Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit @ The Olympia Dublin 27th October 2017

"But I sobered up and got off that stuff, forever this time" sings Jason Isbell mid-way through a thrilling one hour forty five minute set at The Olympia Theatre. The words and sentiment are from Cover Up, the opening track on his breakthrough album Southeastern, and don’t go unnoticed by large numbers in the audience, generating a warm response. The autobiographical song speaks of a life changing turning point for Isbell and not coincidentally the beginning of his ascension to his rightful position as the stand out songwriter of his generation. He’s travelled quite a journey from his initial introduction to Dublin audiences at a crammed Whelan’s eleven years ago as the young wildman in  Drive By Truckers, complete with a bottle of Jack Daniels on hand and an attitude to match. Further drunken escapes in Dublin, as recalled by him this evening, include ending up in a drunk woman’s apartment with keyboard player and cohort Derry De Borja, having been locked out of their hotel and seriously fearing they might not get out of the apartment alive. Water under the bridge now for the sober and extremely fit looking Isbell who takes the stage this evening with his loyal and trusted comrades (whom he individually introduces on four occasions during the performance), Jimbo Hart (bass), Chad Gamble (drums), Sadler Vaden (guitar) and Derry De Borja (keyboards).

He’s back in town barely six months after his last visit to Dublin where he performed at Bord Gais Theatre on stage with John Prine and his wife Amanda Shires. The anticipation at the Olympia this evening is palpable with Isbell on a purple patch with his current album The Nashville Sound striking gold on the Billboard Country at No.1 and No.4 in the Billboard Top 200 album charts. No mean achievement given some of the politically charged content on the album which would normally alienate the somewhat conservative Country music market.

Kicking off the evening’s entertainment is North Carolina’s Tift Merritt, an artist not unknown in Ireland having performed a number of times previously. Notwithstanding that, she is noticeably moved by the positive reaction to her set only a couple of songs in, with pin drop silence during her deliveries and requests shouts from early on. ‘I really can’t believe you actually know some of my songs, I’m moving here’ she jokes. Switching between acoustic guitar, electric guitar and piano her set includes her signature songs Stray Papers, Good Hearted Man and Travelling Alone. Responding to a request from the audience she performs Another Country on piano, introducing the song with the comment that ‘it’s terrible being an American today, you all know what I’m talking about’. Closing her thirty five minute set with The Feel of The World from her See You On The Moon album, I find myself scratching my head to recall a support act, particularly performing solo, that has earned such a positive audience response from a Dublin audience in recent years.

Twenty minutes later and Isbell is on stage with his crack 400 Unit and from the opener Anxiety  from his latest album, to his memorable final encore of Tom Petty’s American Girl you’re left in no doubt that you’re witnessing a musician and band at the top of their game. Great sound, striking stage lighting and a band that certainly live up to their billing by performing very much as a unit, note perfect and collectively as tight as you could imagine. Isbell, to his credit, never plays the same set list at successive shows, varying both the content and the order so the element of surprise always remains, unlike other artists who robotically follow the same listing show after show. Last of My Kind, Tupelo, White Man’s World and a cracking Cumberland Gap from Nashville Sound all feature together with the gorgeous If We Were Vampires. 24 Frames and Something More Than Free from the album of the same name also get an airing. Stockholm and Travelling Alone from Southeastern are also included with Isbell explaining  that unknowingly both himself and Tift Merritt both recorded songs titled Travelling Alone around the same time and noting that she had played her rendition earlier. Decoration Day, his classic from the Drive By Trucker days, is recognisable from the first few chords and the closing number and another Trucker’s anthem Never Gonna Change brings the house down, extended by a couples of minutes compliments of a sizzling guitar duel between Isbell and Sadler Vaden. Elephant is possibly the most striking and painful song in Isbell’s catalogue and is played as the first of two encores.  Leading in to it on acoustic guitar before being joined by De Borja on keyboards Isbell’s delivery is goose bumps inducing and further evidence of an artist that has the talent to create both uplifting and heart wrenching material. The final number as previously mentioned is appropriately Tom Petty’s American Girl and with the calibre of musicians on stage it’s no surprise that they absolutely nail it.

Ten minutes after the stage has been vacated and the stewards are trying to clear the venue you can sense that a huge number of punters are stunned by what they have just witnessed and the expression ‘gig of the year’ seems to echo around the hall. Gig of the year. Who am I to argue?

