Sunday
Jun252017

Cast Of 'Nashville' Live @ The 3 Arena, Dublin - 19th June 2017

 

Almost one year to the day since the popular tv series Nashville rolled into Dublin to play a live concert of hits from the show and more. The cast who make the trip are pretty much the same as last year with Charles Esten (Deacon Claybourne), Sam Palladio (Gunnar Scott), Chris Carmack (Will Lexington), Clare Bowen (Scarlett O’Connor), Jonathan Jackson (Avery Barkley) along with others.

A number of the songs played tonight as part of the set list are repeats from the show last year, but this is not a criticism per se, as the material stands up very well and deserves a repeated listen. Each performer takes the stage in a solo capacity for a few songs before being joined by another of the principal actors, either to sing together or to take over for the next section of the show.

This diversity creates an interesting variety and adds to the overall atmosphere, with each performer staying only long enough to achieve maximum reaction from the audience before handing over the microphone to the next in line. Each of the main characters is so comfortable with live musical performance that one has to wonder which talent came first – the acting or the music?

The first half of the show contains 13 songs that are all played with great energy and commitment. The backing band of 5 musicians includes the talents of Fats Kaplin and Colin Linden.

Jonathan Jackson steals the show with two passionate deliveries; Love Rescue Me and Unchained Melody. His voice is pure and strong and his timing in delivery is everything to move the appreciative crowd into a standing ovation.

Chris Camack is very personable and a really fine guitar player as his various performances prove. His blues playing on Texas Flood (Stevie Ray Vaughan) is quite superb, as is his delivery of favourites What If I Was Willin’ and Pieces of You (despite forgetting the words, for a verse…)!

The early part of the show is dogged by poor sound as Buckle Up, with Charles Esten, suffers from microphone problems on the vocals and later, Jonathan Jackson is drowned out by an overly loud backline and keys delivery on Keep Asking Why. These are really just small observations as the entire performance over 2 hours plus is one of celebration and positive energy as Clare Bowen implores the die-hard fans to celebrate the light and not dwell in the darkness of all that is weighing us down in these uncertain times.

Indeed, she is a sensitive flower who flits across the stage in her faerie dress and later completes the outfit by adding wings...! Her voice is beautiful and on her performance of Fade Into You with Sam Palladio, you could hear a pin drop. Equally, when she sings with Brandon Young on Longer she really takes control before following with Little By Little, a new song that acknowledges a positive attitude to living. Later in the show Clare kills it once again with great versions of When The Right One Comes Along and Black Roses.

Sam Pallidio plays his excellent song, Wake Me Up In Nashville which is a big favourite from last year and the story behind the song is one to break many hearts. He also puts in a stellar performance with guest singer Una Healy on their co-written single, Stay My Love.  He also turns in another fine performance on I Will Fall, with Jonathan Jackson on piano and then, with Chris Camack on the hard rockin’ Headed For The Fire.

The audience are surprised by a visit from the artists with Charles Esten and Clare Bowen performing You’ve Got A Hand To Hold on the floor of the arena and later, when Chris Camack and Clare Bowen return to the audience to dance and pose for photos during Stand Up which speaks of love, unity & strength.

The finale features the ever-popular Charles Esten who performs Everything To Me and He Ain’t Me before the entire cast take the stage for a rousing version of David Bowie’s song Heroes. One More Song follows and then a rendition of Danny Boy which blends into the show-stopping A Life That’s Good.

There is no doubting the sincerity of the performance or the earnest comments of the main performers and the crowd love every minute. This show is so popular here and the performers have every right to make the crowd feel special as they face a return to reality and the working day. Tonight brought many smiles to numerous faces and after all, isn’t that what entertainment is really all about? 

Review by Paul McGee with photography by Ronnie Norton

Sunday
Jun182017

Jackson Browne @ Vicar Street, June 2017

"Legend" is a word that gets misused regularly in connection with artists who have spent relatively little time basking in the midday sun of the media glare. Not the case when you consider Jackson Browne and his expansive career that has covered 5 decades of musical highs in tandem with his ideals and involvement in conservationist and political activities. Arriving back in Ireland after an absence of 7 years, he thanks the capacity crowd for making him feel so welcome on his return, together with his band of sublime players who have travelled for this sold out 4-night residency at the always impressive Vicar Street venue.

