Maria McKee @ St Patrick’s Cathedral - January 27th 2017

It has been a long time since this sublime artist graced a Dublin audience with her singular talent. Returning as part of the Trad Fest weekend, we are very quickly reacquainted with the force of nature that is a Maria McKee performance. Her media footprint may not be too evident these days but that vocal range and delivery has not diminished over the years.

Since she first appeared as a blazing new talent back in the late 1980’s and has been something of an enigma, almost shunning the commercial fame that was offered, while continuing to produce work of enduring quality.

Just how much practice she had in preparation for this one-off performance is anybody’s guess, as she does not have a website to track her current live activity, but she delivers a tour de force performance over 80 minutes plus that confirms her as an enduring influence upon the musical vista of the past 20 years.

The advancing years are not something that this artist acknowledges and this special venue bears witness to a quality performance that makes a mockery of the preconception that lack of activity leads to a diluted artistic drive.

Her repertoire is fondly remembered and revisited over a set list that covers many of the back-catalogue of music over her career and her stage persona is as witty and engaging as back in the days when she lived in Dublin and regularly graced our venues with her song-writing talent.

Joined by Denis Roche on guitar and a 2-song cameo from Jude, who flew in from London and recently lost his mother; the sense of witnessing a heat-felt and genuine performance is strongly evident among the enthusiastic audience. Maria just breezes from song to song with a disarming charm that keeps everybody completely present in the moment and never wanting the essence of it all to end.

A nod to Lone Justice, her original country band, is made with the inclusion of a very special performance of Wheels and many old favourites are revisited on guitar and piano over the course of the evening…

Has He Got A Friend For Me? Breathe; I've Forgotten What It Was In You (That Put The Need In Me); High Dive; In Your Constellation; Shelter; A Good Heart; The Sound Of Your Wheels are all performed with both grace and gusto.

Cover Me is a song that has caused this artist some conflicting emotions over the years but tonight she celebrates the success of the song and rightly so …

In Your Consciousness, Absolutely Barking Stars and Life Is Sweet end the performance and confirm the feeling that time only endears her more to the captivated admirers in this fair city. Come back soon!!

Review by Paul McGee  Photograph by Vincent Lennon


TWO FROM TEXAS - Aaron Watson/James McMurtry @ Whelans, Dublin

The Dublin venue Whelan’s, hosted two distinct examples of how broad roots music can be. On his Irish debut the history making Watson played what was the smallest gig he has appeared at since he started his career. He made history by being the first independent artist to hit the number one spot on the Billboard Country charts. The venue, he observed with amusement, was smaller than his kitchen. However, despite suffering from a sore throat he delivered a set that reflected his fast-paced energised country music.

He was accompanied by his band, that included electric guitar, bass, drums and fiddle, as well as Watson’s acoustic guitar. This was an upfront, good-time, close quarters concert with Watson interacting closely with the sold-out venue. The set was centred around his most recent album (the chart topping) The Underdog. He commented that he had made it to that spot because he was blessed with the best fans. That showed clearly in the way they responded to Watson and he to them. He took every opportunity to interact with them by holding a pose for the inevitable selfies.

Played live, the songs take on a different energy that rarely lets up other than when he played a song that came from the heart about a mamber of his family such as the song he dedicated to his father - a disabled Vietnam vet and a song for his daughter, who died young; how the words of the mother of rodeo rider Lane Frost had helped to connect him with his faith and deal with the grief. These moments were poignant spaces in the otherwise overtly up and positive music.

Watson was having a small radio mic problem at one point and got his band to show off their chops which included his bassist Jordan McBride playing and singing a funky grooved number while his guitarist Jason Lerma showed off some high-speed playing. There was a brief drum solo from Brian Ferguson before Damian Green the fiddle player did his piece including bringing up a member of the audience to hold his bow in place while he played the fiddle against it. This showmanship got a proactive response while allowing Watson some moments of vocal reprieve from the effects of singing with a sore throat. It also showed that these guys have played a huge number of shows together that has made them an effective and tight live band. On his albums, Watson uses a set of studio players and a wider range of instruments such as pedal steel to enhance the recorded textures.

