to-do list'. 'Like a Rolling Stone' was performed much as usual, but I must say it was nice to see him play his most famous song on the instrument he wrote it on. People think of Bob as a guitar playing singer songwriter, but don't forget he also writes/wrote a large number of his songs on piano. The show closer, 'All Along the Watchtower' is yet another song to have received a re-jig, and is now much improved in my opinion - it's a faster, more urgent reading of this old warhorse, prior to a nice encore of 'Blowing in the Wind' capped with it's usual closing 'out-front' harmonica flourish. In conclusion, a really enjoyable show in the German capital with a nice atmosphere in a lovely Castle setting. Final point of note - Bob was 40 minutes late on stage (unheard of for an artist who despite a reputation for contrariness, is in many ways actually a very old-school music pro, and normally on-stage within 10 minutes of the designated time), and ironically the heavens opened and it rained pretty hard for the final 40 minutes of the show! But, who cared. A really good show in what is quite a decent period for the N.E.T. Go see one! Finally - a quick plug - please consider buying (and telling your friends about!) my short autobiographical e-book, in which I write not only about my years of going to Bob Dylan shows, but my experiences of Ireland's financial collapse, a few health battles and other cheerful topics! It's called 'Not Running Away', and is only 7 euros, available on my website Thanks.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Have just published my 1st book - 'Not Running Away'

Just to update this blog to say I have just published a short autobiographical book - covering personal and financial crises, the Irish property/economic collapse, music, running & more. I've tried to make it not TOO depressing! Aim of the book was to be candid, therapeutic, informative, part of my mortgage campaign and to help me out of a financial hole! Would really appreciate people buying the book (you can buy it as an e-book or ask me for a PDF) for only 9 euro and MOST IMPORTANTLY 'sharing' this post, or the link on my website (see below) on Facebook, your websites or blogs. Thanks. Ken

Monday, January 16, 2012

Art O'Neill ultra marathon report

Ken’s Art O’Neill Challenge
Blog Entry 1.

This will be a short blog, 2 or 3 entries. Partly to track my experience of the Art O’Neill Challenge (which takes place tonight) and partly to show how my intake of Pro-Argi 9 helped me get through it.
However, I haven’t got through it yet!
Two bits of background – firstly the event itself – it’s a 55km overnight ultra-marathon (you can run, hike, or a combination) from Dublin Castle down and over the Wicklow mountains to the Glenmalure Valley, thus replicating the famous flight of Art O’Neill and Red Hugh O’Donnell in the 16th Century. For more info on the event they have a great website and the event also raises some crucial funds for Dublin/Wicklow Mountain Rescue.
Next, a few comments on my preparation.
Ok, so it hasn’t gone perfectly! But, when does training ever go perfectly?!
It’s been a mild winter, but since December I’ve had a lingering cold/cough. This is very unusual for me, ever since I started taking Pro-Argi 9 my immune system has been excellent and I think it’s been at least 18 months since I had a cold. I also woke up with a bad neck strain 4 days ago, but thankfully that has diminished.
Basically, my training has been quite unscientific – just runs at the weekend, athletics sessions on Tuesdays (Crusaders AC) and other miscellaneous bits of running/walking/stretching/gymwork etc.
However, I slept well last night and will try for another nap around teatime before making my way in to the city centre.
Nutrition wise, I’ve been trying to eat sensibly since Christmas (battling a bit of weight gain!) and obviously am carb-loading since yesterday. I’ve also upped my intake of Pro-Argi 9 in the last few days, to 3 scoops a day. For anyone who hasn’t heard of it, it is the best arginine supplement on the market. I sell it myself (with my business partner Paul) and can also get you involved in selling it (if you’re interested in a nice simple 2nd income).
A brief word on the product – arginine is a Nobel winning food supplement which creates nitric oxide in the body and has been having revolutionary impact on many health issues, especially anything cardio related. It’s also amazing for energy and for athletes. But there’s way more information on our website and please contact me at or by phone or Facebook if you want more info.
Anyway, back to tonight’s event.
I am officially listed as an ultra-runner, thus setting off at 2pm, whereas the walkers set off at midnight. Realistically though, I won’t run it all, just the road parts, and on the mountains I aim to run the flats, and the safe downhills. Otherwise we’ll have to see. One thing for sure, I’ll be running very slowly! I’ve never attempted anything like this before, and my previous longest mountain race I’ve done was 22 miles/38km (nearly 5 hours), plus I’ve done a couple of road marathons.
Ok, if I don’t report back before the race – watch out for my blog posting to say how it went! All going well, I’ll complete the race in less than 12 hours, thus finishing by 2pm on Saturday afternoon, and should be back to my laptop in Dublin by evening.
Good luck to all the other participants and let’s hope we all have a safe night on the mountains!