We are looking at musicians with massive experience and consummate talents and a backing singer that can lift the song arrangements to a new height when she is given flight. Accompanying Jackson are long-time bandmates Val McCallum (guitar), Mauricio Lewak (Drums), Jeff Young (keyboards), Bob Glaub (bass), Alethea Mills (Vocals) and the acclaimed multi-instrumentalist Greg Leisz (guitar, lap steel, pedal steel). In a word, stunning.

Night One: The first night is laced with songs that please everyone, young and old, with a first set taken mainly from more recent releases and the second set focused on old favourites. Jackson is in great spirits and communicates with ease between songs as he responds to audience requests. He has a keen sense of humour and the little boy still shines brightly from his eyes as he recalls stories from his past and explains the origins of songs played. There were 21 songs in total, including the cover song Walls & Doors (Carlos Varela), A Child In These Hills, I’ll Do Anything, Fountain Of Sorrow and a nightly encore of Take It Easy, the song that in some ways started his career all those years ago in 1970’s California

The seasoned touch brought to each song is just a joy to witness as the band play off each other in a knowing fashion that brings smiles all around. Twin guitarists Leisz and McCallum really shine when colouring the arrangements with dextrous solos and subtle touches while the inventive paying of Glaub & Lewak propel everything along with a rhythm and groove that is really impressive. Jeff Young adds rich keyboard swells in addition to providing high harmonies with Jackson on most songs. Jackson is singing really well and his performance on Late For The Sky is one of the best I have witnessed over the years of seeing him play live.

Night Two: We are treated to another set of 21 songs but on this occasion, there are 9 changes to the previous night, many as a result of audience requests. If anything, he runs the risk of letting the audience dictate too much and his changing mood to the numerous requests can lead to a few moments of confusion among the band members. In the main however he pulls it all off with consummate ease; after all, he is playing to a ‘home crowd’ and can do no wrong! My Stunning Mystery Companion, Something Fine, Our Lady Of The Well, Farther On and Lawyers, Guns & Money (Warren Zevon) all get a rousing reaction.

Sky Blue & Black is a real show stopper tonight and the reggae lilt of the Little Steven song I Am A Patriot has everyone wishing for a more rock driven direction with up-tempo material. As Jackson says there are moments when he can sense a crowd thinking "enough of this sensitive shit"…

When it comes to nailing the personal with a universal perspective then nobody comes close; he just hones his craft to produce beautiful words that mirror our own experience in the continuous struggle to walk this road of life with Everyman.

Night Three: Tonight 20 songs are performed and although there will be many cross-overs from the basic set there is still room for new renditions with 5 songs not played on previous nights. There is a particularly poignant tribute to his old friend Valerie Carter who passed away recently with the inclusion of Love Needs A Heart and That Girl Could Sing bringing a touchingly strong performance from all involved. Each night has seen Just Say Yeah and Long Way Around open the show and Doctor My Eyes, Your Bright Baby Blues, Boulevard and Somebody’s Baby are also ever-presents. The somewhat dubious pairing of Rosie and Red Neck Friend as back-to-back songs leave some in the audience smiling with a wry resignation, but the joy of hearing Barricades Of Heaven, Sky Blue and Black, Shape Of A Heart and Running On Empty all played in succession, as the performance built to its climax, more than made up for any dip in tempo previously.

Night Four: And those of us who have been ever-present are in the end stages of conflicting emotions as this richly indulgent experience winds down and we say goodbye to one of the icons in defining the musical map of so many who have been touched by his muse for so many years. Tonight sees 18 songs performed as the second set is shortened due to pressure in catching a ferry to England for the next part of the tour. This is a disappointment to the vociferous crowd who are, by a distance, the most noisy and boisterous of the four nights – uncomfortably so to many who paid good money to listen to the artist himself and not the inane conversations of those who repeatedly try to shout/talk above the songs…

Call It A Loan, The Pretender, For Everyman and I’m Alive are all played with power and majesty while Before The Deluge moves everyone to sing along with a special feeling of unison. A cover version of the Warren Zevon song Carmelita is a very welcome surprise as the set winds down.

The great song traveller is someone that Jackson referred to on his debut album and spoke about how his eyes were opened to the view. Well, he has become that very same great song traveller and has graced us with his humanism and empathetic perspective on our journey through this mortal coil.

