Sam Baker @ The Seamus Ennis Arts Centre. The Naul - Sat 3rd Feb 2018.

The Seamus Ennis Arts Centre (SEAC) is located at the Naul in North County Dublin and serves the local community well in providing an eclectic mix of live performances, cultural events, exhibitions, sessions, workshops and classes weekly. The room for tonight’s gig has an intimate feel and the small capacity sees few empty seats as Sam Baker makes a welcome return to the Centre.

It has been 5 years since his last visit but the warmth and genuine affection with which he is greeted is testament to his enduring popularity on these shores. His road travelled has been littered with challenges and obstacles to be overcome and in truth many would not have made it through with the same sense of perspective and thoughtful reflection.

His back story has long been the subject of media attention and the manner in which he survived a terrorist bomb in Peru while touring the country. The injuries he suffered would have stopped many in their tracks but his enduring will to move beyond and make something of his life drove Baker to re-learn much of the coping skills of life, plus the ability to play guitar and write songs of beautiful, heart-breakingly honest treatises on life, love and our human condition. His story songs are sharp dissections of everyman and the daily struggles we all face in our lives. Many of his observations are ground in personal experience but his empathy with people and his kindness always shine through to point the way on our spiritual journeys into tomorrow.

Playing electric guitar and with the sensitive and sublime drumming skills of Mike Meadows for accompaniment, we are given two separate sets in which Sam Baker visits all five of his releases to give a very engaging performance across the 20 songs chosen on the night. He has an endearing charm onstage and his funny quips and ramblings on various subjects are greeted with much laughter and smiles among the audience. He even takes a moment to stop the gig in order to sing Happy Birthday to his good friend and colleague Mike Meadows, who we learn is a producer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, classically trained and much sought after as a session player by a large number of artists.

A couple of cover versions are included by John Stewart (Some Kind Of Love) and Paul Simon (Duncan) in addition to firm favourites like Waves, Broken Fingers, Boxes, Iron, Slots, Isn’t Love Great and Odessa. His latest release is well received and the title track, Land Of Doubt is a poignant look at the state of affairs in America currently.

However, the abiding theme throughout the night is one of forgiveness and no little grace as Sam Baker and Mike Meadows weave around each other with an ease and freedom that brings these poignant tales to real life.  There is a lasting aura of emotion in the room when the gig concludes with the sweet optimism of Go In Peace. 

Go in peace, go in kindness

Go in love, go in faith

Leave the day, the day behind us

Day is done, go in grace

We leave with a sense of having witnessed something fragile and beautiful in the magic created by such sensitive playing and heartfelt performance. 

Review by Paul McGee   Photography by Kaethe Burt-O'Dea


Willy Vlautin @ Whelan’s 29th January 2018

Willy Vlautin has performed at Whelan’s on numerous occasions, whether with his band Richmond Fontaine or as part of different projects, including his current band The Delines. 

This evening’s appearance takes on a somewhat different format with Vlautin promoting his fifth novel, Don’t Skip Out On Me, which has recently been published to very positive reviewsHowever, far from merely a book reading, this appearance offers so much more than merely a marketing event for the book’s release. In fact, Vlautin only reads two short passages from the novel which documents the ambitions of farm hand Horace Hopper, half Irish and half Paiute Indian, to pursue a career as a professional boxer.

 It’s no surprise that the event is a sell-out, given the fanbase he has developed on these islands as a songwriter, musician and author. Vlautin's first novel The Motel Life ended up as a feature film in 2013 starring Emile Hirsch and Stephen Dorff and the film based on his third book, Lean On Pete will be screened during The Dublin Film in late February.

The format tonight includes Vlautin performing songs and instrumentals, accompanied by Cork maestro David Murphy on pedal steel guitar. In addition to reciting the two passages from the novel, Willy is interviewed on stage by Hot Press commissioning editor, Roisin Dwyer.

The show commences with a track from the instrumental soundtrack - included with the first print edition of the book - titled Horace and The Trophy and is followed by Wake Up Ray and Whitey & Me from Richmond Fontaine’s memorable swansong album, You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing To Go Back To. The book’s title, also a track featured on the same album, follows. Vlautin cites the inspiration for material on that album being friends from his teenage years still living at home with their mothers and who never moved on despite being in their 40’s ("Guys I cut the ties with but always end up hooking up with again!").

The stripped-down versions, with only Vlautin’s vocal and acoustic guitar, together with Murphy’s quite stunning pedal steel playing, capture the atmosphere of the songs to perfection and it’s noteworthy that Vlautin comments later in the evening how proud he and his band members are of their final album. When Roisin Dwyer enquires why the band split up he simply replies "we got out while we were ahead and before any of us had to leave."

