Kathy Mattea @ St Patrick’s Cathedral, Tradfest - 25th January 2019

It has been quite some time since renowned Country artist Kathy Mattea played a concert in Ireland. She has been a celebrated and established singer since the 1980’s when the first of her, now fifteen, releases arrived on the music scene. This Tradfest venue is something that she enjoyed fully, revealing that her inner voice kept reminding her “you’re playing in an 800 - year old Church”.  It is indeed a regal setting where you can feel the ghosts of centuries past in the cold air and dancing in the muted lighting that washes across the magnificent ceiling and walls...

Bill Cooley has been Kathy’s musical companion for 29 years now and his understated and dextrous playing  on acoustic guitars tonight is quite a treat to witness live. He is the most fluent of players and has a creativity that enhances each song with harmony lines and solo runs that never repeat across the 16-song set that lasts for 90 minutes. He plays with an economy that always serves the song and Kathy also plays guitar across much of the set. She shows that she is no slouch when it comes to rhythmic accompaniment and her strong playing allows Bill to take flight into his creative colouring of the song arrangements. The sound is excellent, given that the instrumentation is quite sparse and it says a lot that the numbers do not suffer greatly from the lack of a band to add more texture to the arrangements.

It has been 6 years since the last album release but the arrival of Pretty Bird in late 2018 signals a welcome return and Kathy performs 6 tracks from the album. Of these, the sublime guitar playing of Bill Cooley is really highlighted on the traditional Irish Folk song, She Moved Through The Fair. The song title has been turned into ‘He’ for dramatic effect, in what was a haunting and poignant performance from both musicians. The other songs from the latest release were; Ode to Billie Joe (Bobbie Gentry), Chocolate On My Tongue (Oliver Wood), This Love Will Carry (Dougie MacLean), Holy Now (Peter Mayer) and Mercy Now (Mary Gauthier). It is the performance of the latter song that really captures the spirit of the night and her superb delivery is a call to focus on the kindness of our natures in such troubled times. A song for these days of fear and uncertainty indeed.

The set list tonight also included Evenin’ (Mitchell Parish, Harry White), 455 Rocket (Gillian Welch, David Rawlings) and some old hits such as Ready For The Storm (Dougie MacLean), Goin' Gone (Pat Alger, Bill Dale, Fred Koller), Love At The Five And Dime (Nanci Griffith), Untold Stories (Tim O'Brien), Eighteen Wheels And A Dozen Roses (Gene Nelson, Paul Nelson) and Come From the Heart (Don Williams. 

Mattea provides an eclectic mix of styles with a little folk, bluegrass and gospel influences mixed with her interest in Celtic ballads. Having just played at Celtic Connections in Scotland, she speaks of her previous appearance on the original Transatlantic Sessions from 1995. Her stage presence is very confident and assured, showing an easy conversational style between songs with lots of stories about her career and the specific songs she chooses to record. She speaks about being a steward of these songs and says that one of the benefits is being able to bring new songs to people who have never heard them before.

She also reflects on growing up in the music business at a time when you didn’t have a studio in your phone; when a record deal was everything as you needed lots of money to go into a studio. She also speaks about the voice problems she experienced in recent years and the need to attend a vocal coach to help her find her new voice and be able to sing again. If she is singing a register lower than before, then what of it; the skill in song selection at any age is always the key and Kathy remains one of the best interpretive singers of her generation with an intimacy in her delivery which convinces the listener at every turn. 

Indeed, she speaks of her process and technique and of sometimes “having to find your way into a song” and how sometimes this can happen when she is not trying too hard to carry this off. 

Her husband, songwriter Jon Vezner, co-wrote with Don Henry what is considered by many, including Kathy herself, to be her signature tune; Where Have You Been? This is performed with subtle tones by Bill Cooley on guitar, perfectly capturing the moving sentiment of the song. Another number, Mary Did You Know? (Green, Lowry) is sung as a Christmas song but it feels just perfect in this setting.

It proved to be a warm night of song, with some great highlights and the audience were very enthusiastic in their appreciation of this superb artist and her richly talented sideman.

