Peter Bruntnell, Jeff Finlin & Clive Barnes @ Cleeres, Kilkenny-16th Nov 2016



I’ve often considered if a musically educated punter was sent on a mission around Ireland, The UK and The States to assemble the most under-rated artists in each location it’s likely that his catch would include Peter Bruntnell, Jeff Finlin and our own Clive Barnes.

Bruntnell’s back catalogue, for me, compares with the work of his fellow country man Elvis Costello. Surely Finlin’s body of work is up there with his peer Rodney Crowell and possibly the only detail that prevents Barnes spending his days and nights as a session player is the market being so small in Ireland.  Having toured the UK to great reviews last year the trio decided to bring their show to Ireland and play nine dates over a ten day period with the opening gig staged in Kilkenny.

Not an obvious three piece as Finlin and Bruntnell, both excellent songwriters, are quite different in style and delivery. I had incorrectly assumed prior to the show that the format would be a song writer circle set up with all three taking to the stage together. The delivery was in fact two separate sets by Bruntnell and Finlin with Barnes playing guitar, sublimely it has to be said, with both acts. Barnes also played a solo number between the two sets.

Jeff Finlin plays the opening set, a visit through his vast songbook featuring material from his current retrospective album Life After Death. His delivery, as is always the case, is passionate, intense and spirited. Never ever going through the motions Finlin is an artist that seldom wastes a word lyrically as evidenced by I Killed Myself Last Night, Jesus Was A Motorcycle Man and American Dream, all included in tonight’s set list.

Bruntnell stage demeanour is altogether at variance to that of Finlin’s, though every bit as compelling. Totally laid back and relaxed his set visits his early work in the main. "I’ve a new album out Nos Da Comrade but I can’t play any of the songs off it without a band!" Fortunately Bruntnell is not entirely true to his word and encores with the beautiful Caroline, the closing track of the album, performed acoustic solo and a fitting end to what preceeds it. Obvious inclusions are his career stand outs By The Time I Get To Phoenix, Domestico, Cold Water Swimmer and Have You Seen That Girl. He also includes a new song Widow's Walk, which is particularly well received by the crowd. Very much a favourite of Kilkenny audiences having played the Roots Festival on a number of occasions his set, as expected, goes down a storm.

All in all a wonderful night's entertainment enhanced of course by the stunning guitar work in support of both artists by Clive Barnes and his precious Gretsch. Barnes is without doubt the finest player on this island whether performing blues, Americana or metal and his contribution this evening elevates both Bruntnell’s and Finlin’s performances to another level. 

Review and photography (Left to right above, Clive Barnes, Jeff Finlin and Peter Bruntnell) by Declan Culliton


Sara Watkins@ Whelan’s - 2nd October 2016


Sara Watkins last performed at Whelan’s eighteen months ago as part of I’m With Her, the trio comprised of fellow singer songwriters and musicians Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan. This project resulted in solo albums this year from all three artists and a change in musical direction in particular for Sara Watkins and Sarah Jarosz who both temporarily abandoned their bluegrass roots to concentrate on more country/folk confessional albums.

Tonight’s show by Watkins in the main concentrated on material from her current solo album Young In All The Wrong Ways while also including some of her solo back catalogue, older Nickel Creek material and a few well-chosen cover songs.

Being a solo concert I have to admit to having preconceived concerns as to how the material from the latest album would come across as it is quite instrumentally populated. Any reservation I may have had were swiftly set aside by Watkins, leaving me with an impression that the material possibly even works better in a live setting that the studio versions.

The stage in Whelan’s tonight featured one mike, four instruments and a Vox speaker located centre stage behind Watkins. Renowned for her technical prowess as a multi-instrumentalist it should not have been a surprise that she utilised different individual instruments, fiddle, ukulele and acoustic guitar on her first three songs. Opening with Too Much from her self-titled debut album and following with You and Me from Sun Midnight Sun the majority of the remaining set featured material from her current album played to a large attendance in an atmosphere where you could hear a pin drop during songs. So much so that during her vocal delivery of Without A Word the only audible sound accompanying her in the room was the creaking of hinges when the door between the public bar and venue was opening, prompting Watkins to add tongue in cheek "Halloween must last a week in Ireland, that was the spookiest sounding door in the world."

The new songs worked wonderfully even when stripped to the bone, The Truth Won’t Set Us Free retained its studio honky-tonk sound and both Invisible and Move Me gave Watkins the opportunity to reveal her flawless vocal range.

Her stage demeanour was confident, talkative, good humoured and happy to relay tales of a scary drive earlier in the week from Sligo to Cork on "windy roads that challenged two Americans not accustomed to driving on the left-hand side of the road". However, what really won the day was her musical ability on all instruments including her Gibson guitar, christened Tom based on an unknown previous owner who had posted his name on the instrument and her luscious vocal delivery throughout.

Almost in anticipation of a question from the audience in respect of her change in direction on her latest offering she explained how she felt that going forward she would have regretted having gotten stuck in a certain style and needed to adapt both musically and lyrically on the album to"consider exactly who I am."

