Soma Festival – St Malachy’s Church, Castlewellan
Ten years ago, my pal Tíona started a festival in her back garden. It’s a large back garden, it’s in the deep countryside, but still… It soon became a week-long summer sensation held in multiple makeshift venues in the nearest small town, Castlewellan. Post-Covid, Tíona’s daughter Lorna took the reins to deliver a long-weekend 10th anniversary event. The highlight was a sensational billing of enigmatic Belfast troubadour Joshua Burnside and Irish trad legends Andy Irvine & Donal Lunny in St Malachy’s church – an elaborately decorated Catholic place.
I first saw Joshua five or six years ago at another small festival, in a tent. He was slightly shambolic but compelling. I bought an album afterwards – his first. It included his standout song, ‘Hollllogram’ [sic], though I found the production a bit annoying – fiddly and bitty rather than the open, woody, analogue sound of his live performance. I understand he likes fiddling around in his own studio with sounds. Earlier this year, at Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival (CQAF), I saw his full-band show in a huge marquee – supported by Lemoncello, a similarly compelling act, whose singer/songwriter Laura Quirke has recorded a duo EP with Josh and joined him onstage to deliver most of it that night. It was terrific. Again, I purchased albums (and EPs) afterwards. Joshua’s most recent album, ‘Into the Depths of Hell’, gets closer to his analogue, organic live band sound – though again, I can’t help feeling all that tinkering in studios is seeking to fix something that’s very far from broken.
Tonight, accompanied by two of his band members – Dan on electric guitar and Miles on mandolin and banjo – the Joshmeister paid tribute to the icons he was supporting (and the acoustics of the venue) and delivered a short, sharp glimpse into his brilliance, albeit delivered in typically relaxed, as-if-in-a-pub-backroom way. He had chosen perhaps his ‘folkiest’ material – no ‘War on Everything’, for instance, a blistering highlight of that CQAF show. Nothing outstayed its welcome. The high point for me was ‘Noa Mercier’, a gripping, impressionistic reflection on the life of the 19th century Irish giant Patrick Murphy (from a region with a ‘giant’ gene in the population). Joshua often weaves words and conjures impressions implying a tale rather than telling one – it’s captivating; other times, as on ‘Whisky, Whisky (no ice in my whisky)’, he couldn’t be more literal. If you’re wanting to buy him a drink after a show, you don’t need to waste time asking his preference.
The last time I saw Andy Irvine, at a CQAF event pre-Covid in early 2020, it was a disaster. Attempting to perform some newly resurrected material from his deep catalogue, he came a cropper – not recalling lines and getting increasingly annoyed with himself. Instead of heeding punters’ well-wishing cries – and they really were, for the man is a colossus, a one-man ‘tradition within a tradition’, held in great affection and needing to prove nothing new – to ‘play something you know’, Andy persisted in trying to conquer these memory tests that night but failed. It was an uncomfortable gig for both punters and performer.
Tonight, it was a different story. I’m told the first number, the classic ‘O’Donoghue’s’ – written in the early 2000s and a wonderfully witty, evocative memoir of hanging around that Dublin pub with fellow musical adventurers and future legends in the early 60s – was rather wobbly on the memory front. (There was a long interval queue for the loos, an outhouse beside a very impressive garden of contemplation, hence my reliance on second-hand information!) But bar a minor slip in the second number – another witty/poignant memoir of the 60s, ‘My Heart’s Tonight in Ireland’, this one written in the late 90s and debuting on a Donal Lunny & Friends album at that time, from then on, it was a fabulous performance. Indeed, Andy and Donal occasionally recalled Waldorf & Statler with their banter, the one deadpan, the other jolly and effusive (in that order).
Tellingly, perhaps, most of the repertoire dated to their shared time together in Planxty in the 1970s – material so ingrained into the muscle memory of both that in a way it’s probably easier to pull out of the bag than anything the pair may done in the years since. The dexterity required on some of these tunes/songs is breathtaking – fiendish enough for one player, but Donal was frequently adding sublime harmonies on his own instrument. At one point, they played something in 16/11 timing (‘Suleiman’s Dance’, a Macedonian tune from Andy’s 1992 album ‘East Wind’). The show was virtually an Andy Irvine greatest hits set – three of his four ‘1968 Balkans trip memoir’ pastoral masterpieces of the 70s, full of eastern promise (or regrets), were featured: ‘Baneasa’s Green Glade’, ‘Autumn Gold’ and (as an encore requested by Donal) ‘The West Coast of Clare’. His punchiest ‘folk-rockers’ from that period – though Andy would hate the term – also featured: ‘The Plains of Kildare’ and ‘The Blacksmith’ – each one a thrilling amalgam of Andy’s Balkan influences and Irish traditional songs. At the other end of the scale, though no less thrilling, was the stunning ballad ‘As I Roved Out’, learned from the late (d.1975) Brigid Tunney and, as with much of the show’s repertoire, recorded by Planxty in the 70s. On this one, Andy sang without playing while Donal accompanied on guitar.
The funniest moment was when Donal, usually the sideman (on guitar or bouzouki) to Andy (on vocals and mandolas), was performing ‘one of the two songs I know’ and things, very atypically, seemed to be going wrong for Andy on the fretboard. Donal stopped and, with perfect timing, Andy said ‘You’re in the wrong key…’
I was in the front row, captivated by the performers, so I have no idea! It was certainly a great turnout, though.
It made me think..
Andy Irvine is 81, not far behind Martin Carthy – whose place in English traditional music in the ‘rock era’, the heyday of folk-revivalism and the recording/touring industry of the late 20th century, is comparable to Andy’s place in Irish traditional music. They are both naturally approaching the end of their careers. Catch them while you can. We’ll not see their like again. And they can both still deliver.