 After all the man is absolutely on fire!

Review and photos by Declan Culliton


Mark Olson @ Whelan’s, Dublin - 24th October 2017

Nearly three years previously at the same venue Mark Olson took to the stage accompanied by his wife Ingunn Ringvold and performed a set mostly comprising material from his album Good-Bye Lizelle, released earlier that year. Quite experimental by his standards, the album was recorded using non-mainstream instrumentation, full of Eastern and Asian influences and suggested a new departure for Olson.

Three years and one album later the pair return to the same venue and the advancement is quite noticeable in many ways. Olson’s latest album Spokeswoman Of The Bright Sun does not abandon the worldly feel of its predecessor but instead blends flawlessly with his talent as an inventive songwriter and creator of so many distinct songs.  It also retains the cottage industry feel of Lizelle with both his and Ringvold’s personalities firmly stamped on it. 

What has not changed is their interesting choice of instruments and the distinctive sounds they create as a two piece, whether it be a combination of Olson’s trusted Fender and Ringvold’s echoing Djembe drum or the sonic bonding of his Appalachian Dulcimer and her harpsichord sounding Armenian Qanon. Their chemistry on stage is sincere and uplifting, two people on stage quite obviously cherishing what they are doing and managing to create a house concert atmosphere in the room.

The set comprises of sixteen songs in total, six taken from his current album, three from Lizelle, six from his Jayhawk days and one from his career changing classic The Salvation Blues, recorded ten years ago. Introducing material from the current album, Olson points out early in the evening that it is genuinely his most favourite of all his work adding "Ingunn and I have a really good thing going at the moment." Their stage banter is gentle and relaxed, Ringberg explaining the lush floral landscape on the current album cover- photographed at their desert home in Joshua Tree - and how that greenery only occurs rarely and for a very short time while Olson recalled how he blocked up all the windows in their house and barricaded himself indoors in advance of the recent eclipse with dread of blindness on venturing out of the house, a sentiment not embraced by his wife who, ignoring the warning signs, boldly ventured outdoors and returned unscathed.

Seminole Valley Tea Sipper Society, Dear Elisabeth from that album feature early in the set with Olson on guitar and Ringberg on percussion before she switches to Qanon on the album’s title track, creating a delightful sound that falls somewhere between harpsichord and sitar. The selection of Jayhawks material is a reminder of the quality of Olson’s writing for the band with favourites Blue, Clouds, Over My Shoulder, Pray For Me and a particularly impressive remodel of Two Angels all featuring.

Somewhat apprehensively and solemnly he announces that the second last song is challenging to perform and that its "important I get this one right." The song in question is You Are All from his current album and you got the impression that his concern was not in a technical sense but that the song is dedicated to his wife and that the delivery is valuable to him.

Clifton Bridge from The Salvation Blues closes the show, ("We Came Here To Live, There’s A Hope In Our Hearts"), a touching and timeless melody and sentiment, fittingly written when Olson was recovering from rock bottom and about to rebuild a career that thankfully has gone from strength to strength since then. He is an artist that has certainly proven throughout his career that there is much to be gained by following your instincts and not merely settling for the easy option when navigating the numerous sign posts met along the journey. This leg of that journey unquestionably finds Olson as creative and vital as at any other stage of that musical pilgrimage.

Earlier in the evening the most impressive Wexford duo The Remedy Club played a storming and very well received opening set featuring material from their debut album Lovers, Legends and Lost Causes, released only two weeks ago. The duo consists of Aileen Mythen (vocals and percussion) and KJ Mc Evoy (guitar and vocals) and their combination of gorgeous harmony vocals, slick guitar playing and striking stage presence shone brightly on Big Ol’Fancy, Last Song, When Tom Waits Up, Bottom of the Hill and their current single Come On. Certainly an act worth checking out and further reassurance of the wealth of local talent that we are blessed with at present.

Full marks and a big shout out to local promoter Ray Rooney who continues to bring in a host of excellent artists that we may otherwise not get the opportunity to enjoy.