Blog Entry 2. 9 Hours 25 minutes later!

Well it's over and I'm glad to say the race went well!

For anyone who didn't read my first blog entry, I was doing the Art O'Neill Challenge - a 55km overnight ultra marathon (you can run, hike, or a combination of both) from Dublin Castle over the Wicklow mountains to Glenmalure, in tribute to the legendary prison escape/run by Art O'Neill and Red Hugh O'Donnell in the 16th century.
This year, just for good measure, the organisers chose Friday 13th as the date!

Arrived at Dublin Castle just before midnight to see the hikers off - and then in to register, and finally, off we went running through the Castle gates at 2am out to a bemused Dublin - 80 runners in hi-vis jackets no doubt being a strange sight to bleary-eyed pub-goers staggering out of the chippers..

I'll try not to make this blog too long, but just to back-track a bit and talk a bit more about my pre-race preparation. I said I would mention nutrition. It's such an important part of long distance running, and I usually get it fairly right. This event though I, not quite – and my stomach wasn’t in great shape throughout the race. Even though, for about 36 hours before the race I was keeping it simple, plenty of carbs, litres upon litres of water, vitamins and things like dark chocolate to store fat (no jokes please!) Plus, of course my 3 Synergy products, Mistify, Phytolife and Pro-Argi 9. Some readers may not be interested, so I won't go in to more detail here, but please feel free to read more about them on, or to contact me for more info. Final word on it - Pro-Argi 9 is amazing for energy, and definitely helped me through my first ultra-marathon!

The only other things to mention about preparation are Kit (which I mostly got right), Sleep (I got a crucial 2 hrs sleep at Friday teatime as well as a fairly good night's sleep on Thurs) and Training (it went as well as could be expected - given a lingering cough and a sore neck).

So, to the race!
I was running with Justin and Jacqui, and we stuck together all the way to the mountains (30K of road), and were also in touch with Aidan, who had set off at 1.15.
Our plan was to run all the road parts, all the trails/fireroads and any safe mountain downhills and to walk the extreme uphills and the parts with very bad terrain. We mostly stuck to this plan!
The road part was (as expected) long and boring, enlivened only by the excitement of the event and camaraderie of the other runners, plus the knowledge that runners got attacked last year by locals in the countryside just beyond Tallaght (and no, not by animals!)
Anyway, nothing untoward happened, and we made it to the first transition stop in Kilbride (20K) in just over 2 hours.

By this point I had already made 2 mistakes. Firstly, I think we ran the first part too fast. For me, anyway. This was to lead to problems later!
Plus, I was wearing too much and my core body temperature was probably too high. It was a perfect night mind you - great visibilty and quite mild for the time of year. Temperatures I think ranged from about zero to 5 degrees.
Also, we spent a little too long in transition - it's amazing how long it can take to change top/runners, rearrange kit (for the mountain section to come), and have a bit of soup. Lessons learned here about Kit logistics!
And, oh yes, mentioning soup, that reminds me – as I said before my stomach was NOT in good shape for most of the run. Whether it was nerves (probably not, maybe it had a small impact), something I ate (not sure), or just the overall shock an event like this does to your body (most likely), I really couldn't take in much sustenance throughout the race. My total food intake was - one energy bar, one banana, one cup of soup, one bowl of porridge and one coffee - which is NOT enough food for an event this physical and this long. And I just couldn't stomach any of the electrolite drinks or Lucozade I had brought with me, and thus realised I was going to be very short on liquids, as I only had 2 bottles of regular water. Despite filling these bottles up at every transition station, I got quite badly dehydrated over the 9 hours.

