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


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


David Corley and Band @ Cleeres, Kilkenny -18th May 2017

David Corley at the ripe age of 53, released his debut album Available Light in 2015. Willie Meighan, the pied piper of all things music in The Marble City, was out of the blocks shortly after its release educating his customers and going a long way to establish the album as the Rollercoaster customer album of the year in 2015, by a country mile it has to be said. Corley’s first invitation to our shores was to appear in Kilkenny that year and subsequently perform at The Roots Festival in 2016. Corley and Kilkenny are a marriage made in heaven joining other artists such as Willy Vlautin of Richmond Fontaine, John Murry and Peter Bruntnell to name a few who publicly declare the city and in particular the music room at Cleeres to be a very special and magical place.

That subsequent meeting of minds led to a collective  high level of expectation from the audience,  Mr. Corley and his entourage on his return to Kilkenny, as much a celebration of goodwill, friendship and of course the captivating show that is guaranteed when Corley performs. Accompanying him on his tour of Ireland are his producer and band member Hugh Christopher Brown and Canadian singer songwriter Suzanne Jarvie.

Chris Brown and Suzanne Jarvie’s set was delivered as a duo and featured material from albums previously released by both and songs from Brown’s recent recording Pacem and a preview of Jarvie’s latest work due for release later in the year. Having played Ireland last year it was obvious that they had attracted a number of return punters familiar with their material. The opening song To The Lighthouse, from Brown’s new album titled Pacem, immediately connected with the punters. A beautiful song which recalled duets by Bonnie Prince Billy, the combined vocals of Brown and Jarvie are perfectly matched. Jarvie performed Before and After from her debut album Spiral Road, the title track of the album she’s is currently working on called In The Clear, both gorgeous folk songs soaked in country. Bob Dylan’s Senor also featured which she introduced by remarking how great it was to be in Europe for a while as far away as possible from the current corruption in the States. Brown invited Corley on stage to share the vocals on the quite stunning Moved By Hands To Shelter ( also from the Pacem album) accompanied also by Ger Moloney on accordion.  Brown, tongue in cheek, recalled how he christened it ‘the heart attack song’, composed in hospital visiting Corley when he was recovering from a near fatal heart attack in The Netherlands in 2016.

Taking the stage with Chris Brown and what he described as his garage band Corley’s set initially concentrated on material from his second full album Zero Moon released the previous week. His band consisted of Chris Brown on guitar and keyboards and locals multi-instrumentalist Peter Flynn on bass, Dan Pearson on drums and Dave Holland on guitar with Suzanne Jarvie adding backing vocals and Ger Moloney joining them on accordion on certain songs. Initially propped on a stool to ease a dodgy knee as a result of walking the cobbled street of Kilkenny Corley explained that his garage band had less than five hours to rehearse for the set and pleaded understanding. Over the next ninety minutes he transported everyone in the room through dark, painful and joyous landscapes recounted with his trademark gravely whiskey soaked baritone. Having kicked off with Take Me Down Some and Burning Chrome Corley casually asked his band how they were doing to which Holland cautiously replied ‘Ish’! Brown, always the producer and mentor, took the bull by the horns and after apologising for turning his back to the audience while playing guitar, coached the rhythm section through the next few songs one of which was the epic Desert Mission, one of many highlights from the new album. Despite inevitably straying occasionally Brown’s calming influence on the band  kicked in even managing to eradicate drummer Pearson’s initial ‘dentist waiting room expression’ and relaxing him to the extent that by the end of the set he was delivering backing vocals.

Continuing with material from Zero Moon Corley introduced Never Say Your Name as ‘a song about a girl and I don’t write love songs’ and Whirl, from the new album but written a long time ago which featured Corley switching keyboards and guitar with Brown. Suzanne Jarvie joined them on stage for Zero Moon, a monster of a song, intense, passionate and beautifully delivered both vocally by Corley and the band who appeared to relax and grow as the set developed. ‘Time for some old songs now’ declared Corley before   launching in to Available Light and Easy Mistake from his debut album after which he confided that they were played in the wrong order from the set list to add more confusion to the set. A classic delivery of The Calm Revolution ended the set like a tornado with Corley giving Dave Holland the nod of encouragement to take off the shackles and improvise resulting in some ripping sonic guitar work that brought the house down. Encores included Down With The Universe with Moloney back on stage to add accordion, Vision Pilgrim and Blind Man before Corley finally left the stage after a remarkable evening’s entertainment.

‘I have dreams of walking in to this bar and this music room. It’s such a magical place for Chris and myself to return to, like nowhere else’.

Three hours earlier Richie Healy had opened the evening with a storming set of futuristic alt-folk accompanied on stage by another set of crack local musicians in Conan Doyle (handmade Kydd Bass, extraordinarily beautiful instrument!), Kevin Bruce (Guitar) and Ger Moloney, whose accordion playing added another dimension to all the acts he contributed to over the course of the evening.

In the bar afterwards Corley apologised for the show being a bit on the loose side. On the contrary the spontaneity, improvisation and first night apprehension by the band all added to a most memorable night by an exceptional and very special artist.

