From the moment I walked out the door and into the festival marquee it had an air of familiarity. There were the seats and fires in drums and hay bales and over to the right was the food area with my tongue already salivating for a pulled pork roll; the L-shaped marquee, everything was the same. And that great vibe that I only found here at this Festival, last year in my travels around Ireland.
But yet it was different. Lots of new music with only one band familiar from last year. This is remarkable that organiser, Connor Byrne could have managed this. But it is testament to the depth of music talent in this tiny country.
The hardest gig in a festival is to kick it off. People are still dribbling in and it takes a lot to grab attention. Clare man David Hope did this creditably with his guitar and self-penned songs. . The rapidly filling tent gave him a warm reception and by the time he handed over to Fiddle Case the crowd was well and truly in the mood. Musicians in this band are well known to people from this part of Clare. Eoin O’Neill (of West Wind fame and current recipient of the Mór Glor award for his contribution to Clare music), the multi-talented Quentin Cooper, Adam Shapiro and Jon O’Connell can be seen regularly in sessions at Doolin, Lahinch, Ennistymon, Lisdoonvarna or Ennis. This familiarity however did not take away from what was a fresh and vibrant set of tunes interspersed with songs from Jon. The mellow unhurried delivery suited the situation to a tee. It was especially nice to see a larger audience get to hear the wonderful voice of Jon and, in particular, Liscannor Bay, a song he has made his own.
The boys were joined by the legendary Christy Barry, who impressed with The Coolin on low whistle and then a duet of Paddy Fahey tunes with Adam Shapiro. Adam is one of those modest unsung fiddling talents of West Clare and brought the house down with his playing. The set was interrupted by Luka Bloom who announced Christy as the recipient of the Doolin Festival award for lifetime achievement. When an emotional Christy recovered his composure he delivered a fine speech. Modest to the end he thanked everyone, saying how grateful he was to get the award because it meant he didn’t have to play. He was profuse though in his praise of Doolin. ‘There is no theatre in the world like Doolin’. And Christy is a huge part of that. We had a cameo dance piece from Tess McGovern and then it was time for Sharon Shannon.
Sharon and her band burst onto the stage and gave us everything we wanted. This was a very different Sharon to the one I remembered way back in Fremantle maybe 15 years ago at the Fly by Night Club. Here she engaged the audience, chided them for not dancing, there was banter and there was fun and she was clearly happy to be back home in Clare. There were all those familiar favourites mixed in with some classical, some slow airs, some mouth music turned beat boxing and some out-there electric guitar. Particularly memorable was Black Betty morphing into the Mouth of the Tobique. A deserved encore gave us, of course, Galway Girl. All through it there was Sharon’s infectious smile and sense of joy and you couldn’t help but go along for the journey.
Mea culpa time now. I have to admit I hadn’t heard of Declan O’Rourke before. Shame on me as he actually started his music in Australia and his first album (Since Kyabram) referenced that time. I was soon brought up to speed. The largely female audience thronged to the front as the seats were removed. A deep gravelly voice one moment and then falsetto the next. Declan is a unique talent. I recognised the song Galileo and the audience joined in enthusiastically with Love is the Way. Here is a real musician, a singer songwriter with a unique talent and a similarly unique soulful voice. This is what Festivals should be about – discovering new music that touches you.
In the Main Arena Moxie were given the party spot starting at 12 and keeping a large crowd there until after 1:30 when I called it quits. I remembered them from last year and this bunch of young guys deliver a distinctive energetic, sometimes frenetic, instrumental Celtic-based music. I say Celtic-based because while the instrumentation is familiar to the trad heads (banjos, accordions) the sound is not. A great way to finish the night.
Meanwhile in the Whitehorse Sessions there was some fantastic music on display. I only caught bits of it but was blown away by The Evertides, three Dublin girls, with gorgeous harmonies and Marc O’Reilly and his band. A great innovation.