ST ANNE'S CATHEDRAL
THE FIRST time Martin Hayes (fiddle) and Dennis Cahill (guitar) played in Belfast, in 1995, it was in the cabaret lounge of a small pub. It was the public debut of their partnership: the most innovative act in Irish music this decade. Comparisons have since been made to Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis and JS Bach, but Hayes remains an affable fellow with his feet firmly on the ground.
For the man some call "the master of silence", then, it was amusing to be returning to Belfast not only to a cathedral, but to surroundings where the 10-second echo dictated the pace. It was, if anything, more magical than ever. The recent high point of a Hayes and Cahill performance has been the increasingly epic "long medley" - an ever-evolving, trance-like set of tunes that run the gamut of light and shade. The pair's current album, Live in Seattle, contains a definitive 30-minute version - opening with the dark, evocative polyphony of a fairy lament from the Blasket Islands, through the delicate frenzy of "Rakish Paddy", climaxing with a joyous skip through Pachelbel's Canon. This closed the show to rapturous applause.
It was "The Golden Castle", though, that held most fascination and pronounced the evening's tone with its eerie serenity. It was in this set that Cahill confirmed his own uniqueness as an accompanist. Never one for the manic, modal-tuned strumming of his peers, he has now deconstructed his role so ruthlessly that only the pulse remains, only the faintest rumour of a fragile arpeggio to offset the melody and harmony work of his partner.
Hayes has created a new form of music. He is grappling with Irish music's twin pillars - the impish fire and fathomless grief, whose foundations are as deep as the tradition itself - with the implausible intention of fusing the two into one glorious whole. He has already succeeded.