Anyway, after the first break, off we went on the final 10k of roads, passing Dave and Don (from my job) walking, who seemed to be performing great and still in good spirits, until we hit the mountains proper at Black Hill. At this point Jacqui went off on her own, which looking back, she probably should/could have done earlier, as she is an amazing runner and was being held back. Likewise later in the race I was holding Justin back, but on the other hand, the company of another runner helps in other ways - eg keeping morale up. I should also mention that Justin did a great job of navigating us over the mountains - despite excellent moonlit conditions and 450 other people on the hills it's no easy task, and we made great progress - always taking the quickest lines.

At the top of Black Hill and on to the gap beside Mullaughlaveen (Billy Byrne’s Gap?) it was quite cold and windy, and (now nearly 4 hours in) our feet were completely soaking wet. Having said that I was happy with my decision not to wear waterproof socks, I just wore thin merino lining socks (thanks for the tip, Aidan!) underneath regular long-distance running socks and mountain runners. Once you keep moving, your feet don't get cold.

Terrain at this point was tricky, but manageable. My head torch wasn't really good enough (it wouldn't take a genius to realise a good head-torch is rather important for running over the Wicklow mountains at night!).
And this is the thing I'm most relieved about, sitting at my computer the day after - that I didn't get a single injury the whole night! Despite copious opportunities to twist an ankle in a rabbit hole, or fall off a peat hag, or slip down the Art's Cross climb(!), the worst thing that happened was about 6 or 7 falls - mostly in the latter stages by which time my brain wasn't really working but thankfully none of these falls did any damage.

From the gap, we made it down (a couple of hours later) to the start of a forest, and on to a trail. But, for the last half hour of that open mountain stretch - the most magical part of the event happened - you've probably guessed it - daybreak! Just a lovely transition from moonlight to daylight as the vista of the rest of southwest Wicklow towards Table track opened up, just amazing - as had been looking backwards at the trail of head torches back towards Black Hill, and earlier again - looking back to Dublin city and the sea from high up in the Dublin mountains.

After this, magical moments started to become thin on the ground (!), as the race was really taking a toll. I was dehydrated, under-nourished, and my legs were starting to get very sore, and my back/neck a bit sore too. I'm sure sleep deprivation was a factor too, but because we were running, or at least walking fast (on open mountain) we HAD to concentrate - I imagine sleep deprivation was a bigger problem for the walkers.

From here we had about 30 minutes of trail, until we arrived at the 2nd transition station. This time we kept it quick - just swiped in and out again (with our timing chips), a quick bowl of porridge, a coffee and a water refill, and off we went on to Leg 3.

This was to prove the most ferocious. For me, at least. Buoyed a bit by being finally in daylight (it was a lovely morning) and the porridge, this soon faded as we hit the open mountain route up to Art's Cross. We hadn't 'recce'd' this part, but Justin continued to do a great Nav job, and we did it in good time. But, the terrain was difficult and the final part up to the Cross itself was 'hands and knees' stuff. This had a couple of impacts - incredibly draining on energy and legs (which were by now not functioning at all well) plus my gloves/hands got soaked for the first time, leaving me with cold hands for the remainder.

From Art's Cross, it was a long flat-ish slog in a newly emerged fog (ironically visiblity had been better at dead of night) across sloshy peat-hags and finally downwards to a trail and on to what even my tired eyes could see was finally the Glenmalure Valley, and thus, not far from home!

From there it was a long (for me anyway) 4km or so, on trail (with the river on left) to the finish. By now, I was running like a very elderly person, but at least I was still running, and 9 hours and 25 minutes after I left the city centre, I crossed the finish line. They had a proper finish line with banners, and everybody got a bit of a clap when they finished. The event organiser was there as I crossed the line, a chap called Gearoid I think, and I was glad to shake his hand and congratulate him on an amazing event. The toughest thing I've ever done? God, yes! Would I do it again? Possibly not. But -I learned a lot - about preparation, logistics, nutrition, pacing, and how to deal with a long race mentally. My plan now is to continue to be sensible about my running (my knees are doing ok, but I need to be careful) and continue to measure the impact of the products I take to help with my running (and my health in general) especially the Pro-Argi 9.