That underscores what Watson told us; that his music is a family business and that he is the man taking care of business. He told us about the various requests from the family in recent times amd on overseas trips. How his Mum had asked for some dirt from Ireland, where part of her family had come from. He held up a small jar of soil that he had received. He then jokingly told us then that, in contrast, his daughter wanted a card. When asking her what kind of card she wanted, she had replied "one like mommy use in the stores." Another of her requests was for Santa Claus to bring her a Taylor Swift guitar and for daddy to teach her some of her songs. His sons though were listening to more the good stuff he noted.

Merle Haggard’s Silver Wings was request by an audience member and duly played with feeling and a dedication the man. Watson promised to be back in Ireland soon and as his latest album Vaquero is released soon; that may happen. He is the sort of act that the C2C festival should embrace and his performance would undoubtedly be a hit there as much as it was here.

By way of complete contrast James McMurtry played the main venue in Whelan’s the following night to an equally enthusiastic audience but in a wholly different manner. McMurtry was accompanied by regular drummer Daren Hess, accordion and guitar player Tim Holt (who also handled the sound) and bassist Cornbread. They have a relaxed demeanour onstage as they work through songs from McMurtry’s extensive back catalogue. He commented at one point that since the number he was about to play had been written; a whole new generation had been born and grown up to adulthood. However, that doesn’t detract from their inherent quality. He closed the show with the title song of his 1989, John Mellencamp produced debut, Too Long In The Wasteland.

The characters in McMurtry songs and the situations they may face tend to be somewhat timeless and therefore as relevant today as ever. And though there is nothing overtly political in either the song choices or introductions, the nature of the stories are inherently related to such manipulations. The music spoke for the everyday  people. The rhythm section found it’s groove and McMurtry and Holt’s guitars played off each other well. McMurtry played acoustic, electric and electric dobro while Holt held his own on his black Gibson Les Paul. It was often loud and loose. There were extended and eventful versions of Choctaw Bingo and Red Dress - though, in truth, few of the songs were short in a close to two-hour set. Following which, after a call for “more” McMurtry came onstage to give us a song solo on his acoustic guitar, Lights of Cheyenne. This allowed one to focus on the strength and quality of his lyric writing that would sometimes get lost in the band’s playing. There was no written set list so the band followed McMurtry’s lead which after the years they have played together seems a subconscious thing.

There is no overt stage craft or audience interaction in the performance other than a few comments such as the fact that he told us how some of their significant others though they were "on vacation" when they toured in Europe. He had, he said, addressed that in song but that hadn’t gone down too well and had gotten them in big trouble with various women. Being just the right amount of drunk and pissed off was, he noted, a place you could write a song from if you did it in time. Other than that, he was feeling "good to be back." McMurtry relishes the live stage, more than the studio, and this is pretty obvious in the ease and effusiveness with which he delivers his songs. He may have been too long in the wasteland but it is too long since he was last here, something that he will hopefully remedy when he tours his next album.

Review by Stephen Rapid   Photography by Kaethe Burt-O'Dea


Margo Price @ The Button Factory, Dublin - 22 January 2017


There was a strong sense of anticipation for the first Irish date of Margo Price and the Pricetags. She is a traditionally-minded country music artist who has received prominent exposure in the rock press and mainstream media rather than just the more genre based magazines and websites. The venue was full and kudos to Aiken Promotions for bringing her in with her full band rather than just as a solo act. It sure payed off as the band were terrific.