Having invested three and a half years in writing the novel, which initially contained over six hundred pages, he jokes about having to edit it to just over three hundred pages, a process that resulted in casually discarding eighteen months work in a short period of time. Most impressive throughout the interview is Vlautin’s naked honesty, delivered humorously and attributing his story telling skills and selection of characters ("why can’t the janitor or the car park attendant or the nurse be the main character in a novel") to escapism and his vivid imagination, describing himself as a complete dreamer since childhood.

A follower of professional boxing since his childhood and an avid reader of The Ring magazine, he speaks comically of his near obsession with Welch welterweight, boxer Colin Jones, who fought the undefeated Detroit ‘Ice Man’ Milton Mc Crory in Vlautin’s home town Reno in 1983. Jones was notorious for his gruelling lifestyle pattern of running five miles to and from his work as a gravedigger, before going training in the evenings. Vlautin admits tongue in cheek of "wanting to be Colin Jones, without the running and digging or maybe a James Bond or Sam Shephard just cruising in paradise, wearing shades and looking cool." Instead and in reality, a lot of time was spent in his room listening to Yes, Rush and Japan records and dreaming of starting a band.

Before continuing with a couple of songs written for his current band (The Delineshe recounts how he would listen in awe to Amy Boone singing in the dressing room before she went on stage as a backing vocalist on tour with Richmond Fontaine. Having spent seven months writing songs for her, he eventually convinced her to try them out and to take centre stage as lead singer. Asked if he was comfortable taking a background position with this band he immediately responds "playing in a band where I’m not nervous as shit going on stage is a dream come true!"

On that note he candidly recounts tackling his stage nerves by performing tanked up on beer up to the age of 34. On one occasion he was practically unable to function on stage after a particular bender. Discovering the next morning that one punter had driven sixteen hours to the gig and slept in his car, unable to afford the price of a room, his shame was the wake-up call to get his act together. He also explains how Amy Boone was involved in a bizarre accident two years ago having been struck by an out of control car while walking in a car park, suffering horrific injuries. Her recovery continues to the extent that she is still attempting to walk again, but Vlautin expressed the sincere hope that she would be able to perform material from their forthcoming album on stage later in the year. The Oil Rigs At Night and Colfax Avenue follow, both stand out tracks from The Delines debut album.

Material from earlier Richmond Fontaine albums are also performed. The Boyfriends from We Used To Think The Freeway Sounded Like A River and Northline from Winnemucca were regular inclusions in their setlists over the years and they both work equally well stripped back. Vlautin also dedicates "our only poppy song" Post To Wire from the album of the same name to the memory of the late George Byrne "the first mad red-haired Irishman we encountered in Kilkenny on our first trip to Ireland in 2004."

Noting how much he was in awe David Murphy’s pedal steel playing, the atmosphere it created and his fascination with the instrument from his early career he jokes "I love great playing like David’s and not the wild honky tonk playing by some of the wild men at home", before the pair launch into a guitar and pedal steel instrumental duet. The evening ends with A Night In The City and Lets Hit One More Place, two more superb tracks from Richmond Fontaine’s final album.

The Gutter Bookshop in Temple Bar had set up a stall at the merchandise desk and given that the novel was selling like hotcakes Vlautin must have spent at least an hour meeting, greeting and signing copies at the front of the stage.

What a pleasure to observe the genuine warmth and entertainment generated by Vlautin to every person in the room and an endorsement that sometimes the really good guys do get their just rewards in the end.

Review and pictures by Declan Culliton


The Weather Station @ The Grand Social - 28th Jan 2018

The Weathers Station’s last appearance in Ireland was as a two-piece performing at The Kilkenny Roots Festival in 2016. This time around Canadian singer songwriter Tamara Lindeman is accompanied by a full band and delivers a very short but hugely impressive set with material drawn in the main from her current self-titled album and it’s predecessor Loyalty released in 2015. Will Kidman on guitar and keyboards, Ben Whitely on bass and drummer Ian Kehoe provide the perfect rhythm section to compliment Lindeman’s distinctive semi spoken vocal delivery.

Having had to cancel a show  earlier in the tour due to laryngitis the Dublin show had been in some doubt but fortunately Lindeman’s vocals and determination won out ("the ferry was so expensive there was no way we were turning back!"). In fact, her vocals were stunning throughout even if it was obvious she was struggling during her occasional chats between numbers.

Referring to her first visit to Dublin playing support some years ago, she jokingly recalls attempting to navigate to the venue (most probably The Workman’s Club) with the assistance of her tiny Google Maps mobile phone screen, unfortunately driving on the opposite side of the quays to the venue "it possibly took me three hours to arrive at the venue due to the traffic restrictions and congestion!"

