JMI (The Journal Of Music In Ireland) - Rory McCabe

Sarah McQuaid
Ballina Arts Centre, Co. Mayo
27 March 2008

While walking around in the rain looking for the Ballina Arts Centre, I began to think that maybe I was in the wrong town. Nobody could give me directions: to Supermacs yes, but an arts centre? My impression was that these residents didn’t seem to know what they had. Somebody or something was not engaging them; not properly getting their attention.

The Ballina Arts Centre occupies a pleasant, but very modest, setting, with one room serving as both a gallery and an events space. In this minimalised setting, and to an audience of little over twenty people, Sarah McQuaid held sway with no more than her guitar, voice and smile – no mean feat in a situation where every audience member is a distinct face and each hand clap is noticeable for its percussive timbre. McQuaid comes across as an experienced, confident musician and she imbues the songs with her own, definitive mark. Whether an a-cappella version of ‘The Parting Glass’ or an unusually subdued version of ‘The Holy Ground (Once More)’, one is convinced that here is a woman singing with her own voice and listening with her own ears. This assured individuality carried over into her precise, measured guitar playing on a guitar which matches her voice’s bel canto persuasion. McQuaid’s voice is indeed warm, mature and a connoisseur’s delight.

But, as rich and palatable as her music is, I did wish for a dash of bitters, more tonal discord to balance it out. There were flashes of blue-note-twists – hints of tearing – that came out in places, such as her version of Bobby Gentry’s ‘Ode to Billie Jo’ and her own recently-written ‘The Plum Tree and The Rose’, but I hoped for just a hint more. Some day I would like to hear McQuaid in a bigger musical setting, in which her smooth style could be accentuated, counter-parted and contrasted with other musical voices.

Whether that could happen on another similar night in Ballina is questionable: the limited concert space would challenge both audience and performers. Hopefully Ballina town and Mayo County Council’s proposed development of the arts centre will go ahead sooner rather than later. The planned 250-seat theatre must be regarded as essential infrastructure. Such a venue would allow the Ballina Arts Centre to expand the scope of its performance schedule, allow hard-working musicians such as Sarah McQuaid appropriate performance space, and allow the people of Ballina/North Mayo a better engagement with their cultural options on such cold Thursday nights.