Review by Paul McGee   Photograph by Vincent Lennon


Seamus Fogarty @ The Harbour Bar, Bray - 23rd January 2019

On his first visit to Bray, Seamus Fogarty accompanied by Emma Smith on violin, kick started The Harbour Bar Annual Banjo & Bovril Festival in fine style. Admitting that ‘he was too tight’ to bring his banjo across from London together with his guitar and Emma’s violin’, he carried on regardless, entertaining the enthusiastic audience for the next eighty minutes. Followers of Fogarty will be quite aware that no two shows from the Mayo man are ever alike, even if much of the setlist is similar. Performing as a duo with Emma Smith on violin, the set features the customary chat, delightful deliveries both vocally and instrumentally, audience participation and just to add a bit of spice, some broken strings. You may be forgiven for assuming that musicians travel with spare strings in their first aid kit, in a similar manner that motorist seldom leave home without a spare tyre. Not always the case, as Smith explains at the onset, panic stations were setting in when she broke a string during sound check, only to be rescued by a local who was dispatched to an outlet nearby to procure a replacement and save the day. Not to be outdone, Fogarty manages to suffer a similar fate closing the set and gallantly performs the evenings encore minus a string.

Drawing in the main from his critically acclaimed 2017 release, The Curious Hand, we hear of an unspectacular ‘phone in’ interview on the Joe Duffy Show – his highlight of 2018 we’re told, tongue in cheek – where the presenter was more interested in Fogarty’s research of 250 year old giant Irishman Charles Byrne than he was of his song Short Ballad For A Long Man, inspired by Fogarty’s visit to The Hunterian Museum in London and his opening song in tonight’s show.

A resident in London nowadays, his worldly travels feature in much of his song writing, none more than Mexico, performed this evening with Fogarty explaining the songs origin. While working for an unappreciative building contractor in Boston while living in The States, he finally threw his shovel out of the pram when promised bonuses failed to materialise, telling his boss he was jacking in the job and fecking off to Mexico. The intended journey only reached San Francisco, where rather than continue his travels, he wrote the song instead! The tale is typical of the evenings light hearted banter, combined with some beautiful ballads, elegantly delivered both vocally and musically by Fogarty and Smith. Carlow Town has become his party piece and his yarn of waking up during mass at Carlow Cathedral after a night out on the town is hilarious, regardless of how often you’ve heard it. It’s also invariably accompanied by a dance routine which Fogarty consistently manages to mistime, tonight is no exception, with Smith’s immaculate rendition at least five seconds ahead of her less than co-ordinated partner. 

A further tale follows of a spectacular night in Kerry, trading songs with John Martyn, only for a worst for wear Martyn having no recollection of the encounter the following day!  Fogarty seeks assistance from the audience to perform ‘the talking part’ on his albums title song The Curious Hand. An attendee named Dominic, duly obliges, recounting his tale of a Carlow evening stopover to add the required atmosphere to the song. Included in the set also are Tommy The Cat, Heels Over Head, Van Gogh’s Ear and a new song introduced as ‘new, because we were to lazy to rehearse it!’.

A Seamus Fogarty show guarantees a smile from ear to ear from start to finish, together with stellar tales delivered by an artist quite unique in the alternative folk world.  I’m reminded of the old adage that ‘there’s no show like a (Joe) Dolan show’, which in the modern folk music world should read ‘there’s no show like a Foggy Show!

Review and photograph by Declan Culliton


I Draw Slow @ The Grand Social - Dublin, Fri 21st Dec 2018 

It was 2010 when a debut release arrived on the local scene, spawned by a fledgling group of Irish musicians who wanted to find a place at the table in the music industry. Interesting that in the 8 years that have passed, this ensemble has gone from strength to strength, built a very strong fan base, not only around Ireland, but also in America where much of their current activity takes them on a regular basis. The original members are all still present and the definition of musical family could not be more apt when experiencing the obvious bond that these 5 musicians have on stage together. It also results in the impressively tight playing evident throughout and the craft that is brought to each song by such talented players.