He has been the ‘older brother’ for a generation of youth growing into maturity in the 1970’s; verbalising our doubts and fears as we matured into adulthood. Younger fans may see him as a knowing uncle who dispenses sage advice and wisdom. His more strident days of taking overt political stances during the show seem to be behind him now and we are seeing a more circumspect performer who wants to let his beautiful melodies and words do all his talking.

We can look back to realise that he is indeed the muse for so many lives that have followed his path of striving to care for our fellow man and trying to do the right thing by the planet we live upon.

It was a privilege!

Note: For those who want to see the full set lists on each evening, go to www.setist.fm where you will be rewarded!

Review: Paul McGee

Photography: Vincent Lennon & Paul McGee 

Thursday
Jun152017

Static Roots Festival @ Oberhausen, Germany 9th/10th June 2017

Oberhausen is the location for The Static Roots Music Festival, being held for the second year in succession and is based on the river Emscher in the Ruhr area of Germany. It is a twenty-minute train journey from Dusseldorf and the town has a population of 210,000 people.

The festival promoter is Dietmar Leibecke who has been a regular attendee at The Kilkenny Roots Festival and now a popular member of the Kilkenny Roots Community. It therefore came as no surprise that many of the festival visitors were musical loving acquaintances of his; having flown from Dublin and various U.K. destinations to attend the festival.

The chosen venue was Zentrum Alterberg in Oberhausen. Constructed in 1853 the building is one of the oldest metal processing factories in Oberhausen and functioned as a zinc manufacturing facility until 1981. In its current life the facility is used to host cabaret, cinema, private parties and music events. Perfectly sized to cater for this particular festival the building also has the advantage of an external area, tree lined and semi seated, for punters and artists to mingle plus get some fresh air and refreshments between acts.

The success of any festival is all about knowing your audience when considering your line up and in this regard Static Roots got the mix absolutely spot on. With the large contingent of visitors travelling from Ireland and the U.K., a number of the carefully selected acts invited to play were guaranteed to hit the spot and the inclusion of one of Germany’s top roots bands and a few possibly less known but well researched artists worked an absolute treat. However, acts alone don’t guarantee a bonanza and the organisers had the foresight to engage Winnipeg radio presenter Jeff Robson as master of ceremonies. His knowledge of the artists and school masterly yet diplomatic introductions were an added bonus, ensuring that patrons were whisked indoors as the artists were about to take the stage which resulted in the acts performing to respectful and attentive crowds.

In addition, the sound engineer, although having limited time for sound checks, seemed to get the sound right for all the acts and an impressive stage lighting and perfectly sized music room all contributed to a hassle free and most comfortable two days of festivities. The torrential rain that fell on Friday morning and early afternoon also conveniently stopped a few hours before the festival opened on Friday evening and gave way to some glorious sunshine that evening and all throughout the following day.

So, what about the acts.  Friday evening saw David Corley, playing for the first time in Germany, open the festival having completed a quite extensive tour of Ireland over the previous two weeks. Accompanied throughout the tour by his trusted stage mate and producer Chris Brown, the U.S.  singer songwriter had availed of the services of some seasoned local musicians on his dates in Ireland. Joining him on stage at Static Roots were Brian Hassett (bass) and Cian Heffernan (drums), who both also featured later in their day jobs as members of John Blek & The Rats. Playing a selection of material from his breakthrough debut 2015 album Available Light and his most recent release Zero Moon, Corley’s mixture of upbeat and more often downbeat tales of struggle, agony and rehabilitation was the perfect start to the festival. Sharing guitar and keyboard with Chris Brown, particular highlights were the title track of his latest album Zero Moon and the six minute plus epic Desert Mission also from the same album. Gregor Beresford (Barenaked Ladies, The Bourbon Tabernacle), who played on all Corley’s studio work, took over drumming duties for a couple of songs and favourites such as Available Light and The Calm Revolution were also included in a perfect start to the evening.

