The bar for this year’s festival gigs has been set unexpectedly early. It’d be easy to be dismissive of Temple Bar Tradfest, writing it off as an exercise in cranked-up-oirishness capable of giving Michael Flatley a whole new horn, but this festival has depth and quality, attracting trad diehards as well as weekend warriors.
Cork’s Jazz Festival very successfully manages to provide plenty of distraction for weekenders who hit the city for kicks and a bank holiday session, while still staging top-quality, cutting-edge gigs for the most discerning of jazzers. The obtuse, angular funk that Snarky Puppy brought to their sold-out show in our nations’ other capital last October was balanced perfectly by the more mainstream, crowd-pleasing grooves offered by Nile Rodgers and Chic. Portico Quartet brought their hypnotic and beautiful sounds to Cork, too, entrancing audiences in the Everyman while somewhere else in the city a straw-boatered Dixieland dude put in a call for Doctor Jazz.
Last Friday in Dublin, Paul Brady packed ’em into Saint Patrick’s Cathedral at €40 a head, while down in the Button Factory, Bellowhead combined clatter, crash and brass with folk sensibilities, invigorating the crowd and some dusty old tunes. With a crew of 11, the BBC Radio 2 Best Folk Album of 2013 under their belt and a bit more buzz, Bellowhead gave the crowd more bang for their buck than the Brady bunch.
While these gigs where putting smiles on the faces of diverse audiences, tourists, tramps and touring hens were jigging, jumping and jiving to trad sessions all around Temple Bar. The Tradfest crew were successfully ticking a few boxes. Martin Harte and the rest of the festival team deserve a fair amount of praise for pulling together a programme that recognised and included the likes of The Fureys and The Dublin City Ramblers while also keeping things fresh with acts such as Bellowhead and We Banjo 3.
Throw some workshops into the mix, some jugglers, a few tumblers and a trailerload of farmyard animals, and there was a solid festival simmering. Two years ago farmers herded their cows through the streets of Temple Bar, infuriating and taunting taxi drivers. I missed them this year – the petting zoo and horseback rides didn’t generate half as much street theatre.
Seth Lakeman packed out St Michan’s Church on Saturday night, ripping into his creations, interpretations and reimaginings of English folk music. The combined sounds of the band blended perfectly to create a rich and vibrant tapestry, woven from threads of new and ancient traditions. Lakeman’s fiddle tends to stand out, though: the timbre is coloured and cut with mists, moods and resonances from deep Dartmoor. When he was left alone on stage, his ragged bow tore into Kitty Jay (the title track from his 2005 Mercury prize-nominated album, recorded in his kitchen with his brother), it was the musical highlight of the year so far.
As good as this was, it wasn’t the best of last week’s festival offerings. The Olllam are a strange bunch, an outfit that’s as happy playing Sligo Jazz Festival as they are playing Temple Bar Tradfest. Tyler Duncan and Michael Shimmin are Detroit natives who can be found playing rock-driven dance music or jazz fusion when they’re back home. John McSherry, a founding member of Lúnasa, teamed up with the lads and the result is described by them as Neo-Acoustic Celtic Post-Rock. I’d describe it a little differently – it’s f***in’ deadly! The band finished their European tour at Temple Bar Tradfest last Thursday, but hopefully they’ll be back to grace another festival here very soon. Their music is exciting, confounding and astounding. Style, mastery, melody and groove – The Olllam’s gig is going to be hard to beat.
Safe travels, don’t die.