When we first heard that debut release, the hope was that this band could endure and be able to support themselves in the stormy seas of the ever- changing music business. So, it is not only to celebrate their success story that everyone gathers tonight for their annual Christmas concert, but also to show ongoing support for their journey that has taken them forward as one of Ireland’s premier acts on the international stage. 

That debut release is also revisited tonight with the tracks, Little Switzerland, Lighthouse Daughter and That Boy’s Not Fair giving every indication that the passing of the years has not dampened down the vibrancy and celebratory tone of their performance and delivery. Much loved favourites, Goldmine and Valentine, are given full vent as the capacity crowd become more and more energised by the onstage performance. 

However, it is the latest release, Turn Your Face To The Sun, that rightly gets most focus with seven songs featured and each one a winner… Apocalypso kicked off the set and renditions of Maria, Alveregna, Same Old Dress Will Do, Twin Sisters and the excellent My Portion are all played with enthusiasm and gusto. New songs are also tried out, Grand Canyon and Queen Of The Wasteland, both received well, as are the tunes Pig Pen and Don’t Kiss In My Kitchen

Dave and Louise Holden have always been at the core of the band’s creative centre with their song writing skills and focus on maintaining a performance quality that continues to improve and match expectations. Dave is a very fine guitar player and his vocals blend seamlessly with sister Louise who continues to provide the focal point and energy of their impressive live performances. She dances with a gay abandon that seems to spur the players to even greater heights of interplay and her vocal delivery is very strong and nuanced. With Konrad Liddy providing the fine rhythmic anchor on upright bass, the sparkling runs of Adrian Hart on fiddle are given full flight with Colin Derham on banjo a willing accomplice as the music builds to the joyful tempos that many of the songs contain.

Special mention was made by Louise of the recent death of our beloved Sandy Harsch. Sandy played a part in helping I Draw Slow achieve media recognition early in their career and the generous applause that greeted Louise’s words was both heart-warming and poignant.

The set finishes with Goldmine with the band returning for an encore that includes Garage Flowers and two superb fiddle tunes that bring the night to a satisfying and thrilling conclusion among the many cheering fans that have turned up to witness what was a special evening of music.

Review by Paul McGee. Photograph by Declan Culliton


Dar Williams @ The Workman’s Club - November 22nd 2018.

When it comes to matters of the heart or wry observation on life’s daily struggle, there are few musical artists as cultured and erudite as Dar Williams. Her career, that spans twenty-five years, has brought many accolades for her perceptive writing and musicianship, her collaborations with many seasoned and successful fellow-artists and her penchant for activism and causes in the name of equality and dignity for all.

Folk music has always held a special place in the psyche of the Irish people. It is a music that captures the spirit of the times and is a reflection of the forces within society that drive people to endure. As a mirror held up to assist us in self-reflection Contemporary Folk music is no less diluted as the challenges of these times weigh heavily upon so many of us. Where lies the light?

Dar Williams has always been searching for that light, a path to show the way forward and a solace to those in need of restitution and renewal. Tonight, she plays from her impressive body of work across a set that lasts 80 minutes and covers many of the 9 releases she has to her name.

Her ruminations and tales between the songs are very engaging and somehow, as important as the actual performances on solo guitar. Dar can spin and weave her words into witty and pithy songs of brittle humanity in all its frailty and understated nobility. You cannot help but be enthralled by her craft and communication.

Included in the set tonight are songs from her last release, Emerald. The title track is a look back on a life lived, seen through the memories that are sparked on a car journey. The superb New York Is A Harbour comes later in the set and is filled with imagery of the expectations and broken dreams that are intertwined in the great symbol for hope and the American Dream.

There are also two new songs, Time To Be My Friend and Let The Wind Blow, that sound right at home already and could have been plucked from any period of her discography to date. Old favourites are included such as The Christians & The Pagans, The Babysitter’s Here, The Beauty Of The Rain and the timeless insight of When I Was A Boy.