Review and photography by Declan Culliton


Andrew Combs @ Kilkenny Rhythm & Roots

Andrew Combs is yet another talented young artist to emerge from East Nashville in recent years, joining the growing list of names flying the flag for Americana, Alt-Country or whatever the latest hip title for the genre might be. The East Nashville scene appears to be akin to an artistic co-op as so many of the same musicians, predominately female by the way, seem to pop up either in each other’s bands or featuring on their albums. Think Margo Price, Nikki Lane, Caitlin Rose, Molly Pardon, Lera Lynn, Erin Rae, J.P. Harris, Kelsey Waldon, Steelism, and you’ll get the picture. Enough talent in that lot and their bands to host a festival in its own right.

Combs and his band Jerry Bernhardt (Guitar), Dominic Billett (Drums) and Charlie Whitten (Bass) arrived in Kilkenny jet lagged and got straight down to business with gigs scheduled for lunchtime in Cleeres on Sunday 30th of April and the closing show of the festival at Kytelers on Monday 1st May at 9pm.

Hitting the festival armed with his latest and most ambitious and mature album to date, Canyons of My Mind. He also came accompanied with the tightest three-piece band you could imagine and their chemistry on stage at both shows was a joy to behold. Material on his latest album features dreamlike layers of strings on a number of tracks and he and his band managed to recreate the material live quite wonderfully, not an easy task. My first experience of Combs live was as the opening act for Caitlin Rose in Whelan’s four years ago, his talent apparent as he played an acoustic set of strong self-penned material before appearing with Rose’s backing band. It’s now barely nine months since the last occasion that I saw Combs perform with his band at The Fond Object in East Nashville and the progress over that short period of time has been staggering. His latest album may have caught a number of his followers slightly off guard, the Roy Orbison and Nilsson influences remain but a hardcore, edgier and fuller sound has also crept into his work allowing his band to let loose at times, a dimension which works spectacularly well in both his live performances at the Festival.  

His first show at lunchtime in Cleere’s to a sold-out house is a definite winner, a highlight of the weekend, a pin drop performance in fact. Togged out in a smart black suit, white shirt and cowboy boots he plays the perfect set focusing, as can be expected, on quite an amount of material from Canyons of My Mind mixed with some of the highlights from his earlier work.  In true traditional country writing style, unrequited love is well represented in particular by Lauralee and the beautiful Hazel, which Combs performs solo as an encore at both shows.

The more sonic additions on the current album also work spectacularly well live, Heart of Wonder and the anti-Trump Bourgeois King, which ended the sets at both venues, delivered with total passion on both occasions.

The closing slot at any festival can be the poisoned chalice with expectations high and in Comb’s case made all the more challenging having already performed the previous day and in quite a few cases to the same punters. The festival organisers made a brave choice given that previous years had featured rockabilly and blues bands bookending the festival and performing high octane sets to an expectant audience. In this case, they got the artist selection spot on with Combs and his band having the ability to rock out at times but also managing to silence a potentially boisterous audience, on the more mellow choices such as Too Stoned To Cry from his debut album and the equally moving Rainy Day Song and Strange Bird from his 2015 release All These Dreams.

Combs most definitely has the potential to follow in the footsteps of his Nashville neighbours Sturgill Simpson and Margo Price by making a major industry breakthrough and on the evidence of these two performance it’s more than well deserved.

Review and photograph by Declan Culliton


Kilkenny Rhythm & Roots Review

The Kilkenny Roots Festival is now in it’s 20th year and it has evolved over the years to it’s current singer/songwriter Americana axis but with enough diversity of music to pretty much please ever taste from some hardcore country to the harder edges of rock. There are numerous venues taking part in the event and while some are more suited to the live process all have gained their reputations as welcoming venues. Here is a selection of just three of many acts playing this year.

There were obvious highlights, as there are every year, and they will depend on personal taste but from the word of mouth on one such act was the Western Centuries. The band, who feature three key singers and songwriters, had a winning combination of musical skill, humour, love of what they do and perhaps most importantly a set of good songs. Western Centuries consists of Cahalen Morrison, Jim Miller and Ethan Lawton who ostensibly play rhythm guitar, lead guitar and drums respectively. But in truth are more variable with Morrison and MIller swopping acoustic and electric guitar depend who was taking the lead vocal on their self-written song. However it doesn’t stop there as Morrison and Lawton also swop roles with the later coming to the front to sing and Morrison playing the drums. This proved to allow for some onstage banter and for the set to have a variety that was with entertaining and effective. Completing the line-up and adding much to the overall context of the show was upright bassist Travis Stuart and very talented steel player Leo Grassl. The steel added a layer to the overall sound that grounded it solidly in traditional country roots.