 Visitors to Lonesome Highway will be quite aware of this writer's regard for the following act, Peter Bruntnell. His appearances at the Kilkenny Roots Festival (playing four times over that weekend) with his trusted band were memorable and expectations were understandably high for a repeat performance at Static Roots.  Bruntnell and his band (Dave Little, Peter Noone, Mike Clews) are perfectly suited to a large stage and they delivered a faultless set, rocking out to the maximum on Peak Operational Condition, Yuri Gagarin, Where The Snakes Hang Out and Mr.Sunshine from his 2016 classic album Nos Da Comrade and finishing their blistering set with favourites Have You Seen That Girl Again and By The Time My Head Gets To Phoenix.

John Blek and The Rats appearance was one of nine dates scheduled for their latest tour of Germany. They have established a loyal following in Germany in recent few years and well deserved on the basis of their closing slot. Concentrating on much of the material from their album Borders, their stage act is polished, visually striking, technically impressive both in the quality of the playing by The Rats and their ability to provide strong harmonies to charismatic lead man John Blek’s vocals. Funeral Home, Dead Friends and Dance With The Devil, all particularly strong songs on the album, seemed to even step up a gear into overdrive in their live show.

Starting musical proceedings early Saturday afternoon was Beirut born UK resident Nadine Khouri. Joined on stage by a stunning young violin player from Poland named Basia Bartz and slick drummer Jake Long, her style visited dark places often inhabited by P.J.Harvey and Angel Olson, yet at times her sound also brought to mind the more haunting offerings of Jesse Sykes. Playing material from her recent album The Salted Air the singular stand out delivery was Shake It Like a Shaman with its driven, almost robotic, rhythm. Particularly impressive was the dazzling violin work by Bartz who at one stage, while giving the impression of playing with her teeth Hendrix style, somehow managed to deliver a haunting string sound vocally manipulated, not exactly sure how, but wonderfully atmospheric.  Finishing her set with "one more sad song" Khouri played the Leonard Cohen classic Bird On A Wire.

Canadian singer songwriter Jack Marks has been recording for almost ten years now. Very much the travelling troubadour type artist with an exceptional ability to create landscapes and mental images with a minimal few words. His story telling delivery is very much in the same vein as John Prine to the extent that on certain songs you’d be forgiven for assuming they were Prine covers. Playing as a three piece with Alistair Christi on bass and his wife Leslie-Ann on stand-up drums, you could actually sense the audience straining to catch his every singing word from opener Hardware Store to his closing song Greasy Maggie.  Including Heartbreak, Used To Be An Outlaw, and Isabelle from his most recent album Wicked Moon, he was the perfect mid-afternoon entertainer and you could literally hear a pin drop throughout his set.

Erin Rae and the Meanwhiles was an act that I was particularly looking forward to, having seen the young Nashville resident appear briefly at a Margo Price interview show with NPR in Nashville last September. Her debut album Soon Enough made quite an impression on Lonesome Highway last year featuring in a number of our end of year best lists. Playing the first date of her European tour she was accompanied on guitar by Jerry Bernhardt and Dominic Billett on drums and occasional keyboards (both of who played in Andrews Combs Band at Kilkenny Roots), each also adding delightful harmonies. Rae excelled with a set that included Minolta, Pretty Thing (inspired by her childhood obsession of all things relating to the Great Depression), Soon Enough and Clean Slate from her album, together with Playing Old Games, released as a single by Clubhouse records in the U.K. last year. Apologising for having to retune her old trusted acoustic guitar (a 1970’s model given to her by her father), she also introduced some material from her forthcoming album to be released over the next twelve months, Goodnight Sorry For Coming being particularly impressive. The combination of Rae’s exquisite breezy vocals and the flawless playing of her band was bordering on the hypnotic by times and you got a most definite sense from the manner in which her set was received that Rae is a young lady with the songs, vocals and stage presence to make quite a name for herself. Simply divine.

The only act to perform solo at the festival was Kent born artist David Ford. His early musical path began with Indie band Easyworld and his solo career has seen him support Elvis Costello, KT Tunstall and Suzanne Vega. Unfortunately, I was only able to catch the last few songs of his set but strong vocals and confident stage presence were obvious and he certainly made his mark judging by the reception he received when finishing his show.

German band Torpus & The Art Directors were a totally unknown quantity for me prior to the festival but most certainly left a lasting impression after their action packed, high energy and full on set. With immediate comparisons to Wilco coming to mind – and what’s wrong with that – band leader Sonke Torpus had both locals and visitors eating out of his hands from the word go. Comparisons with Arcade Fire had been offered by people familiar with their sound prior to them taking the stage, which accurately described their delivery and energy, though personally I found their sound more Americana than Indie and none the worse for that. Their set featured material from their latest album The Dawn Chorus, well worth checking out on the strength of their live performance.