February and The One Who Knows are wistful ballads and go straight to the heart while the more up-tempo Iowa has the audience joining in on the chorus. Calling The Moon and I Am the One Who Will Remember Everything are also included and the encore, We Learned The Sea, brings everything to a very pleasing end. Always welcome to these shores, Dar Williams has lost none of her ability to engage and inspire in equal measure.

Review and photograph by Paul McGee


JP Harris @ Celtic Music Radio & Nice 'N' Sleazy Glasgow 13th Nov '18

Considering he only plays a handful of shows annually in his adopted hometown of Nashville and does not tour regularly, it was a pleasure to have the opportunity to see Lonesome Highway favourite JP Harris & The Tough Choices for the fifth time in three months, when he performed a blistering set at Nice 'N' Sleazy on Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street, preceded by an acoustic set earlier that afternoon at Celtic Music Radio Station at Admiral Street. The previous occasions to witness Harris live were at Americana Fest in Nashville, where he played at 3rd & Lindsley, Robert's Western World and Sunday Coming Down at Gallatin Avenue, East Nashville. The latter was an all-day event organised by JP, featuring a number a artists, a spectacular and fitting end to the festival.

The personnel in The Tough Choices is very much a moving target and his touring band on this current trip around Europe are entirely different, but no less talented, than the musicians he had backing him in Nashville. The afternoon acoustic set was a pre-recorded interview and performance for Mike Ritchie’s weekly Sunday afternoon radio show on Celtic Music Radio. The set found Harris joined by his touring guitarist and they performed three songs (J.P.’s Florida Blues #1, Long Ways Back and When I Quit Drinking), all from his recently released album Sometimes Dogs Bark at Nothing.

Mike Ritchie’s interview with the engaging and extremely articulate Harris, included him revisiting his teenage years, his life experience since relocating in Nashville, his continuing support for female artists in the industry – he consistently includes female artists in his band, on this tour Nashville neighbour Miss Tess plays bass in his band together with preforming as an opening act - and an in-depth insight into the recording of his latest album. Harris explained that the album was produced by Old Crow Medicine Show’s Morgan Jahnig and the production was quite unorthodox by Nashville standards. The selected musicians to perform on the album came into the studio, having been given the skeleton of the tracks to consider a few days previously, with the instruction not to confer or discuss them with each other before recording. It's fair to say that the methods adopted were a qualified success and the six songs selected from the album to perform later that evening at Nice 'N' Sleazy sounded splendid in the live setting.

With a five-piece band of pedal steel (and occasional keys), bass, drums and guitars, Harris and his buddies took advantage of the excellent sound, lighting and indeed smoke machine at Nice N Sleazy, to deliver a killer seventeen song set. Kicking off and closing with the only two covers on the set list - the opener was David Allan Coe’s California Turnarounds and the encore a rousing version of Jerry Reed’s Freeborn Man– Harris and his cohorts raced through a free-flowing catalogue of songs that never lost steam. Sparks flew for up-tempo numbers Two For The Road, Gear Jammin’ Daddy, JP’s Florida Blues #1 and Hard Road, complimented by some equally impressive country ballads such as Maria, I Only Drink Alone, Lady In The Spotlight and Sometimes Dogs Bark at Nothing, the slower numbers all performed to pin drop silence. The road tight band were a joy to behold, with note perfect bass, drums and lead guitar, together with cracking pedal steel, supporting JP’s luxurious lead baritone vocals. 

In a market overflowing with plastic and industry manufactured acts masquerading as country artists, it’s a thrill to witness a genuine artist playing real country music with such a talented bunch of musicians and noticeably enjoying himself on stage as much as we were offstage. Make no mistake, Harris is the real deal and if you get the opportunity to catch him and his Tough Choices on the road, don’t pass it up. 

Thumbs up also to support act Miss Tess who, together with her band mate and co-producer Thomas Bryan Eaton, played a storming opening set featuring material from her album Baby, We All Know, before they both reappeared on stage as members of The Tough Choices.

Review and photographs by Declan Culliton