The Olllam and Bellowhead have built their reputations on fiery live shows, which Irish audiences can experience at this week’s Temple Bar TradFest
Traditional music tends to concentrate much of its energies on the summer season, when long evenings lend themselves to the seepage of sessions outside or in, as musical circles expand and contract.
Temple Bar Tradfest, however, has built its reputation on offering a chink of musical light in the dying days of January. In recent years it has prided itself in bringing unlikely performers together, and in championing innovative artists: everyone from The West Ocean String Quartet to the Louth Contemporary Music Society’s performance of a reimagined Ó Riada Mass by Uzbek composer Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky.
This year’s programme continues that trend, pitching young Turks alongside established acts, with a mix of music, song, dance, storytelling and free sessions.
Two bands on this year’s programme who have built their reputations on fiery live performances are The Olllam and Bellowhead.
The Olllam is the brainchild of Belfast piper John McSherry (a veteran of Lúnasa and Dónal Lunny’s Coolfin, and a founding member of At First Light). McSherry’s band, derive their name from the name given to medieval bards, features Detroit native Tyler Duncan and percussionist Michael Shimmin.
The Olllam get into the groove
For The Olllam, the groove is all. Reminiscent of Moving Hearts at their rhythmic best, the band marry blissed-out dance rhythms with conventional song structures to interpret Irish music in new ways. Gone are the conventional tune shapes, and in their place are melody lines that pursue the verse, chorus, and middle-eight structures more typical of mainstream rock and pop music.
“Everything happened really naturally,” says McSherry, “and each chord simply grew into the next. Then, Michael [Shimmin] brought a real groove to the whole thing. For me, though, it felt very natural. I’ve always made it known that I’m a big Led Zeppelin fan. I love my rock music. If it’s good music, it’s good music.”
Tyler Duncan is the other driving force of The Olllam. As well as being the first non-Irish All-Ireland piping champion, he’s a jazz enthusiast whose love of the groove underpins his production and keyboard work with The Olllam. As a teenager Duncan heard McSherry playing, and it proved to be life-changing.
“John’s playing embodies this magical balance between rawness, something primal, while also being overwhelmingly nuanced, subtle, and virtuosic,” he says. “I was blown away by how creative his phrasing was, how he made everything sound so him. It sounded so curvy and exotic to me. Even a tune I had played a million times, when he played it, it was like hearing something for the first time. And the more I got into studying his playing, the more I realised how difficult his style truly was. He’s a real one-of-a kind piper, someone who has defined his own school of playing, and his own approach.”
It seems that traditional music is experiencing something of a golden age. Bands such as Lau, Kan and Guidewires, along with The Olllam, are basking in the delights of unconventional collaboration. For Tyler, the magic is in the mix, and the pair’s love of the musical past plays a role too, informing the band’s sound.
“In terms of sound,” says Tyler, “we knew we wanted it to have a 1970s throwback haze around it – fuzzy, warm, dreamy – and to have one instrumentation for everything [two pipes, guitar, Rhodes piano, bass, and drums], with no layering. Very stripped-down, close, dry, stark, and focused. We then started just creating very simple themes, little moments that felt good to us, and just let them slowly evolve or devolve. We didn’t want the listener’s focus to be distracted by complexity, so we kept things as their simplest possible form, almost trying to skip the notes and go right into the feeling. Saying more with less, wherever possible.”
Bellowhead’s Irish influence
In 2013, Bellowhead bagged the BBC Radio 2 Folk Award for best album for Broadside. Jon Boden, the band’s lead singer and fiddler, came to the world of folk through Irish music. He discovered Planxty at the age of 14, and a year later found his way to the Willie Clancy Summer School.
“That was my introduction to folk music,” he says “and it’s a lot easier to find a good Irish session than a good English one, because there are fewer players around and we just don’t have that core repertoire of tunes that you’ll get at an Irish session.”
When Bellowhead started out in 2004, Boden recalls that English folk music was in the ascendant, with singers such as Kate Rusby and Eliza Carthy hitting their stride. Nonetheless, the folk scene in the UK existed very much on the margins, and was frequently derided in ways that were rarely experienced by Irish musicians here.
“It feels very different now,” says Boden, “and I think that bands like Mumford & Sons have played a big part in that turnaround, in changing the language, and that folk music is no longer a bad thing to be associated with. And while I think we’re still quite reliant on people who got into folk music in the 1960s and 1970s, the audience is building gradually from different age groups. So it’s in a good place, I think.”
Bellowhead, an 11-member musical juggernaut that has been on the go 10 for years, has managed to keep its engines revved by focusing on the symbiotic relationship between musicians and audience.
“As a performer,” says Boden, “I’m really focused on figuring out what’s going to keep the audience interested, and if I can keep the audience interested, then I’m interested. Any song, once you’ve played it 50 times, is going to lose its sheen. But if the audience loves it, it doesn’t lose its sheen, because you really are responding to the audience. But then, I also love going to the pub and playing tunes, and that renews my core enjoyment in folk music too.”
Boden has built his reputation on a declamatory singing style, and his love of folk songs led to his A Folk Song a Day project in 2010, where he set himself the target of posting a folk song online each day for a year.
“Initially, I think I was preaching to the converted, but since it’s finished it has continued to build more among people who aren’t so familiar with where folk singing comes from, and the fact that social singing is at the heart of it. It also highlighted unaccompanied singing, which is quite a rare find here in Britain. So people are continuing to find it, and I think and hope it’s been quite a good door-opener for people into the world of folk music. And I hope that afolksongaday.com might be a post on their journey after that.”