A more suitable act could hardly have been lined up to close the festival than Danny and the Champions of the World.  With possibly half the attendance being Champs devotees it was always going to be a celebration and more akin to a hometown gig than an away fixture. In football jargon if away goals counted double the result was sealed after only a few songs into their set. Transforming the venue effectively to a dance floor, the band gave the impression of enjoying themselves in equal measure to ourselves. Fast being acknowledged as The Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes of the Euro circuit they rattled out crowd pleasers effortlessly with their customary good humour, high octane delivery, exquisite guitar, bass, keyboards and pedal steel playing with the occasional ripping sax solo and Danny Wilson’s sweet soulful vocals. Gotta Get Things Right, Clear Water, Thinking About My Friend, Just Be Yourself, (Never Stop Building) That Old Space Rocket, Stay True all had the venue hopping before they slowed things down with the sing along encore of Henry The Van that sent a buzzing and sweat soaked audience out the doors smiling from ear to ear.

All in all, an enthralling action packed and fun festival with opportunities to renew old acquaintances, meet new like-minded music lovers and mingle with the artists in a friendly hassle-free environment. Thumbs up to all at Static Roots for managing to create, in only their second hosting, a boutique festival that seemed more like a private party from start to finish!

Review and photography by Declan Culliton

Tuesday
Jun062017

MerleFest 2017

Merlefest is consistently named in Top 10 lists when it comes to roots music events in the US, and I was lucky enough, after several years absence, to pay a return visit to the festival, which was celebrating its thirty year anniversary.

The festival started in 1988 as a one off tribute to Doc Watson’s son Merle, who had been tragically killed in a tractor accident. Those veterans from the first festival still tell stories about playing on the back of a flat bed truck. That first event was such a success that it has been developed over the years to where it now welcomes almost 100,000 attendees over four days. Wilkes Community College (nestling in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in southern Appalachia) continues to be the festival location, and the college benefits financially from the event. 

The music encompasses what Doc described as ‘traditional plus’ – anything from bluegrass, old time, folk, blues, rock and beyond. Merlefest prides itself as being a family friendly event, and therefore alcohol and drugs are not allowed on campus. Those who struggle with this policy will be  relieved to know that you can indulge in your choice of poison once you get outside the grounds! I did find this policy somewhat restrictive initially, but I have to acknowledge that the atmosphere throughout the huge festival campus is the safest and most welcoming that I have experienced anywhere. 

Day One (at last):

This is the easiest day to negotiate because there are only three stages in operation.

Jack Lawrence is revered by the festival regulars, being Doc Watson’s side man for most of the years after Merle’s passing, but also recognised as a solo performer in his own right. Therefore it was only fitting that he was one of the artists to open the proceedings on the Cabin Stage. He is one of the smoothest finger pickers out there, and is no mean singer either. He invited his son Adam to guest with him again this year - I predict we’ll be hearing more from this young man.

Mountain Heart then played a set on the adjacent (permanent) Watson Main Stage. While they are technically proficient, I felt they were somewhat lacking in soul - I wonder if this could be because they don’t feature a banjo?!

The same could never be said of the Del McCoury Band, who unfortunately only had one set here this year. What an incredible performance they put on! What other band do you know that has the confidence to ask for and fulfil requests from their huge back catalogue while they’re in the middle of their set? 

They’re one of the hardest working bands in bluegrass, despite Del’s 78 years. He shows no sign of slowing down, luckily. I was pleased to note that Ronnie is developing a singing voice that is almost as good as his father’s. Del continues to sing tragic songs with that big smile on his face – he can’t help himself because he’s clearly enjoying himself so much.

Next up were a North Carolina duo that are by now quite familiar to European and especially Irish audiences – Mandolin Orange. However, this time Andrew and Emily were joined by their full band – drums, bass and electric guitar. Any fears I had that they might have lost their essence with these additions were completely allayed from the opening song. Still gorgeously restrained, their three part harmonies were exquisite. They amazingly had lost none of that musical intimacy that is one of their hallmarks. An all original set, including some old timey instrumentals, was finished with the achingly beautiful ‘Take This Heart Of Gold’ from their most recent album, Blind Faller, with Emily swapping over to electric guitar.