Review and photography by Declan Culliton and Paul Mc Gee


Ulster American Folk Park 26th Annual Bluegrass Festival - Omagh Sep1-3 2017


Richard Hurst and his team at National Museums NI near Omagh, Co Tyrone have pulled off yet another successful and enjoyable festival of Bluegrass despite the constraints of reduced budgets and sometimes inclement weather. It’s not for no reason that the festival was nominated for an International Bluegrass Music Award for Bluegrass Event Of The Year in 2017.

Utilising the park’s ready made sets of historic American and Irish homesteads, barns, shops and even a replica famine ship, the artists get to play in a variety of indoor and outdoor locations. Most of the stages have an excellent sound system installed for the occasion.

The main stage is a semi-open tented area, close to the bar and food stalls.

Regulars know by now that they can bring their own seating and set themselves up there for the day. The unique joy of this festival is being able to wander through the woods, corn fields and paddocks en route to finding another interesting act from Ireland, the UK, Europe and the Americas.

Wellies and an umbrella are sometimes needed, but this doesn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the crowds that turn up in their thousands every year.

Robirohi returned here from Estonia for the umpteenth time - and they are beloved by the locals. They mostly perform traditional and modern bluegrass covers in English, but this year one of their surprises was an Emmylou Harris song sung in Estonian. They closed out one of their sets with the gospel standard Get Down On Your Knees And Pray - which they did, literally.

Another Friday night highlight was the Sligo string band Old Hannah, who are going from strength to strength. Not bluegrass, no, but they are purveyors of mostly original material in the folk/country/swing realm. 

Flats and Sharps came in for the weekend from Cornwall - they performed six sets over the three days, always at breakneck speed. Each of the five band members are expert players and unusually they play mostly original material. 

Saturday provides a choice of six stages throughout the park, and the clever programming allows one to see most of the acts at least once. 

The Clew Bay Critters were paying their first visit from their Wesport base and impressed with their mix of gentle bluegrass, old time and gypsy jazz - perfect for a sunny(ish) afternoon gig while the punters relaxed on their deck chairs and picnicked.

Richie Foley & Paddy Kiernan are well known throughout the country among fans of the genre, and have played in various combos over recent years. This was my first time seeing them play extended sets together and they were one of my highlights. Paddy (Dublin) plays banjo, including a six-string model, while Richie is equally impressive on both bouzouki and mandolin. Their huge repertoire covered traditional bluegrass and old time tunes, original tunes and even modern covers like Springsteen’s I’m on Fire.

The undoubted highlight of the weekend was the return of one of the living legends of bluegrass, Dale Ann Bradley and her band. She was in fine form and her voice was stronger than ever. She and her band were clearly delighted to be back, and this time she had her son, John Fitzgerald Bradley, on bass. The band’s repertoire is so vast that they played an almost completely different set on each of the three occasions when they played (to very appreciative audiences). Dale Ann lived up to her reputation (five time IBMA Female Bluegrass Performer of the year) with her effortless, clear and pure vocals. And they didn’t just play the usual bluegrass standards and Dale Ann’s own compositions - they covered songs from other genres, for example an 80s hit song by the Gin Blossoms Until I Hear it From You. Dobroist Matt Leadbetter showed that he’s not just a mean dobro player when he took the lead vocals on a Reno and Smiley number. Mike Sumner on banjo is also a multiple award winning player (Winfield, Kansas, Merlefest) and Tennessean Scott Powers impressed on mandolin. There’s a strong gospel influence here and Dale Ann is not afraid to wear her heart on her sleeve. She admitted to getting “choked up sometimes when you’ve lived these songs”. She wasn’t the only one.

Particularly moving was her rendition of the Kenny Rogers song The Stranger, which was covered by Kenny and Dolly. Their cover of U2’s I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For was a complete surprise but it really worked!

The night was ended on high octane by the ever popular RackHouse Pilfer, who played a blistering set. They cleverly weave bluegrass with rock and roll into something indefinable but always very well received, even by the musical purists. There was disappointment all round, however, when they confirmed the rumour that they were to disband (or ‘take a sabbatical’) in two weeks time. Ironically, this coincides with the release of their new rockier album on vinyl and cd. Let’s hope we see them back again in the future.

Unfortunately I missed one of the popular Saturday events - the McLecture. This year, Dale Ann Bradley was interviewed by Frank Galligan, and sources report that it was a superb and moving experience.

Sunday dawned with more of the same wonderful musical offerings around the park, and although the drizzle arrived, this didn’t stop the families and music fans from turning up and making the most of the day.

