Dec 04 20120 comments
The atmosphere? It’s a bit like a reunion of emigrants that have come home for a family gathering: people that haven’t seen each for many months greet one another like long lost friends. The people you have kept in touch with by email or Twitter are now right in front of you. Babies that winked at you last year from their carry-cots are now taking their first steps. People that were single last year are now married. Women that weren’t pregnant last year have new babies. People get fatter, thinner, poorer – yet work just as hard, if not harder, to get the event off the ground, onto television, and into the clouds.
Life goes on, of course, but for many it seems as if the Other Voices event has an internal dynamic, an informal community, perhaps, of its own. It feels good, frankly. And it’s not just because cosy/comfy Christmas is a few weeks away, either – this is an event that justifiably feels good about itself, and because of that all but the obstinate or ungracious feel that way, too.
It used to be that Other Voices was all about St James Church, the music acts that would play there and only there, but this year the veins of the programming have stretched out into other areas. What’s crucial to note, however is that the words ‘Other’ and ‘Voices’ are really just that. It might be seen by some as a brand (and, yes, there is justification in that), but if you parse the words then that’s exactly what this event is about. New voices. Different ways of saying things. Original perspectives. You might not agree with all that’s being offered, but you can’t deny that it does exactly what it says on the biscuit tin. You’re looking for the usual suspects? Move on, people, there’s nothing for you here.
But before the music we have the debut appearance at OV of Banter – or in this instance, Banter Salon. Fronted by my Irish Times' colleague Jim Carroll, Banter is as banter does.
Indeed, if it was called ‘Blather’ instead of ‘Banter’ we’d be genuinely concerned. The last thing we need to hear is people who think they know their subject rabbiting on and on about it, while some sycophantic doggie-in-the-window muppet nods their head in agreement. With Carroll, you get informed opinion, good questions, a few well-timed witticisms (it ain’t called Banter for nothing) and an overall sense of someone who knows what they’re doing. Saturday’s Banter had Carroll tease out information and details from The Guardian’s Lisa O’Carroll (topic: the media in general, the Leveson Inquiry, the BBC, and the future of newspapers in particular) and UCD lecturer and historian Diarmuid Ferriter (topic: 100 years of history, et al).
As someone who has an eye on media matters close to home and far away, O’Carroll’s stint in the chair was (despite her informed, often amusing answers) less interesting. As I can barely recall what happened last month, let alone 100 years ago (not that I was alive then, you understand; my name is not Edward Cullen), Ferriter’s time in front of the microphone, elucidating eloquently on a topic I thought I had no interest in, was probably the most fascinating thirty minutes I’ve ever spent in a bar. Without a drink in my hand.
But it’s Banter Salon, right? Which means more than just chat? Yes… First, we had Villagers’ Conor O’Brien sing an acoustic version of Earthly Pleasures (AMAZING) and then another song whose title escapes me (but which was fine, just fine). Derry’s Soak had another open-mic spot, and the 16-year-old was just a charmer.
Sunday’s Banter Salon was just as good, with Carroll leading (among others) The Observer editor, John Mulholland, through a series of observational questions regarding the arc of his career and other media issues. The music was provided by (among others) Irish teen singer-songwriter Riona, whose two tunes rang out with as much clarity as church bells.
We strongly suspect (and hope) that Banter will become a complementary part of Other Voices. Intelligent music as well as smart chat? The broadening out of the event’s cultural remit? We’ll eat Murphy’s ice-cream to that.
As they probably say far too often in the land of the Amish - and so to church! As we noted at the start, the music at St James’ Church is the event’s primary focus. If truth be told, it can be uncomfortable in the church: it starts around 8pm, but you have to be seated by 7.45pm or thereabouts, and then (with a 20-minute half-time break) you’re pretty much stuck there for a few hours. Sometimes, bands have to retake a song because of something technical most of us in the audience don’t understand. But, yes, it’s being filmed, so we get it; and the trade off is always worth it: the privilege of watching bands so up-close-and-intimate you really can see the whites of their eyes.