The night was closed out by the ever popular local boys, The Avetts. The boys grew up on gospel music, Merlefest and Doc Watson. Their father Jim (of whom more anon) is a well known local gospel singer, and is rightly proud of Scott and Seth’s huge success. I remember seeing them for the first time at my first Merlefest in 2003, and shaking my head as I walked past the screaming fans and wondering what the all fuss was about. Over the intervening years, though, I have to admit that I’ve come around to liking them as they evolved into the supergroup that they are now. They played a two hour set to round off the night – to be honest, I feel they could have condensed it down to a sublime one hour set – but the crowd loved it all! 

Day Two:

There are two major hurdles to negotiate today – the unseasonal heat and humidity AND the dilemma of trying to see everything! There are 13 stages of music so it is impossible to see all the acts, however most of the acts play several sets over the course of the festival, so I got to see everyone I really wanted to.

The joy of Merlefest though is that you can find yourself stumbling across a performer or band or collaboration that are new to you and you get so carried away that it throws your well planned schedule!

My morning began with excellent sets from The Stray Birds and Peter Rowan. Sierra Hull then took to the main stage. Having grown up at Merlefest (I remember seeing her here as a child prodigy not so many years ago) and being one of the best mandolin players on the scene, Sierra has taken her music down a more avant garde route. She played much of her set on electric mandolin, accompanied by an upright bass, and while I admire her musicianship, I’m not sure about the musical route she has taken.

I trotted up the hill to the indoor Walker Centre theatre which was jammed for the Merlefest Veterans set led by Jack Lawrence. He was joined this time by old friends Sam Bush, Peter Rowan, percussionist Pat McInerney and banjoist Scott Vestal. The craic was mighty - these maestros have played together in various combinations since they were in their teens.

Next it’s back to the outdoor natural amphitheatre that is the Hillside stage, where I meet up with Richard Hurst of the Ulster-American Folk Park. We enjoyed a fabulous set from another NC band that is well known to Irish audiences – Chatham County Line. As always, the sound quality at all the Merlefest stages (indoord and out) is world class, with smooth swift changeovers and nothing ever running late.

We stayed put at that stage to see Sam Bush joining another supergroup (who has also played Richard’s Omagh bluegrass festival) the Steep Canyon Rangers. Still with the same line up as when they started out , they have lost none of their energy, and were joined for their set by mandolinist and fiddle player extraordinaire, Sam Bush. Sam was everywhere today – equalling Jim Lauderdale’s notoriety for playing with everyone on every stage at this festival!

The excitement had been building all day for the next performance – the first time the Transatlantic Sessions Tour had played outside of Britain & Ireland. This coming together of some of the best Scottish/Irish/English/American roots musicians began as a tv series in 1995, and plays every year at Celtic Connections Festival in Glasgow. The audience loved it – the headlining artist was another NC native, Mr James Taylor. Also featured were Maura O’Connell, the wonderful Sarah Jarosz, and Declan O’Rourke, whose particular brand of Irish banter went down a storm with the audience.

After chairman Jim Lauderdale announced the winners of the prestigious Chris Austin Songwriting Contest (former winners have included then unknowns such as Gillian Welch & Tift Merritt) it was back to the main stage for an even more electrifying set from Steep Canyon Rangers.  

Weary though I was, I left the closing set from jam band Leftover Salmon and hot footed it to the Dance Tent for an unusual but stunning offering from Chatham County Line – this recent side project (Electric Holiday) allows them to indulge their more punk/rock origins and they used their vintage electric instruments to wow the full and reverberating dance tent to full effect! Definitely a festival highlight for me.

Day Three:

I hit the festival main stage bright and early for our own I Draw Slow. Now signed to Alison and Garry Brown’s Nashville based Compass record label, the band have been building a steady fan base by having already played several times Stateside. It was heartening to see the welcoming reception they received from an audience who were quite clearly fans, and I’d say they gained many more with their performance today.

Another favourite with Irish audiences and also a NC native, Tift Merritt (with baby backstage) gave her usual spirited performance, accompanied only by Eric Heywood on pedal steel.