The show was opened though by her husband Jeremy Ivey who played some songs and offered some good natured banter with the audience. One of his songs Staring At The Wall was about having to stay at home minding their young child while Margo was touring. Margo Price joined him for a couple of songs including a recently written instrumental and a song called I’m Gonna Miss Me about a man contemplating ending everything in a black-humoured way which contained some entertaining lines such as “You can keep the life insurance but be sure to feed the dog.” 

The band took the stage a little later and opened with a storming Jerry Reed instrumental entitled Swarmin’ before Margo joined them with the first of several tracks from her debut album Midwest Farmer’s DaughterAbout To Find Out, Tennessee Song, Since You Put Me Down all followed in a strong if slightly tentative style as both artist and audience got the measure of each other. But she soon got into her stride and began to loosen up and enjoy herself. This was noticeable on the several covers included in the show where she often put down the guitar and simply concentrated on her singing. These were well-chosen cover songs that included Johnny Cash’s Big RiverRed Bandana that came with a dedication to it’s author Merle Haggard and the Dolly Parton classic Jolene - a song which hit the spot for many judging by those singing along.

There was a band cover showcase when they played Nashville Skyline Rag an instrumental from Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline album. This was a show where band and singer (as well as Ivey who joined the band on some nifty harmonica and acoustic guitar for several songs) showed their chops and how well they work as a well-oiled team. Some of the intros bordered on a hard rock noise before setting into the pedal steel and Telecaster twang that ran behind Price’s expressive and impressive voice. These are (some of) the same players who feature on the album: Kevin Black on bass, Jamie Davis on guitar, Luke Schneider on a ShoBud pedal steel guitar and Dillon Napier on drums. All deserve a mention as a major part of the sound and feel.

There were some non-album songs too; notably and the country-themed and genre fitting It Ain’t Drunk Driving If You’re Riding A Horse  (the  song was a “true story” she told us) and Desperate and Depressed a song that was released on the b-side of one of her singles. For the end of the set Price left the stage to sing among the audience on After Hurtin’ (On The Bottle) before she left the main venue. 

She came back after much encouragement from the audience to play the final three song encore segment which included Four Years Of Chances and two covers, an extended and convincing version of Me And Bobby McGee and a final high octane version of Rodney Crowell’s Ain’t Living Long Like This which ended the evening on a high and they all then came forward to take a deserved bow to acknowledge the response from the audience. Later Price came to the merchandising stand to meet and greet those who wanted to say hello. They were many who took the opportunity and many who will remember the evening with a big smile and look forward to the next time that Margo Price brings her Pricetags to town.

Review by Stephen Rapid  Photography by Kaethe Burt O'Dea


Michael McDermott @ Whelan’s, Dublin - 13th December 2016

A singer/songwriter who has been lauded for his ability to tells stories that ring true from personal experience and imagination. Michael McDermott played to a small but enthusiastic audience. in the upstairs venue. This was the end of a European tour and Michael had contacted a sore throat towards the end of the jaunt. He didn’t however let this affect his performance. He sipped hot lemon throughout the show and apologised that his voice wasn’t up to its best. But that didn’t take away from the raw power of his songs and commitment. 

He opened with a trio of songs from his latest album Willow Springs; These Last Few Days, Getaway Car and Folksinger. The latter prefaced by a long and funny story about being that very creature who is “weirder than rock stars” and about the “in the round” scenario whereby three of four writers play a song in turn. A bit like a ‘who has the biggest willie contest’ he noted. He had been asked to play one in Nashville with a trio of writers including Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary fame. Being that his wife was a fan he asked Yarrow if he’d say hello to her on the phone. When the time came for this quick intimate moment, McDermott handed him the phone and instead of an expected “hello” all were treated to a full on, many-versed rendition of Puff The Magic Dragon. Weird Indeed - but thoroughly amusing none-the-less. He also noted that while the other three were introduced with their track record of million selling songs he was introduced as someone who “watches Judge Judy a lot.” So much for getting the big build up before you go on.