The first night was mostly an Irish line-up: Kodaline (widescreen rock music with a bit of diversity; in other words, it’s generic, but we just didn’t hear enough to dismiss the band with a snobbish wave of the hand). Next were The Strypes, a band from Cavan we have been reading about for some time. We have to be honest: the thought of watching four mid-teen lads from Cavan dressed in sharp-suited mod threads (Reservoir Pups, indeed!) bashing their way through 60s-influenced music is enough to make me run for the sand dunes at Inch Strand. And yet…
…And yet what you’re not prepared for is the visceral, wholly authentic shtick. Although it is my firm suspicion that they have been groomed, styled and mentored by someone far older to dress the way they dress and to play the music they play, there’s little doubt that not only do they look the picture-perfect part but they perform the music (which is so in debt to its influences that it’s difficult to tell whether or not they were playing ‘original’ material) so expertly, so belligerently and so brilliantly that any residual cynicism gets kicked into touch. But here’s the thing: how long will the appeal of watching cookie-cutter kids play rockin’ rhythm & blues last? The band has, apparently, signed to a very major label. Which means that, once they’ve been put through the industry mill they might be so far behind the curve we’ll have moved on to something else. It’s a watch-this-space scenario, but for now you will be very, very impressed.
Less aggressive but just as eloquent is another teenager – Soak (aka Bridie Monds-Watson). The only issue I have with this confident chatterbox of a Derry-based young woman is that if you close your eyes you know within a few seconds that she’s very young. In other word, she needs to grow into her voice before she has the authority and assertiveness to fully capture an audience. Her songs are lovely, beautiful, and so on, but this geezer needs something more to hang on to than a 16-year-old singing songs that are ‘lovely’ and ‘beautiful’. Naiveté is good, but experience is essential.
Somewhat more daring (and embalmed in the voice of experience) is Canada’s Owen Pallet, who looped this, circled that, played pizzicato and sang like a man possessed by a creatively infectious disease. Ditto was the performance from Villagers. Although staggered by some sound problems (and Conor O’Brien’s too-often repeated requests for the volume of his guitar to be altered – “up by two decibels” for the love of God!), the band played something of a blinder. Here is music full of texture, regard for itself and its origins, a love of words and a respect for the art of it. A wonderful (shortish – eight songs) gig, and a great end to the first day.
We could mention that we are now on first name terms with the presenter of Other Voices (good guy, he knows his music); we could also mention the fact that we spent a most convivial dinner in the company of some very well known musicians (good guys, they know they will never be able to finish a bowl of Doyle’s Restaurant’s Guinness Beef Stew), who were quick-picked from Dublin to Dingle in jig time to play gigs at various bars around the town.
Lest we forget, these unscheduled gigs (not so much pop-up as pop-in) are also part of the Other Voices experience. We haven’t mentioned the Music Trail because we just didn’t have time to make any of the pub gigs, but we heard from reliable sources that they were stuffed. As was (as per usual) St James Church, which on the second night featured sets by Paul Buchanan (simply sublime), Local Natives (very good), Luluc (plodding – like Nico suffering from lack of enthusiasm) and This Is The Kit (halfway decent boho-chic folk/pop). Each of the latter three were joined by The National’s Aaron Dessner, who (excepting Buchanan) curated the night.
We didn’t get to the church in time (there’s a song in there somewhere, surely…), so we went to the hub of Other Voices – Benner’s Hotel – to watch it on the large screens. The pub-watching may lack the eyeball-to-eyeball sensibilities of the church, but it’s less restrictive and almost as good a way to interact with the music.
Day three? Well, ‘fraid I had to cut short my time in Dingle for reasons that had nothing to do with the cold and miserable B&B I mistakenly opted to check into (I know where I’m staying next year and it sure ain’t this one), but the line-up at St James Church is too tempting not to list: Palma Violets, Josephine, The Staves and The Unthanks.
So, you know, sorry I missed you and all of that, but I’ll be back next year, for sure, for another splurge of adventurous programming, familiar faces, high-fives all round, and the ice-cream. And when I return I promise I’ll start the blog posting something like this: ‘here we go again - we’re in Dingle, feeling ever so slightly the worse for wear. One more bottle of the local brew? Just say no, folks…’
Other Voices will be broadcast on RTE on some time in 2013. The live event will pop up in February in Derry and in April in London. See here for further updates/details.