I braved the heat to see the traditionalist supergroup the Earls of Leicester on the American stage, and then fought/climbed my way up the thronged Hillside stage to eventually find a place on the grass to see the Avetts start their Songs of Doc set. The intense heat and humidity drove me indoors to the welcome air conditioning of the Walker Theatre again. There I enjoyed a superb showcase from Irish folk guitar maestro John Doyle (why is he not better known in his native country?) at the Compass showcase. He then brought on his guests Mike McGoldrick and John McCusker who got a chance to wow the packed theatre with their traditional Irish/Scottish chops.

Next it was over to the outdoor Creekside stage for another of the festival’s beloved features - Tony Williamson’s Mandomania. Tony is another Merlefest veteran – a mandolin historian as well as a phenomenal player (he has also played the Omagh bluegrass festival, along with Jack Lawrence, in the recent past). Tony curates this unique offering every year – he brings together well established players like Sam Bush etc and always manages to find one or two of the next generation of players and gives them the opportunity to play with their idols, probably for the first time. The Merlefest audience loves this event, and it is always standing room only. Tony remembers inviting a relatively unknown Californian boy called Chris Thile to play Mandomania – since then they have become good friends. This year the star lineup includes the ubiquitous Sam Bush, Sierra Hull, Darn Aldridge, along with relative newcomers Casey Campbell and Tommy Norris.

The Reunion Jam on the Main stage was fun as well as seriously impressive musically. It brought together the geniuses that are Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Mark Schatz and Bryan Sutton. Much hilarity ensued, culminating in the very rare event of Bela Fleck singing a song (I kid you not)! I returned to the Creekside briefly to catch the end of Peter Rowan’s set, this time with a fuller lineup which included old friend Jack Lawrence.

One of the festivals’ annual highlights was next, and the Hillside was now dangerously packed with thousands of punters all anxiously anticipating the best kept secret of the weekend – the Hillside Album Hour. Every year, Californian band the Waybacks plot and plan the performance of a classic rock or pop album. They drop cryptic hints on social media in the run up, but mostly no one manages to guess until they hear the first chords. Usual host Jim Lauderdale introduced the band along with special guests. The main vocalist this year was Celia Woodsmith of the now disbanded Della Mae. From the minute she opened her mouth we were blown away by this soul powerhouse – certainly she was a revelation to me. And the album featured was … Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. One of the surprise guests was mandolinist Tony Williamson, who featured on When I’m 64 – because he was about to celebrate his 64th birthday! Other guests included Jens Kruger and Sam Bush.

I caught the end of Bela Fleck’s solo set on the Americana stage.

Next highlight was the Guitar Jam hosted by Jack Lawrence. This was a joy for finger picking fans – joining Jack were Bryan Sutton, Stephen Mougin, Tommy Edwards and Steve Lewis.

The indefatigable and hugely popular Sam Bush then took to the mainstage for his powerhouse of a set with his full band.

I’m afraid this reporters little legs were beginning to fade after the day’s intense heat and humidity, and I was barely able to stay awake after Jorma Kaukonen’s lovely set on the Cabin Stage.

I wandered back to my motel with the sounds of  Donna The Buffalo’s jam to accompany me home, but not before I popped in to the Dance Stage to see I Draw Slow playing a blinder to the still eager dancers.

Day Four:

Sunday came all too soon. I was up in time to get to the Creekside stage to see The Gospel Hour with Jim Avett. Jim had already told me about the gospel album he’s been recording with son Seth on production duties. Apparently Seth is a stickler of a producer (according to his proud father!)  but it seems like they might have recorded a cracker. 

The boys and bassist Bob Crawford joined Jim and his daughter Bonnie on stage to complete a pleasant set of traditional gospel songs. 

Mipso took over the Hillside next for an interesting set, which included a nice version of Guy Clark’s Dublin Blues, a tribute to the master songwriter who we lost during the year. Mipso are being touted as the “next big thing” to come out of the Chapel Hill thriving music scene – definitly ones to watch.

Jim Lauderdale played a short set on the Cabin stage, with Tony Williamson as guest. 

Next up was the band that I had been most eagerly awaiting – and they didn’t disappoint – Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives. 

My words cannot do justice to the living legends that comprise this combo, fronted by the most amazing of them all. They fuse the best of rock and roll, country, rockabilly, gospel, bluegrass, soul and blues into an indefinable thing of beauty. Not even the intrusive arrival of Zac Brown’s helicopter over the trees was able to throw them off their stride.