Post race, I caught up with friends in the Glenmalure Lodge for a bit, prior to the bus back to Dublin. Next morning now, and I feel ok actually, had a long nights sleep, plenty of food and a hot bath, with a massage to follow in 2 days time.

A big thanks to my fellow runners - there was so much camaraderie out there, even though it was getting like a zombie movie towards the end, as people staggered towards the finish - and a huge thanks to the organisers and to Dublin Wicklow Mountain Rescue who were out in big numbers and made us all feel safe on this endeavour which some of my friends have variously described as mad, nuts, bonkers, you name it!

The last thing I'll say is, I hope everyone made it safely through the night, and congratulations to Eoin Keith for winning the event, shattering the record (previously held by, um, Eoin Keith!) by 90 (count 'em) minutes - with a winning time of 5 hrs 26 mins.

See everyone on the hills again soon..

My sites/blogs; (content coming soon)
email: or
Tel: 00 353 (0)85 7129060

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

2011 Review of the Year

Indicative of the times we live in, this was a bad year for me for attending concerts/plays and albums purchased etc, but that doesn’t mean I don't have plenty to say about it!


So, let me start with gigs. I can’t remember when I last saw so few concerts in a calendar year, and it wasn’t just recession related – there really weren't that many I was bothered about. I only saw a few Dylan shows, and have reviewed them independently on the blog, so just to reiterate it was a pretty good year for the now septegenarian performer.
The setlists have improved (marginally) but it’s the quality of the performances that really hit home this year. And it’s mainly visual. Audio wise, he continues to do (mainly) interesting things with what’s left of his vocal chords, but visually he is out front of stage now for over half the show, mainly without guitar, and is moving around and throwing shapes as only a 70 year old Bob Dylan could (or would) do. It’s hard to explain how this works and how it so dramatically improves the show, sorry but it really is a case of ‘you had to be there’(barring, that is, the somewhat lacklustre October Dublin show). It's not all visual though, the music is good too, and the shows are well worth downloading.
Dylan’s support act on the winter tour was Mark Knopfler and it was interesting to see a few of the Knopfler sets, even if every night is identical. It may seem obvious - but the most interesting thing about his show is his guitar playing, especially as he plays very few Dire Straits songs and mumbles the lyrics. Charisma wise he trails a long way behind his tour-buddy Bob, but he made up for this with his nice guitar contributions to Dylan’s sets (usually on the first 3 or 4 Dylan songs of the night) and in his perfectly timed hand-gesture during a moving tour-closing ‘Forever Young’. Again, there’s an element of you had to be there, but here’s a link to a decent youtube of that moment (it happens in the final verse)
The Dylan shows were the only ‘big’ shows I saw, and were my favourites of the year. Runner-up was definitely Gillian Welch in the Grand Canal Theatre, also reviewed on this blog at the time.
Probably my 3rd favourite show of the year was a very enjoyable performance of Mahler’s 5th Symphony in the National Concert Hall. I’m not particularly expert on classical music, but his symphonies just have so much going on, and in a live setting you can get completely lost in them. Oh, and classical music is great value! In Dublin anyway..
Earlier in the year, before she became an 'arena-artist' I saw Imelda May in Vicar Street and it was great to see her strong rockabilly show in this small, and local (she was born and raised a few streets away) setting.
Another artist I saw in Vicar Street was Richard Thompson, only the 2nd time I’ve seen him, and as expected - the show was funny, literate and choc-full of great music. All from one man and a guitar, which is not usually my favourite format. Mind you, having said how good this show was, I would still love to see Richard sometime with his band, knowing that he is as good electric as he is acoustic.
Oh yes, and Paul Brady also played a really good show in the same Dublin venue back in April, showcasing the variety in his back catalogue with no little style and vigour.
The other band I enjoyed a lot this year was the Waterboys who I saw twice, once supporting Dylan in London, and then on their own at the atmospheric Tall Ships festival in Waterford. Both shows were very good and I must say I’m torn between their Yeats show and their ‘standard’ show. 2012 bodes well in that the band plan to do a compromise show, doing a set of Yeats songs, followed by a set of Waterboys songs.
Finally, just to mention some of the other acts at that Dylan festival show in London – the Waterboys shone brightest, but also of interest were sets from Christy Moore (not as good as normal due to a poor sound mix) and the Cranberries (ditto) and the Gaslight Anthem – who were kind of ‘Bruce meets The Clash’ with a fanatical young following.

