Kilkenny City- once the capital of Ireland, home to the mighty Smithwicks brew, and most notably, welcoming city for our Lithuanian brothers and sisters who are joining us in the grand European enterprise. As helicopters circle Dublin for the “Day of Welcomes”, and the Phoenix Park is closed down for Tony Blair’s visit, there’s some other important business going on as well- the 7th Carlsberg Kilkenny Rhythm and Roots Festival, just 100km away from the gathered big knobs of the EU.
Many will have tried to tell you that this particular festival is special- and it’s easy to be sceptical- right up until the moment you get here. Cill Chainnigh’s blue skies, its 58,000 pubs, and its relaxed atmosphere all get you right in the mood; the 50’s throwbacks, the alt.country rockers and our Baltic friends all mix surprisingly well with the locals, who are accepting and friendly, despite their City being overtaken for the whole of the Bank Holiday.
The full line-up is to be found at http://www.kilkennyroots.com/, and what follows is purely a selection of personal favourite moments from a weekend with almost too much to choose from.
Big surprise of the weekend were several excellent (and free!) sets from the Michael Weston King band, which includes the spectacularly talented Alan Cook on pedal steel, fresh from touring with Matt Hill.
Mr W-K Playing at Lanagan’s
All four members put in great performances, and I have to confess, brought more dampness to the eyes than any other act over the weekend; especially moving were “Tim Hardin 65”, which most be the most wistful song ever written, and the sublimely perfect “Lay Me Down”, with it’s segue into “Waiting Around to Die” by Townes Van Zandt, who the whole piece is dedicated to.
A Decent Man indeed, and one you should get to see live sooner rather than later; the MWK band scored highest in winning over more punters than everyone else every time they played.
Richmond Fontaine onstage at Dempsey’s
Portland OR boys Richmond Fontaine played their hearts out in the small function room at the back of Dempsey’s pub, just the two of them bringing their dusty stories of delinquency, bad childhoods and dead-end existence sharply to life, with Willy Vlautin sounding like a latter day Jay Farrar who actually means it.
Many songs from their excellent “Post To Wire” album got an outing, and they are surely the true inheritors of the “No Depression” flag, tattered and dulled though it might now be; they breath new life into the genre, are genuinely very talented and put a great deal of themselves into their performance.
Talking of Jay Farrar- legend, alumni of Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt, scene godfather and all round walking miracle- he was the biggest disappointment of the weekend for this writer, coming in even lower on the scale than his set at The Greys in Brighton last year.
His show at the Ormonde Hotel was enlivened by the multi-talented James Walbourne, who has played guitar with more artists than I care to remember, but nothing could really get this performance off the ground, as Mr Farrar either cared not at all, or had simply had a charisma-ectomy on his way across the Atlantic. Either way, he looked thoroughly bored by the whole proceedings- the good reaction that he got was largely due to the quick fifteen hours of drinking the audience had fitted in that afternoon, though some of us were shocked into sudden sobriety. Once more with feeling, please Jay.
Mr Farrar has 40 winks
Polar opposite of Jay was the quite marvelous Caitlin Cary, who despite being a trouper still retains charm, and a genuine desire to entertain; her set at The Widow’s pub held a packed bar rapt for the best part of two hours, with straight down the line fiddle numbers, great pop songs like “Shallow Heart “ and a fine line in stories and japes about how The Corrs should cover one of her tunes.
She also played a rather dodgy number, comparing her husband to a pony, which presumably means something different in North Carolina; here, it provoked fits of giggles and puzzled looks, but still maintained her soaring, fine, mellifluous vocal, packed with warmth and more charisma than a bus load of lads from Belleville IL.
Caitlin may never have the pleasure of hearing one of her songs top the charts, she may not be quite as good looking as the Corrs, and she may well continue to be over-shadowed by her former band-mate, Mr Ryan Adams.
Despite all of this, however, she was one of the major highlights of the festival, and this particular audience would have happily listened to her for the rest of the day.