Throughout the show, McDermott told anecdotes about the songs and the people behind them. Shadow In The Window was a touching song written for his father about their difficult relationship, which ended with an emotional refrain of “Hey, I Love You” that was honest and universal. He also played a song for his mother, the only song he confessed that she felt that she could sing in church. Where The River Meets The Sea is from the album Hit Me Back and if, like me, you know McDermott from his Westies albums and Willow Springs you can find numerous other Michael McDermott releases on his website.

Many of McDermott’s songs are dark but many have a path to something more positive in their make-up. As he noted at one point you “need the darkness in order to see the light.” There were songs from the Westies album West Side Stories including Trains and Devil. Another song was written for a friend who was wounded in a robbery and discovered in treatment that she had terminal cancer. Carry Your Cross was a poignant and powerful testament to friendship.

McDermott went between guitar and piano for various songs and played the latter when he was joined onstage by Mundy who first met McDermott when he opened for him in Chicago. Mundy played two songs in the two-part set. Firstly, Linchpin and later July - wherein he got the audience to join him in the chorus. Something I’m not sure would have been possible with McDermott’s songs. However, there was an obvious comradeship between the two.

Throughout McDermott’s voice was ragged but determined. Partly due to fatigue and illness but also showing its own quality and highlighting that he is a strong singer as well as a talented writer. He finished his set with an impassioned A Wall I Must Climb but was called back to the stage for two encores, both audience requests, that included Summer Days; a song written for a high school friend who was going to be an actress (and he a rock star). The point being that life doesn’t always deal you the hand you want or expected. These are songs that make you think and react and these days that makes them as striking as those of some of his heroes. McDermott can stand tall in that company.

He told us that he had wanted to play the Dublin venue since seeing Bruce Cockburn playing in Whelan’s and was delighted to get to fulfil that wish and thanked the audience for being a part of that experience. The pleasure was evident from both sides of the stage and next time, hopefully, the word will have spread and more will get to experience the power of his music.

Review and photographs by Stephen Rapid


I Draw Slow @ Whelans - December 11th 2016

This evening is a welcome return home to Dublin band, I Draw Slow. A Christmas gig for their enthusiastic fans at the end of a tour in the USA is just the tonic to get all the political posturing of America out of the collective. Not that the subject is ever mentioned during the performance.

Comprising of Dave Holden (Guitars and Vocals), Louise Holden (Vocals), Konrad Liddy (Upright Bass), Colin Derham (Banjo) and Adrian Hart (Fiddle), this folk/roots band are a very tight unit, all of whom excel on their instruments. Old-time, bluegrass and the North Carolina heritage are touchstones for this interesting band.

The 90- minute set is focused on new material from their forthcoming third release and the compelling rhythm created by the ensemble goes down a treat with an audience who move in tandem with the carefree arrangements.

Louise Holden is a confident spokesperson for the band with a real swing in her performance. Her undoubted vocal talents are to the fore on every song as she knits together the bravado in the playing and the performance.

Mainly comprised of story songs, the set includes much to admire in her harmony vocals with brother David and the feeling that Louise is fully invested in the performance of each song.

Tales of murder, prostitution, weddings, deceit and fallibility all take turns in keeping the crowd entertained while the rhythmic swing of Liddy, Derham and Holden whip up a fine groove. It is left to the fiddle playing of Adrian Hart to raise the tunes and add colour to the arrangements as he plays against the beat and dovetails around the tempo.

Garage Flowers is a fine new song that tells of the hazards of forgetting anniversaries while old favourites such as Goldmine and Valentine are delivered with great fervour. Carolina and Twin Sisters are also well received as a twin track while Little Switzerland is a great example of the band in complete unison and in the moment.

Low Down Girl Like Me closes the show with plenty of cheering and dancing among the assembled fan base. They may want to rethink the band name because there are plenty of bullets to fire from their gun or their artists pen, depending on how you interpret the name…!

Review by Paul McGee  Photograph by Vincent Lennon

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