Not just another Irish musician to hit it big in the United States, Luka Bloom has been transforming what folk music means with his rhythm-heavy, hip-hop way of playing guitar. “May more strummers and hummers pick up the gauntlet this feisty artist has thrown down,” wrote Ann Powers in a New York Times review of a solo performance at the Bottom Line in New York. As of early 1995, Bloom had three albums to his credit, the first of which was compared by Paul Evans of Rolling Stone to acclaimed artist Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks.
In 1994’s Turf, Bloom slowed his strumming somewhat and emphasized his ballads. Critics were divided over the strength of the ballads - “warm and full,” according to Thom Jurek of the Detroit Metro Times; “narcissistic,” according to Geoffrey Himes of the Washington Post - but Bloom’s shows continued to rivet audiences. In fact, his electric performances across the United States had attracted a following even before he recorded his first album in 1990. Since then, his many shows in pubs, clubs, and large halls across Europe and the States have helped him maintain a live feel in his records and, more importantly, ensured an enthusiastic reception from listeners.
For some time into his musical career, Bloom failed to find his signature sound; success evaded him. He did not catch on with American audiences until he was in his early thirties. Born Barry Moore in the small Irish town of Newbridge, County Kildare (30 miles south of Dublin), he is the younger brother of folk-singing legend and celebrity Christy Moore. Playing in the shadow of his brother’s popularity, Bloom performed in Dublin pubs for eight years through the mid-1980s without finding broader acceptance. “People had gotten used to seeing me as a struggling contemporary folk singer/songwriter guy,” he told Edward Guthmann of the San Francisco Chronicle. “It was boring for them, and it was boring for me. I needed a kick in the ass, really.”
The problems with Bloom’s early career ran far deeper than being eclipsed by the fame of his older brother, however. Some critics have speculated that Bloom himself had not yet opened up in his music - personally and artistically - as he would later in the United States. After dropping out of college in the mid-1970s, the singer played in folk clubs around Europe as Barry Moore and even recorded three albums, which are no longer available. He finger-picked on his guitar until a chronic tendinitis forced him to start strumming. Following a brief stint as the head of a rock band called Red Square - inspired by the groups Simple Minds and U2 - he returned to solo work.
Around the same time, Bloom realized he had a drinking problem and decided it was time to quit. “Drinking did not stimulate my songwriting, did not stimulate my imagination,” he told Rolling Stone. “[It] completely deadened and depressed everything I wanted to do, and thank God it did. I probably wouldn’t be alive today if I had had some success.” In 1987 Bloom recognized his stagnation and decided on a radical change. He said, “Okay, I’m thirty-two years old, I’m going to change my name, and I’m going to go to America, and I’m going to stay there until something happens,” he recounted in an interview with Michael Azerrad for Rolling Stone. Leaving behind a longtime lover and a young son from a previous marriage, Bloom moved on to Washington, D.C., with his guitar and only $200 to start off.
On the flight over to the United States, Moore invented his new stage name. He wanted something “as pretentious as Iggy Pop or Bono or Sting ... that would stick in people’s minds,” he noted in the San Francisco Chronicle. He took “Luka” from folksinger Suzanne Vega’s song and “Bloom” from the seminal twentieth-century novel Ulysses by Irish writer James Joyce. The new name freed him in his art as well. “When I worked under my own name,” he told Azerrad, “I was a very self-conscious performer, a very self-conscious writer and a very self-conscious individual generally. In taking on this mask of Luka Bloom, it became possible for me to expose myself in all sorts of ways.”
Soon after Bloom landed in the States he was playing in a Georgetown University pub, where he quickly built a following. His mix of rock, contemporary folk, and Irish mysticism - along with his intense guitar playing and haunting voice - quickly attracted listeners in New York and Boston as well as D.C. Soon he was touring the country as an opening act for both the Pogues and Hothouse Flowers and making a mark with his shows from Philadelphia to San Francisco. With some showcase performances under his belt, he signed with the Reprise imprint of Warner Bros. Records and set to work on his 1990 U.S. debut, Riverside.
Inspired by the pared-down sound of Michelle Shocked on The Texas Campfire Tapes and the Cowboy Junkies on The Trinity Session, Bloom chose an approach that featured a single microphone and no overdubs. He played and sang and stomped around the studio as if in concert; other musicians contributed minimal backing later on instruments ranging from the electric guitar to the Iranian finger drum. His “sharp lament” on a father’s death in “The Man is Alive” and his forlorn love ballads “Gone to Pablo” and “This Is for Life” succeeded particularly well, according to Rolling Stone’s Evans, who concluded that Bloom was “able and worthy” of what he had targeted – “the folk vanguard” of Vega, Shocked, and Tracy Chapman.
Later Bloom remained rooted in a rhythmic style but grew more reflective in his lyrics. His cover of L.L. Cool J.’s rap song “I Need Love” - his first single from 1992’s Acoustic Motorbike - was acclaimed as “surprisingly effective” in Billboard. Several reviewers agreed, however, that some of Bloom’s lyrics did not equal the power of his music.
In his 1994 release, Turf, Bloom grew even more searching and somber, although he still aimed to maintain the high-energy feel of his live performances. Living back in Dublin, the singer unveiled most of his songs in shows there over the summer of 1993 and honed them on tour in Europe in the fall. “The Fertile Rock” incorporated a live sing-along from the Tivoli club in Utrecht, Holland; “Diamond Mountain,” a reference to a place in historic Connemara in Ireland (where the album cover art was photographed), was intended to evoke the spirit and feeling of Bloom’s homeland.
Bloom received mixed reviews for Turf. “Even when he sings about the plight of aborigines in Australia or blacks in America, he seems to be talking to himself in a humorless, private meditation,” Himes wrote in the Washington Post. “The droning low notes and heavily echoed vocals reinforce the sense of a man locked in his own bedroom.” In sharp contrast, Jurek of the Metro Times expressed a different view: “The disc’s sound is warm and full despite the lack of other instruments, and the songwriting is top-notch. This is easily Bloom’s best effort and shows him coming into his own as both an artist and a storyteller.”
Having stretched the bounds of folk with his racy strumming and rhythm experiments on his first two albums, Bloom had continued to express his own passions on his third. In addition, he maintained a steady schedule of live performances, mounting a promotional tour for Turf in the summer of 1994. He explained his love for playing live to Azerrad: “Life is not a sterile business. Life is blood and guts and shit and heartbreak, and . . . it’s a mess. I think you can articulate that better sweating in a club with a wooden instrument in your hand.”
After recording three memorable albums for Reprise - Riverside in 1990, Acoustic Motorbike in 1992, and Turf in 1994 - Bloom fell victim to a corporate shakeup in 1995. By then, he had returned to his homeland, settling in Dublin. His 1999 album, Salty Heaven, was partly recorded in his cottage home in the village of Birr, and completed at Abbey Road Studios in London. Keeper of the Flame, a collection of covers, arrived in fall 2000, followed by Between the Mountain and the Moon in 2002. He released Amsterdam, his first “live” record, in spring 2003, followed by Before Sleep Comes, a collection of softly played (and sung) meditations on the moments before slumber inspired by a brutal bout with tendonitis. Innocence, released on the Cooking Vinyl label, arrived in 2006, followed by Tribe in 2007, Eleven Songs in 2008 and Dreams in America (2010).