Over the other side of town, Laura Veirs time has truly come- here in Kilkenny, she was much more relaxed than when I saw her last in Brighton, her Ma was over from Seattle, and her interplay with Karl Blau is now so finely tuned that it’s marvel to behold.
Ms Veirs looking suitably intense
Highlights here were the swaying folk-hip-hop of “Up in the Air”, Karl looping organic noise into beats, and “Shadow Blues”, where their voices weave in and out of each other, Karl so low and quiet that he’s almost imperceptible.
Lyrically, Veirs impresses as well- her singing style is utterly clear and there are no guesses as to what she is getting at; she has a knack of gathering striking phrases and laying them next to melodies in such a way as to strike wonder in the heart of the listener.
Lines such as “the fate of Kurt Cobain went coursing through his veins” and “going to dig a coal mine, climb down deep inside” are literary and familiar all at the same time.
Her music is a place that we can take comfort and wonder, and is a gift and a refuge for those who have fallen out of love with pop-culture, despite her regular referencing of it.
Her label Bella Union have an exceptional roster- including Explosions In The Sky, The Czars and various ex-Cocteau Twins, yet in this form, she is firmly at the top of the heap and should be well positioned to sell buckets of records.
And so, to the performance of the weekend, the finale, the big kahuna burger as they say: Hot Club of Cowtown.
Straight outta Austin, TX, Hot Club have blazed a magnificent trail across Britain and Ireland in recent times, doing more for the PR of that state than most current Texans of note. Jools Holland favourites and media darlings, Elena, Whit and Jake had already played the Watergate Theatre tonight, and put on this extra show in the backroom restaurant space of Bollards Pub (one of the finest watering holes anywhere in Ireland), with Kilkenny Castle and a full moon as a backdrop.
The space is bursting with atmosphere and good will, and 50 of us just squeeze in, the most mixed audience of the weekend- high quality rockabillies, country people, well-to-do English ex-hippies and anyone who knew that this was going to be the best time we’re likely to have until the next time. The fact that this show was unannounced and unadvertised meant that you had to seek it out, and such tenacity was rewarded with a 2 hour set, literally dripping with energy, style, talent and home-grown star quality.
Whit makes like a well dressed 50’s jazz version of Hendrix, or something
The not un-beautiful or un-talented Ms Elena Fremerman of Prairie Village, KS.
Notwithstanding all of the above, which makes them a pretty compelling act, one of the true joys of watching these people is the sheer depth and breadth of their knowledge and love for both jazz and country- their “Pennies From Heaven” reduced hardened rockabillies to tears, and their “Orange Blossom Special” kicked our asses all the way to Waterford and back.
Truly, they can switch between the genres so seamlessly and with such proficiency that it’s like watch several bands, though it’s fair to say that Whit leads the swing numbers more often, and Elena hits the mic to do the lead vocals on the rural numbers.
A band so far out in front that they are in an exclusive league entirely by themselves.
So, how to summarise a weekend where you can go from unbelievable gig to unbelievable gig in a matter of moments, the only stumbling block being the number of fine bars in this beautiful city?
Kilkenny High St., home to more pubs than you shake a large stick at.
Well, firstly, this was an excellent example of how good music in small venues in a small City breeds an intimacy and vibe that far exceeds those enormous tent cities at Reading and Glastonbury; it was an outstanding demonstration of how there is a close knit and wildly enthusiastic audience for roots music. And it was an example of how a single-minded promoter can put together a dream bill for people who are used to hours on public transport for every half decent show in their bit of these Islands.
Kilkenny is recognized internationally for what it is- one of the best coordinated and produced music events anywhere in the world, attracting the cream of blues, country and folk talent, irrelevant of birth place.
Folk from Birmingham (W Midlands), to Fort Wayne IN and from Bray (Wicklow) to Boston MA were in the southeastern corner of Ireland this weekend, and that won’t happen again for another year. I’m counting the days already.