Live artists of the year

Bob Dylan
Gillian Welch (with David Rawlings)
Mahler’s 5th Symphony by the RTE concert orchestra
The Waterboys
Paul Brady
Mark Knopfler
Richard Thompson
Imelda May


I had a somewhat more prolific year for films than gigs, and there were plenty of good 'uns.
Top of the pile was the amazing Martin Scorsese documentary on George Harrison, which I was lucky enough to see on the big screen. Choc-full of great footage, much of which was new to me, and no little insight in to the story of one of my favourite artists. The best contributions were from McCartney, Ringo and Olivia.
The King’s Speech came out around New Year last year I think, and deserved all its awards. A classic period biopic/drama, it had great acting, writing and directing – which is about all you need in a film.
Hugo was a magical film about childhood and early Cinema and was a rarity in that it actually merited being in 3D – it also had a great storyline and was an unusual genre for Scorsese to tackle. Having said all that, it wasn’t really a children’s film – too long and too slow probably, but for this adult(!?) it was just fine!
Midnight in Paris was another solid Woody Allen film,as were his previous few, not that that stopped all the critics slavishly calling it a ‘return to form’. The same thing happens all the time with R.E.M. albums! Well, not anymore, now that they’ve retired..
Anyway, back to films - the 2nd Sherlock Holmes film was fairly entertaining, yes of course it was ridiculously over-the-top, but that was the intention I imagine..
The Adjustment Bureau was a witty and enjoyable adaptation of a Philip K Dick story, which as with all his stories, left you pondering longer than most writers.
The latest Pirates of the Caribbean was a (very)slight improvement on recent installments, especially the London scenes.
The Maids on the 7th Floor was a hilarious French 60s-set comedy, hard to see anyone in Hollywood ever coming up with something like this. It also had something to say, about French and Spanish culture and immigration etc.
The only other non-English-language film I remember seeing in 2011 was The Skin that I Live In - a creepy Almodovar film about possession, revenge and other themes, which almost worked. A bold effort though, and very enjoyable.
Other films I saw that had their moments but didn’t set my world on fire were things like The Guard (over-rated) and Rum Diary (a bit rambling).
Early 2012 looks like being a good period for films – I’ll try and review some of them on the blog, (eg The Artist), plus some others I missed in 2011 (eg True Grit)

My top few films

Living in the Material World – George Harrison documentary
The King’s Speech
The Adjustment Bureau
The Maids on the 7th Floor
Midnight in Paris
The Skin that I Live In


As with concerts, it was a quiet year, I think I only saw three. And one of them was a musical, so really it was only two!
Both were enjoyable though, especially Pygmalion in the Abbey. It’s such a strong play, full of lines that you’d recognise from THAT musical (ie My Fair Lady, for which Pygmalion was the source), and very well acted by the ensemble cast, especially Risteard Cooper as Higgins. I’ve said it before (I think!), but Cooper is very underrated as an actor.
Hay Fever was ok as the Gate’s summer play, but it’s not my favourite Noel Coward play and would only give it 7/10.
The musical I saw was Spamalot, a silly but enjoyable Monty Python romp. It had some good singers – and the script is not bad, with some nice local Dublin ‘tailoring’ – however a mark deducted for Phil Jupitus who seemed to be sleepwalking through his part.

Best Play



It was a quiet year for art in Dublin as the National Gallery is partially closed for renovations. And I never got around to seeing the Frida Kahlo exhibition in IMMA. I did get to see the highly lauded Leonardo exhibition in London though, thanks to 3 hours of early morning queuing! It was very enjoyable, and seemed to have nearly everything that survives of the great man, barring the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper!
I also got to spend a few hours in the Prado in Madrid, which is one of those museums overflowing with old Masters on a scale that takes the breath away. On a lesser scale, but full of similar quality art is the neighbouring Thyssien Museum which I also visited during a very enjoyable weekend in the Spanish capital.