Vancouver’s Viper Central were, for this reviewer,  another of the standout acts of the weekend. Despite the fact that they were at the end of a long European tour, and had to have a substitute bass player drafted in for the weekend, they were nothing short of superb in the many sets that they performed. Kathleen Nisbet’s vocals and fiddle playing were matched by the inspired Steve Charles’ flatpicking, and by Chris’s banjo playing. Each of the three of them were more than competent at taking the lead on vocals, although Kathleen’s rich and powerful voice is up there with the best of female vocalists of the genre - could it be something to do with her Irish heritage?! Look out for a review of their latest recording on this website in the near future.

The new addition of some outdoor games and themed photo opportunities was an inspired move and went down very well with children and ‘bigger kids’ alike.

The not-so-secret weapon of this annual festival just has to be mentioned - Frank Galligan. Frank is the best MC in these islands, full stop. His good humour and stories are matched by his deep understanding, knowledge and love of the music and of the characters that populate it, (and his sartorial elegance is equally renowned!)

The day was rounded off by the Spirit Of Bluegrass concert in the appropriate location that is the Mountjoy Meeting House. I just had time to sample a smidgeon of Robirohi’s set, in the atmospheric historic venue as the sun went down, and I was certainly envious of those who got to enjoy the sold out event, capped by the Dale Ann Bradley Band doing what they love best.

There were several more bands playing over the festival but unfortunately I didn’t get around to experiencing them all. And there’s a parallel programme of visits to local schools, nursing homes and churches that only the lucky local residents get to experience. Do put the festival in your diary for 2018.

Report by Eilís Boland  Photography by Ronnie Norton (except Clew Bay Critters from their website)


Marty Stuart & The Fabulous Superlatives @The Olympia, Dublin 12 oct 2017

Marty Stuart led his Fabulous Superlatives onto the Olympia stage to warm applause and great expectations; Expectations that were met in spades. The 22 song set was an expanded version of the one he played earlier this year at C2C in the 3 Arena and it was a masterclass in how country music should be delivered in 2017. The music touched on many different points in Marty’s four decade plus career, from hits such as Tempted, The Whiskey Ain’t Working and the closing Hillbilly Rock which is a song that could be said to sum up their ethos. As usual Marty was dressed in black with a long jacket and flared leather trousers. The band were attired in their blue sequinned, embroidered Manuel suits - which picked up the lighting and sparkled, as did the band.

Stuart said he’d played in bands since the age of 9 and this was the best he’s ever played with. Something that tonight’s show clearly underlined. Highlights were Kenny Vaughan’s sensitive and dynamic playing that saw him move from Rickenbacker to Telecaster to twin-necked 6 and 12 string Gibson (shades of Jimmy Page) to a Martin acoustic. His skill was breath-taking at times. It should be noted too that Stuart is no slouch and the note for note guitar duets the pair delivered were testament to that. However this band is perfectly balanced and Vaughan and Stuart allowed each other the space to play together with one taking the rhythm role if the other was playing lead. Chris Scruggs is an equally adept musician who plays a Fender Telecaster bass as well as an upright bass in the band. In his own work he also plays guitar and pedal steel amongst other instruments. Harry Stinson is a perfect example of the kind of drummer who understands how to drive the music without ever overpowering it, as so many these days do and he has subtlety and sensitivity in his playing.

All are strong singers in their own right and each took time at the microphone. Vaughan played Country Music Got A Hold Of Me and Nice Like That while Scruggs delivered Got the Bull By the Horns. Stinson played his showpiece, Woody Guthrie’s Pretty Boy Floyd, where he held the note on the word Oklahoma for an impressively long time to great applause. Of course they were able to provide stunning harmonies on the acoustic songs where around a single mic they excelled at three and four part close harmonies. During the set the band left the stage and Stuart told of his difficulties in writing a sing about his friend, neighbour, former bandleader and (for a brief period) father-in-law, Johnny Cash. The resulting song which finally came to him, Dark Bird, was a highlight. Also in this solo set he played a version of Orange Blossom Special that focussed on his mandolin playing dexterity. 