She eases her way into the set with Personal Eclipse and Way It Is Way It Could Be from Loyalty before raising the tempo with Free, the excellent You and I (on The Other Side of The World) and the uncompromising Kept It All To Myself, all three from her current album. Her songwriting has always avoided the conventional verse and chorus structure, instead offering short stories put to music, delivered with a vocal refinement that is gentle yet displaying quite a powerful edge. Her latest album suggests an artist growing in confidence as her career develops as is equally evidenced by her live performance this evening. Reinforcing this point, later in the set Lindeman comments that she used to write ‘quiet’ songs up to a few years ago ‘which just isn’t right now there’s so much going on’ before she and the band pump up the volume to deliver at full throttle Floodplain and the highlight of the evening Thirty, their last two songs before leaving the stage. An encore of Tapes finishes a set that lasts only fifty minutes but quite understandable given the circumstances.

Also performed were Don’t Know What To Say (after a few false starts), I Mined, Complicit and Floodplain by an artist with the ability to write candid, personal and dynamic conversational pieces and to execute them with corresponding brilliance.

Ena Brennan’s solo project Dowry performed the opening earlier in the evening. The multi-instrumentalist’s set included a stunning loop pedal assisted violin intro together with some equally experimental and impressive vocal and guitar looped pieces. 

Review and photograph by Declan Culliton


Tradfest @ Printworks, Dublin Castle - 28th Jan 2018

The Printworks at Dublin Castle is an unlikely venue for a live music event. It is used on a regular basis as a Conference Centre where delegates attend business-oriented activities. And whereas the music business is indeed a 'business', the sight of musicians creating art from their reservoir of talent, does not make a natural fit in such a space. There is a sterile feel to the building with the audience not displaying much outward display of enthusiasm for the large room. With many back rows not sold, the stage manager, who is involved in the filming of the show for TG4, asks that any spaces be filled in the front rows, in order to reduce the possibility that the cameras may pick up gaps.

The musicians certainly give their all with strong performances and Irish band, I Draw Slow, start things off with a set of nine songs that display high energy and great musicianship. The natural warmth from lead singer Louise Holden is appealing on all levels and her singing and relaxed communications add much to the performance. Her brother Dave shares harmony vocals and leads his band mates through dexterous work outs and up-tempo arrangements that highlight the fine playing of Adrian Hart on Fiddle, Colm Derham on Banjo and Konrad Lindy on Upright Bass.

The songs are introduced by Louise with stories of their creation and the themes involved; whether murder ballads, apocalyptic doom, drug addiction or mining town working girls! The songs are taken from their 4 releases to date and Apocalypso, Valentine, My Portion and Goldmine are very well received by the home crowd. Hide & Seek is a standout with the fiddle of Adrian Hart really lifting the arrangement and tempo. This band go from strength to strength and long may they continue to build their impressive career.

Martin Harley is a talented guitar player from England who is making an Irish debut and is accompanied by his music partner, American upright bass player Daniel Kimbro, who is also a member of the famous Jerry Douglas band. Harley plays guitar and a Hawaiian lap steel guitar called a Weissenborn. Together, the two artists play a storming set across eight songs, including Trouble, One For The Road, Sweet & Low, Feet Don't Fail Me Now and Nobody's Fault But Mine. On the excellent Dancing On The Rocks the freedom in the playing is quite awesome as the two artists extend into jazz-tinged, free-form soloing and reach great heights in the performance. Kimbro also plays impressively on guitar and his tune, Loyston, is another special moment as the two musicians interplay around the rhythm with solo runs. A very impressive set and I am sure that we have not seen the last of this duo on our shores. They also display a wicked sense of humour during the songs which adds a great dynamic and is the source of much laughter.

And so, to the head lining act of the night, sisters Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer. With 25 recordings between them we are dealing with Country music royalty here and their collective back catalogue is filled with so many high points and stands against any of their contemporaries at the top of the music tree. Their band tonight is comprised of three seasoned musicians, Joe McMahan (guitar), Rick Reed (drums) and Jason Weinheimer (bass) and they perform with great ease across the ten songs that are mainly taken from the recent duet album, Not Dark Yet. This is the first full collaboration between the sisters and the live performance of songs that span from the Louvin Brothers (Every Time You Leave) to The Killers (The List) gives a new perspective on the project they have completed.