Also included in the set was the Nickel Creek 'Whistling Song' Anthony, a wonderful cover of Young Man in America by Anais Mitchell, name checked by Watkins as one of her favourite songwriters and John Hartford’s Long Hot Summer Days. She finished the set with the title track from the latest album and the closing and quite beautiful track Tenderhearted, dedicated to all the understated social workers and carers out there.

An encore of Buddy Hollys Early in the Morning completed what was an outstanding evening’s entertainment by a young lady approaching her prime yet also with the potential to offer so more musically going forward. Certainly also worth a mention is opening act Clara Rose who also went down a storm. Monaghan born Rose has a voice soaked in blues and played a thirty minute set that complimented what was to follow.

Review and photography by Declan Culliton


Hot Club of Cowtown @ The Sugar Club - 25th October 2016

The Hot Club of Cowtown opened their eleven-date tour of Ireland in fine style at The Sugar Club this evening. The Austin based trio’s trademark and quite unique mix of western swing, gypsy jazz and layers of sweet traditional American music is delivered in two sets. Their welcomed return to Ireland after an absence of six years is a joy to behold. Playing to a packed venue and with a deserved reputation for feeding on the energy generated by their audiences, that two-way passion is very much in evidence from opener Dev'lish Mary right through to their second encore Ida Red.

HCC consist of fiddle virtuoso Elana James, Whit Smith on his faithful Gibson L5 guitar and Jake Erwin, the man that slaps and plucks the upright bass like no other. James and Smith share lead vocals and all three contribute delightful harmonies throughout their very well received show by an audience that ranges from students to grandparents.

The band are renowned for selecting standard swing material and putting their own stamp on it yet managing to remain faithful to the original recordings. They have also written and recorded a large catalogue of their own material over nearly two decades and up to thirteen albums. This evenings show features twenty-five offerings in total from that vast catalogue of material in two sets, the first lasting forty-five minutes and the second, following a fifteen-minute interval, sixty minutes. The playing throughout is timeless, seamless and almost telepathic by three instrumentalists and vocalists that appear to effortlessly achieve the perfect balance between the Texan swing sound of Bob Willis and the mid-20th century French jazz vibe of Stéphane Grapelli and Django Reinhardt.

Stay a Little Longer and Oklahoma Hills from their 2010 album What Makes Bob Holler both feature together with crowd favourites Forget-Me-Nots, Avalon and Emily.

New material including Marty Robbin’s 160 Acres is delivered in three-part harmony alongside the old standard Cotton Eyed Joe ("deemed explicit by I tunes’ Ervin adds ‘no idea why maybe you lot can figure out"). They also display an ability to slow things down with ballads Call of the Canyon from their latest album Midnight on the Trail and Chip Away The Stone a song Smith tells us he is told is very popular in Ireland ("probably a lie but we’ll play it anyway!"). They even manage to feature a smarting of Elana's Reunion.

Without appearing to be working from a prepared set list Smith invites requests from the audience and responds to a request to perform There'll Be Some Changes Made, a song selected by Jools Holland on one of their appearance on his show ("our five minutes of fame" jokes James)

A Big Ball's in Cowtown closes the second set in style with the three leaving the stage but returning within minutes to a tremendous reception. "It’s good to see you all again so soon" jokes James before launching into a rousing Ida Red which, like so many of their songs, affords each of the three the opportunity to perform individual solos, rewarded by a standing ovation by the crowd.

"We’re Hot Club of Cowtown", announces Ervin before leaving the stage."If you liked the show please tell your friends as we’ve lots more dates In Ireland, if you didn’t like it let your enemies know instead."

It’s difficult to bring to mind many other groups of musicians with the ability to generate such passion, humour and excitement both musically and vocally. No surprise that they have toured with Bob Dylan, Roxy Music and Willie Nelson as support act.

Review by Declan Culliton   Photography by Ronnie Norton


Richmond Fontaine@ Whelan’s - 15th October 2016

Willy Vlautin has been writing his story songs for close on 20 years now as the creative source and inspiration behind the reflective beauty that is Richmond Fontaine.

Lauded as a true poet and chronicler for everyman, Vlautin has remained steadfast at the forefront of our dance with the devil and our continued need for redemption. His songs are populated by the ordinary characters of life’s fabric who have dotted the landscape of hard earned living on the edges of our broken dreams.

With 12 releases over a career that has seen the band on the cusp of success many times, their ‘less is more’ philosophy has kept them under the media radar and forged a place in cult status history that is all but guaranteed.

Playing their farewell tour in Europe before packing away their memories and disbanding, they deliver a set tonight that has the capacity crowd in this tightly packed venue cheering their every move.

Playing songs from across their extensive catalogue has a real glow of joy for everyone as we get to hear many of our favourites and the intensity of the playing is matched only by the quiet, restrained subtlety of the gentle moments when the band really prove their talents as a superb group of musicians.

Dan Eccles on guitars is credited by Willie Vlautin with having made Richmond Fontaine into ‘a real band’ with his dynamic and sensitive playing, while the rhythm section of Sean Oldham, drums and Freddy Trujillo on bass, joined tonight for the latter part of the set by David Murphy on pedal steel, shine brightly throughout.