Another stand-out was their version of El Paso, a song they had originally agreed to perform as tribute when the legendary Grady Martin was inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame. Stuart noted that after he had agreed to do the song he realised  just how long and complex it was but well, they are The Fabulous Superlatives and they could perform it as indeed they proved they could. Another tribute was Mama Tried at the request of an audience member. Stuart told of his being asked to preach at Haggard’s funeral and related what a loss Merle Haggard’s death was to him personally and to the world. Humorously he dedicated the song to an acquaintance, Rooster, whom he described as a real knucklehead who decided to start drinking again to honour Haggard’s passing and then decided he was going to jump a train to go to Hag’s California funeral only to discover the train was in fact only going to another part of the town!

There was a focus on the latest album, Way Out West, which Stuart said was the equivalent of spending 21 days on Willie Nelson’s tour bus. New songs included Air Mail Special, Whole Lot of Highway and the instrumentals Mojave and Torpedo. Other songs played included a great version of Endless Sleep written originally in 1958 Jody Reynolds and a hit for him as well as Marty Wilde in the UK. It was, Stuart said, one of the story songs that got him into country music. He is still there, but far from being stuck in a time warp. He and The Fabulous Superlatives keep the genre (in its many forms) vital and very much alive. Stuart promises to be back with the band next year and many of those who were there will be back again too.

Review by Steve Rapid   Edited by Sandy Harsch  Photographed by Kaethe Burt-O'Dea


Michael McDermott @ the DC Club, Dublin - Sun 1st Oct 2017

Sunday night at the DC Club and Michael McDermott is making a final stop on his European tour. His affiliation with and affection for Ireland are an integral part of his upbringing and he tells some terrific tales of growing up in an Irish-American household with some of that good old catholic guilt and religion circling the extended family members.

Not that it’s a case of running down old tradition and thrashing the past; this gifted artist takes these experiences and hones them into finely crafted songs that play out like short-stories in front of your eyes. He is a very lyrical writer and the words conjure up neighbourhoods and characters that we can all recognise and feel part of, with a sense that we have somehow known them already.

Michael McDermott has been an accomplished song-writer since his first recording back in the early 1990’s and has gone on to release close to 20 albums, either as a solo performer or with his band, The Westies. It is true to say that he has experienced both excess and hard times in the life he has lived.

He is a passionate performer, giving a great deal of energy and honesty to his vignettes on life and love. His stories from the stage tell of drug addiction and robbery, leading to some time spent in prison. This living life on the edge has shaped him and he speaks from a place of self-awareness and maturity about the journey taken.

The set tonight draws from all parts of his career, from A Wall I Must Climb, (released as a single in 1991) all the way through to Willie Rain, a song written for his daughter who was born in 2010. Indeed, these are personal songs and Shadow In The Window is about his father and the relationship they had over many years, defined by a degree of indifference. Ending with the lines "Now there’s a shadow in the window that’s missing; I’m having a hard time letting go – I love you …" Both poignant and powerful to witness live on keyboards.

He played a number of songs from the last album Willow Springs (2016) and Butterfly is a look back to his years as a junkie and the passing of an old friend. Solo acoustic versions of These Last Few Days and Getaway Car are mixed with earlier songs like Trains, A Deal With the Devil, The Great American Novel and No.49 while a new song, I Know A Thing Or Two About Being Knocked Down, is a quick-fire semi-rap that shows all the lyricism and verbal dexterity that his razor-like intelligence can conjure.

Many of the songs contain a naked honesty and if he sometimes uses the stage as a cathartic means to expel his demons, playing acoustic guitar, harmonica and keyboards like this; well, it’s certainly a trip worth taking. As Michael himself sings in the song I Know a Place;

"Yeah sometimes, you feed the darkness, Yeah sometimes, you heed the darkness,Yeah sometimes, you need the darkness in order to ever see the light."

At all points there is a deep humanity and humility at play and the attentive crowd pick up on every part of this compelling performance.

A word also for the opening act, Beki Hemingway who was a very welcome surprise. Living in Gorey, Co. Wexford by way of Denver, she appeared with her husband, Randy Kirkman on guitar and delivered a set of seven songs that highlighted her superb voice and vocal tone. A very engaging performer and someone to watch over the coming months as she tries to rebuild a career that she had stepped away from for a period of 10 years. She has a new release out now titled Whins and Weather and a number of the songs tonight are taken from it – watch this space … 

Review by Paul McGee  Photography by Kaethe Burt O'Dea

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