Whether the selections all work on the record is open to individual opinion but witnessed in a live setting, a number of the songs take on a greater resonance with Into My Arms (Nick Cave) and the Bob Dylan title track really catching fire with superb harmony singing from both sisters. Their past is something that will always travel with them and the new song, Is It Too Much, refers to the pain suffered by the shocking experience they shared in losing both parents to a violent act of great cruelty.

Allison rocks out with Hurricane/Thunderstorm, a song she wrote about her sister Shelby. Her other song in the set, Alabama Song, is also one of the highlights of this short set and Shelby contributes Where I'm From, another song that references their upbringing in Alabama and the influence of music in the family.

The show ends with I'll Hold Your Head, a song from Shelby's autobiographical album Revelation Road. Again, it deals with their childhood experiences and Shelby gets very emotional in the pre-song introduction, which leads to an uncomfortable few moments for both artist and audience. One can only guess at the pain that must surface at certain points in the lives of these two sisters as they pour themselves into their art in increasingly personal ways and the hug that Allison shares with Shelby at the Song conclusion says it all really; together we are strong and together we can carry on. Honest performance at all points even if the short set left little room to build a real atmosphere in the venue. 

A word for compere on the night, Lonesome Highway founder and all-round excellent person, Stephen Rapid. He introduced each of the three performing acts with typical enthusiasm and matter-of-factness. Never an easy thing when so much is going on around the stage with artist change-overs. Much admired within the Irish music scene, Steve delivered an easy link between acts and maintained a sense of calm among the busy and mobile camera crews and stage technicians.

Review by Paul McGee  Photography by Kaethe Burt-O'Dea


Hayes Carll @ The Oh Yeah Centre Belfast - 25th Jan 2018

You don’t have to be long haired, bearded, denim clad and gravel voiced to make the cut as a genuine outlaw troubadour but it certainly helps. Hayes Carll qualifies with distinction on all fronts but more importantly has the songs and stories to match. Sixteen years into a career that has yielded five albums to date and the Texan remains the most authentic apostle of the late Townes Van Zandt.

Fortunately Carll does not possess the same self-destruct tendencies as his master and even if his vocals do suggest a partiality for good whiskey and tobacco, his reputation for delivering stellar live shows goes before him as evidenced by  tonight’s performance before a large crowd at the OH Yeah Centre in Belfast. There was not a weak moment from his opener the confessional ballad  Good While It Lasted , through  his rousing  Drunken Poets Dream (a co-write with Ray Wylie Hubbard he informs us) and his closer the priceless She Left Me For Jesus ("She says I should find him and I'll know peace at last -If I ever find Jesus, I'm kickin' his ass!").

He entertains the pin drop quiet crowd with tales and songs across his complete back catalogue, while also managing  to include a few new song titles including Times Like These, performed on stage for the first time. Confessing that ‘you can get pulled over by the cops an awful lot when you look a certain way’, he introduces the hilarious Bible On The Dash, advertising the advantages on strategically placing the holy book on your dashboard when crossing certain States in America. It’s a practice used by Carll and the co-writer of that song Corb Lund when they are on what Carll calls their "Outlaws on A Budget" tours.

Introducing Beaumont he describes it as your average South East Texas town, adding that he won a gun in a raffle playing in a bar in the town some years previously. The Magic Kid, he explains, is a co-write with Darrell Scott inspired by a simple card trick performed by his son. It’s a simple yet beautiful song written from the heart. Wild As A Turkey, I’ve Got A Gig, Bad Liver and A Broken Heart all get an airing but the highlight of the evening is a rattling delivery of KMAG YOYO ("Here I am standin' in the desert with a gun, thought of going AWOL but I'm too afraid to run"), not an easy song to perform solo given the speed at which the lyrics are delivered but absolutely nailed on the evening. Jesus and Elvis (written with his partner Allison Moorer) also features, it is a song that was subsequently recorded by Kenny Chesney.

Notwithstanding the ease at which he recounts his tales and delivers his songs, the standard of his guitar playing is wonderful as is his harmonica playing, particularly on the gorgeous Love Is Easy.

Carll’s career will continue to be underpinned by more main stream artists picking up on his songs (Kenny Chesney, Lee Ann Womack, Jim Lauderdale) and deservedly so as he remains to be one of the most intelligent, creative, descriptive writers bar none. Few songwriters nowadays have the ability to successfully mix their art with humour, Carll has the talent to combine both effortlessly.

Eight years since his last visit to Belfast, it’s a pleasure to see him once more in such stellar form and in a super venue among similar music loving folk. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another eight years for his return.

Thumbs up also to Ciara O’Neill who opened the show in style with a collection of songs from her debut album The Ebony Trail and newer material to be included in her next recording.

Review and photograph by Declan Culliton