However, Western Centuries are not retro copyists and are in fact a living, breathing entity whose music is as relevant to an audience now as it would have been back in the ‘50s. The set included several from their debut album Weight Of The World. These included Knocking ‘Em Down, Off The Shelf, Hallucinations, In My Cups a song that Lawton noted was about his 6th grade teacher who had got into trouble; a bar fight with another adult he added rather than anything more salubrious. They also played Double Or Nothing by special request. There were also some new ones such as Cloud Of Woes and Three Swallows - a drinking song or rather a song about drink that references the Powers Whiskey label. There was one about a telemarketer, an inverted individual who likes to drink at home listening to his own records in his own private honky-tonk. One that mentioned “warm guns” and the way they played it tonight was, they said, their best yet. These tales from the “United States of Weird Americans” are scheduled for the next album which they are hoping to start recording on soon. 

They played two sets to a packed room, at one point asking the audience to move forward in the already crowed space to allow late comers to enter. Then commenting that there was room for one onstage who could play tambourine or rub board! They also asked that any pictures of the band should not show them drinking as the told their families that they didn’t drink on tour. This envisaged a big laugh as the evidence was very much to the contrary. Aside from the obvious strength of the playing and songwriting on offer there was a sense of ease and humour among them that enhanced the enjoyment of the show. One that finished with them being called back for an encore. That was dedicated to some of the great musicians lost recently and was a spirited version of Merle Haggard’s Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down. But tonight the band didn’t let us down and showed that Western Centuries would be welcome back at any time.

Holly Macve, joined by her three piece band, played a short 40 mins set that confirms her a new and interesting voice. One who seemed to have been a highlight of the weekend for many. Drawing on her debut album Golden Eagle. Initially she took the stage accompanied only by her guitar player Tommy Ashby who brought some subtle but telling tones to her songs. Anyone familiar with her voice on record would have seen her duplicate it’s tremulous and tender voice onstage. Those who may have been fans of Paula Frazer and Tarnation will recognise a similarity. Though having seen both acts Frazer and her band varied the tempo and mood of the songs more than Macve does here.

Macve moves between (borrowed) acoustic guitar and electric keyboard for different songs. Some employ bass and drums to underpin them with an added depth but alongside the key element of her voice it is Ashby slide guitar that is the main focus of the song. Aside from the her own songs the 9 song set included two covers, Melanie Safka’s We Don’t Know Where We’re Going a staple of her live set and sung solo at the piano before with to guitar one which she described as risky - a version of Willie Nelson’s Crazy (performed for Willie’s birthday that day) with a fine Nelson influenced electric guitar solo from Ashby. Communication between Macve and the audience was sparse enough as she preferred to let the music speak. Something that worked in the short set but may have seem lacking over a longer time frame. 

There was a pervading melancholy to her songs of heartbreak that included a piano-led Golden Eagle and closed with a slow lament in Sycamore Tree. She left the stage to resounding applause from the faithful as well as a set of new fans and there is no denying her talent and voice. It will be interesting to see how Macve develops her sound and songwriting in the future making her next album one to watch out for when it emerges.

Another making his debut at the Kilkenny Festival was the former Sons Of Fathers member and now solo artist Paul Cauthen. His album My Gospel finds the singer/songwriter delivering his music with a solid voice and traditionally leaning soulful country sound. In person it is a different story as it is stripped right back to it’s essence of story, voice and guitar … and Cauthen’s presence. Which is a big one which holds the audience’s attention for the hour long show. “I come from Texas and have been traveling America for the last 10 years. Now I’m thankful to spread my music across the big water” are the words that Cauthen greets us with. He also tells us that coming here to Kilkenny was the first he had stepped outside of an airport and that previously the oldest thing he had seen was the Alamo. He reflected that Kilkenny was a beautiful old city. 

He also told us that his relationship had recently broken down and that had resulted in some new songs. He said that the particular lady had been his muse for 5 years. It is these hard won (and lost) relationship with family that are at the core of Cauthen’s writing and of his album. A couple of the songs especially received a strong reaction from the audience who felt empathy with their theme and immediacy. These were Better Last Name and Hanging Out On The Line. Other songs that came from the album included

Let’s It Burn, Still Drivin’, Saddle as well as the title song. His version of Fulsom Prison Blues also we well suited to him and was equally well appreciated. 

Cauthen’s music has the air of an outlaw and his beard and black cowboy hat pretty much reflect that image. But that is backed up by his mix of tender and tough, of passion and pain. Contrasts that make his music more real and rewarding. This is obvious across the set of personal ballads that talk of his life and times, of his background and upbringing. His father, he explained, was leader in the church in Tyler, Texas and that his grandfather and his twin brother would lead the service. He also sang there and was dressed up in a 3 piece suit to make him look snazzy in the church. However, he then quipped, “I haven’t been snazzy since!” 

That grounding may play an important part in the way his voice is used to express his inner feelings. It has been noted that there are reminders of Waylon Jennings in his vocal as well as a hint of Raul Malo's vocal dexterity. Cauthen also impresses with his range and delivering that goes from big and boomy to something gentler and considered. An hour in this basic form might well be enough and it would be interesting to see him with a band next time out. Either way Cauthern made his mark and wetted the appetite for his next album and his next visit.

All of these gigs took place in the welcoming surrounding of Billy Byrnes pub whose back room is one of the premier venues that participates in the Roots Festival. 

With thanks to Willy Byrne, John Cleere and also to Willie Meighan

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


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