Exhibition of the Year

Leonardo – National Gallery London


Not a vintage year, but not too bad either. I don’t know if it’s creeping old-age – but there just aren’t so many albums I’m interested in being released these days. It was great however to finally see a new Gillian Welch album, and it certainly ranks close in quality to her first 4 albums which were a hard act to follow to say the least. The songs seemed to work better live though.
And, conversely, the reverse seemed to be the case for the new Wilco album! But, I haven’t had it long, and it needs a few more listens before I can really rate it.
For now though, my album of 2011 is Tom Wait’s new one ‘Bad as Me’. Full of roaring rockers and gorgeous ballads, the songs are snappier and somewhat more effective than on Real Gone. Great arrangements and singing (yes, singing!) too – and boy would be great to see this album in a live setting.
Other good new albums include PJ Harvey’s ‘Shake England Shake’ albeit it's slightly overrated - and The Black Key’s boisterous El Camino. And there were lots of good songs on the Noel Gallagher debut.

Albums of the year

Tom Waits Bad as Me
Gillian Welch – The Harrow and the Harvest
Wilco – The Whole Love
PJ Harvey - Shake England Shake
The Black Keys – El Camino
Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds


Again – mainly re-reading old books, and stuck in magazines and newspapers as well as stuff about music or running.
So, really, the only one outstanding new novel I read this year was the ‘new’ Sherlock Holmes book ‘The House of Silk’ by Anthony Horowitz. It was the first time the Conan-Doyle estate has sanctioned a new novel and Horowitz seems to have really captured the feel and style of the original books, not to mention that it is as ‘un-putdown-able’ as Doyle’s best!
I also really enjoyed a great book about mountain running called ‘Mud Sweat and Tears’ by Moire O’Sullivan.
Online and via Apps, I enjoyed content from the Irish Times, New York Times, Evening Standard, and more. Plus lots of great websites and blogs. Some more examples;


Ok, anyone who knows me knows I’m a sucker for period dramas, especially if set between, say, the 1880s and the 1940s.
So, I was always going to like Downton Abbey. It may have the occasional unintentionally funny line, and the 2nd series had a slightly rushed feel about it, but it’s still a cleverly constructed piece of television and it isn’t topping the ratings for nothing. That said, the X Factor also tops the ratings so what do I know!
Plus, I was always going to like South Riding. Nowhere near as popular as Downton Abbey, but this small 3-part 1930s drama (adapted from a novel) was top notch, most notably for the performance of the amazing Anna Maxwell Martin.
If I had to choose one programme though as the best on TV at the moment I’d have to go for Sherlock – the contemporary re-imagining of the Conan-Doyle stories. However the first season was 2010 and the 2nd season started on New Years Day 2012, so I guess I’ll leave my actual review for the moment..
Other period dramas I saw were the BBC’s Great Expectations (it was ok), the Young James Herriot (a bit disappointing really) and Sky Atlantic's Boardwalk Empire (it started off ok, but got quite boring after a while, frankly), oh and while I’m not wild about Dr Who, the Christmas Day special was quite good.
Which leads me to ask – barring Sherlock, did I see ANY CONTEMPORARY drama in 2011?!
Phew - Blue Bloods to the rescue! A fairly bog-standard NYC cop drama – some people didn’t like it – but I thought it was pretty solid, not the greatest writing of all time, but good acting and nicely directed (it kept you wanting to know what’s coming next).
In 2012 I resolve to watch The Killing and The Wire (yes I still haven't seen The Wire)!
And leaving drama aside, I watched a fair bit of news, music programmes and documentaries – none of which really stood out, maybe other than the BBCs Frozen Planet.

Top few TV progs

Downton Abbey
South Riding
Frozen Planet
Blue Bloods


Culture Night - always one of the highlights of the year in Dublin. And it’s completely free. Amazed more people don’t go to it.

Personal stuff

A tough year, but a really good one for the reasons that matter..

Final word

This blog is mainly about culture, and sometimes about running, but please see my short list of websites (below) which are about other matters.
And keep an eye on where I'll be launching other writing and expanding on other projects in the coming months. There's nothing on that site yet, but please feel free to bookmark it!

See you all down the road in 2012..

Ken Cowley
email: or
Tel: 00 353 (0)85 7129060