The dark underbelly of the American Dream is exposed in songs such as; A Ghost I Became, The Janitor, I Can’t Black it out if I Wake Up and Remember, $87 and a Guilty Conscience, Don’t Skip Out On Me, You Can Move Back Here, Two Alone, Post to Wire, We Used to Think the Freeway Sounded Like a River, Northline, Wake Up Ray, Exit 194b, A Night in the City, Montgomery Park, 43 and Western Skyline.

Vlautin delivers his stories in a resigned vocal style that is full of empathy and pained acceptance but always full of hope for the journey ahead. Was it William Shakespeare who said that ‘parting is such sweet sorrow’?

Well, Willie Vlautin leaves the stage tonight with a simple ‘thanks for letting me do this’ as his parting words – such humility and such understated class. It’s the end of the natural life span of what has been Richmond Fontaine; one of the most iconic alt.country bands in recent generations and one that will be sadly missed.

Review by Paul McGee   Photograph by Kaethe Burt O'Dea


Freakwater @ Whelans (Upstairs) Dublin 16 October 2016.

From keeping on the sunny side to invoking generals gathered like witches at black masses Freakwater covered a lot of lyrical ground at their first Dublin gig (and first Irish tour). Although Irwin did informed us of her time spent in Northern Ireland growing up and how she used to sit on the floor in a bar in Cookstown, finding all sorts of interesting things while drinking beer froth. The venue witnessed a small turnout which must have carried a sense of disappointment, however it did not affect the band’s performance or overall attitude. 

Bean told us that we were obviously smart, attractive and intelligent people for showing up. There was a lot of such humour and banter in the between-song talk which made the show that bit more intimate and memorable. Bean also commented on the fact that she had not played a venue with an open fire grate before and that she could watch the flames rather than the exit sign she would normally focus on at a gig.

Freakwater tonight were Catherine Irwin (acoustic guitar and banjo) and Janet Bean (four and six string acoustic guitar) with Moregan Geer on Telecaster electric guitar and Anna Krippenstapel on violin.  It was a slightly stripped down version of the band which had also included bass and drums for the earlier part of the European tour. This rhythm section-less version of the band  however well able to give the songs an interesting perspective that worked well in this particular setting.

Geer plays under the name Drunken Prayer as well as performing as a guitarists with other acts and is soon to be touring with The Handsome Family. He played a solo set before joing the band that included his version of Missionfield, a song also on the new Freakwater album.

The band opened with an impressive acapella start, before bringing the instruments in on version of The Carter Family staple Keep On The Sunny Side and they encored with a full on cover of Black Sabbath’s War Pigs. Between those two points the songs were largely taken from their own back catalogue with a natural emphasis on the current album Scheherazade. They played the opening song from that album What People Want after Irwin had spoken about being asked “why can’t you write a song that people like.” She explained how she had set about trying to remedy this by listening to songs that were hits and deciding that she had cracked the code. To which Bean responded “yeah, but you’re playing a banjo and the song is about rape and being thrown down a well.” A catchy song none-the-less.

Number One With A Bullet, Bolshevik And Bollweevil and other songs from the current album followed along with a number of songs from the back catalogue like Waitress Song - from the album Old Paint (and an anecdote about how bad a waitress Irwin was and how she felt that getting tips was degrading) and Binding Twine - from the Springwater album, which was one of the set highlights with a telling violin solo part. Geer’s slide guitar was also an effective foil that added an additional tone to some of the songs. The sit list for which had been written on both of Bean's hands which at one point had her wondering what "forge" was until she realised it was short-hand for Forgetable Song from the Feels Like The Third Time album.

In terms of the music, the harmonies and vocals were central to the live show and when joined by Geer and Krippenstapel, were entirely forceful and full on. Both players added much to the overall sound with violin and guitar textures bringing great tonal colour to the acoustic basis of this live performance. There was an understanding and ease between the players that comes from being together for such a lengthy tour; as well as noting how easy it was to get on each other’s nerves in confined spaces, such as a tour car. That side of the touring process didn’t show however. But there were stories of trying to fix the fifth string on the banjo with a “dirty Dutch plumbing wrench.” Something that hadn’t turned out quite as planned.

They dubbed the tour as ‘The American Apology Tour’. The apology being for Donald Trump and such politicians in general. Irwin commented with tongue in cheek that she has something in common with the Donald in that he has said nice things about Putin, because Putin had made similar remarks about him. “if people say nice things about me I’ll say nice things about them.” Towards the set, a stage light suddenly begins to flicker which distracts the band, until Krippenstapel unplugged it, to much applause.

They played two encores after the official set, the first was a song from the Freekons, an occasional collaboration between themselves and the Mekons. They closed with War Pigs which they had previously released as a single back in 1990. Bean noted that she had played bongos on that version which brought an audience comment that essentially bongos were the worst. Bean said she didn’t quite know how to take that but she’s moved on to congas anyway. It was a powerful finish to an equally strong set. One that will hopefully see the band return on these shore in time. Those present were the winners when the girls (and boy) from Loserville came to town.

Review by Stephen Rapid  Photographs by Kaethe Burt O'Dea and Stephen Rapid

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