The day ended with the aforementioned Zac Brown (another NC native) who took to the Main stage with four band memebers for an acoustic set. 

All in all, another successful Merlefest had concluded. 

If you ever get the chance to attend, I can highly recommend it, but it takes some logistical preplanning. Acommodation is booked up a year in advance by regulars. Probably camping is the cheapest option if you can organise that. Alternatively, you can hire a house/cabin locally, but a car is then essential. 

Nearest airports are Charlotte or Raleigh-Durham, all of which necessitate car hire also.

Worth putting on that bucket list though!

Review and photography by Eilís Boland

Monday
Jun052017

Aoife O’Donovan @ Whelans, 27th May 2017

"Thanks so much for choosing to come to see me rather than Guns ’N’ Roses at Slane Castle" jokes Aoife O’Donovan midway through her ninety-minute set at Whelan’s, a welcomed return to the Dublin venue for the Irish-American artist. 

Having grandparents residing in Ireland resulted in the Massachusetts born singer songwriter spending many childhood vacations in Co. Cork, with memories that inspired much of the material on her last studio album The Magic Hour. Fortunately, visits from her are still a regular occurrence dating back to her earlier career days as a member of Crooked Still and with Sarah Jarosz and Sara Watkins as part of the trio I’m With Her. She has also toured Ireland solo on occasions and opened the tour for her last album at The Button Factory in January 2016 accompanied by Anthony da Costa and Steve Nister on that occasion.

Tonight’s appearance, the final night of a two-week tour of Europe, features O’Donovan on stage with only her guitar, beaming smile, infectious personality and captivating collection of songs. Starting her set with three songs in quick succession, Hornets and Magic Hour from her current studio album and Red & White & Blue & Gold from her debut album Fossils, her ability to confidently work the room is impressive from the word go with eye contact and banter going a long way to create a ‘house concert’ type atmosphere. Her setlist includes material from her solo work, a snippet of Crooked Still and a number very well selected cover versions which all combine for an intoxicating evenings entertainment.

"Two weeks on tour and I arrive in Dublin on the only rainy day you’ve had in weeks’ she despairs adding that she is reminded of rainy summer days in Lahinch and crushes on the local lifeguards in a former life.

With quite a number of her relations from both Cork and Dublin in the audience she fittingly dedicates Stanley Park to her cousin who is emigrating to Vancouver, whose city park is the inspiration for the song. Suggesting she goes further south to Louisiana for her next song she follows by performing the Paul Brady associated song (which has origins rooted in the 19th century) Lakes of Pontchartrain, a ballad very often included in her shows.

Crooked Still, though primarily notable for their progressive bluegrass leanings, were more than capable of getting dark and spooky with O’Donovan’s vocal well suited to the occasional murder ballad. The inclusion of the folk standard Pretty Polly in the set is more than a reminder of this.

Steve Winwood/Blind Faith’s Can’t Find My Way Home is described as one of her favourite songs and works exceptionally well, a pleasant surprise and a song immediately recognised by members of the crowd of a certain age. Joanna Newsome’s Good Intentions, written some forty years after the Winwood song, also gets a beautiful makeover and fits seamlessly well in the set. Detour, the title track of her recent live album comes next with obvious crowd favourites Lay My Burden Down and Oh Mama concluding her set. 

Her encore, which she names her ‘before The Whelan’s disco song’ is her take on the Bob Dylan written Soon After Midnight, a fitting birthday tribute to the great man.

O’ Donovan never fails to put her heart and soul in to her performances whether solo, with a band or part of another musical diversion. Tonight was no exception and as always she is at the front of the stage in jig time meeting, greeting, signing and chatting with punters and relatives.

A well-deserved mention must also go to Ciaran Lavery who opened the evening in style with a set that included material from his current album Let Bad In. Lavery has been making quite an impression in the past eighteen months both at home but particularly in the States where his was invited by Willie Nelson to play at his BBQ at Luck Ranch in Texas. He has also recently been asked to perform this September at the prestigious Americana Music Association Festival in Nashville, an indication in itself of the potential for the young singer songwriter from Aghagallon Co. Armagh.

Review and photograph by Declan Culliton