- 23 Jan 20
There's Nowt So Queer As Folk: Temple Bar Tradfest 2020, Night One.
On the go since 2006, The Temple Bar Tradfest is always a joy to look forward to in the month that just won’t end, with a wide variety of appealing fair on offer and almost nobody in an Aran jumper with a finger in their ear. There’s a lot to take in over the festival’s five nights, so you’ve got to pick your battles. As tempting as the idea of going on the whiskey trail was and is, it would probably make for a mostly illegible review (“nothing new there”- Ed) so I went for the triple header in the Olympia instead.
Screaming Orphans are four Donegal sisters – “Donegal has it all!” apparently – who, and I’m quoting almost directly here, “love to bring people into the Irish culture, especially the young people.” What’s that I was saying about Aran jumpers? The band are busy touring the world under this manifesto and you can certainly see how they’d go down a storm on the green beer belt in the US. This isn’t to knock them, they’re four very accomplished musicians and their harmony singing is something to behold. Special kudos go to Joan Diver for playing the drums standing up while singing melodies in a pitch that canines might struggle to hear. Seriously though, she has a lovely touch on her instrument – light when it needs to be and heavy when it’s called for. “Carnival’, as in life is a.., rhymes “gold and jewels” with “rules are for fools” and indeed they are, there's a spirited run at the ‘Step It Out Mary’ chestnut and the “show your legs to the country man” is a sentiment I shall always heartily endorse, and they finish with a trad attack on the old Turtles number, ‘Happy Together’. There’s plenty of yeowing and clapping and hair flying, Gráinne Diver sports a marvellous pair of trousers, and the band work hard to get the crowd on their side, an aim that’s more than met by the time they take their bows. Fair play to them. Good value.
According to Dublin City FM’s Mick Hanley, who’s on MC duties tonight, Jon Boden has received eleven BBC folk awards. He’s probably best known for his work with Bellowhead, described, perhaps oxymoronically, in the ads as a “folk juggernaut”. Boden assembled The Remnant Kings in 2009 so that he might present his “post-apocalyptic song cycle” Songs From The Floodplain live, having played all the instruments on the record himself. Boden is very obviously an experienced performer who knows how to work a crowd, offering instructions in the choruses before he starts at least two songs and throwing plenty of arms-spread shapes like some class of folk Bono. The songs are mostly from 2017’s Afterglow record – the cover hints at more apocalyptic trouble, what is he not telling us? – and last year’s Rose In June. The band are fantastic, featuring concertinas, flutes, a veritable giant who makes his bass guitar look like a mandolin and should really be carrying spooky immobile children of the House Of Stark about the place, and a drummer who switches to fiddle when the mood takes him. They’re so good, in fact, that one audience member loudly accuses them of showing off. ‘Moths In The Gas Light’ and ‘Dancing In The Ruin’ sound pretty good, as does ‘Seven Bonnie Gypsies’ although it veers slightly towards “Hey Nonny, Nonny” territory. The closing ‘Rose In June’ is a religious epic which threatened to go on nearly as long as the new testament but we survived. I was hoping he’d break out his unique version of Kate Bush’s ‘Hounds Of Love’ but never mind, it was a good set.
I need to be honest here, if I was told on the way in to a Hothouse Flowers gig that there was a 99% chance of the building collapsing, I’d probably still chance it. For me, and for many others I’m sure, they are one of the great Irish bands, pedalling their own version of the Celtic soul boogie. They are also very easily one of the greatest live acts in the country, with no two gigs being the same as they tend to head off wherever the mood takes them. Liam Ó Maonlaí is looking well, trimmer of beard and belly than the man I interviewed a few months back, in a crumpled cream suit that has never known an iron. He’s a star, from the top of that fabulous mane - which has fellas like myself and Ó Braonáin and Clarke looking on with a mixture of envy and hatred - down to his proudly unsheathed toes.
They’re not messing around tonight, cutting Hanley’s intro slightly short, conscious perhaps of their restricted running time. They go straight into ‘Dance To The Storm’, a song that stretches back to that RDS gig in 1988 when the future wasn’t yesterday and everything was shiny and new. Ó Maonlaí keeps the piano going and the band slowly re-join him for ‘Stand Beside Me’ which centres around a guitar solo from Ó Braonáin that drips soul. The song breaks down to some low bouzouki notes from the annoyingly youthful Peter O’ Toole, there’s a bit of meandering, and then O’Toole and Ó Braonáin combine to call in ‘Isn’t It Amazing’, Ó Maonlaí hollering and testifying, demonstrating how “every song is a prayer”, the band’s voices joining him to “fill the air.” Dave Clarke hi-hats us into ‘Thing Of Beauty’ and, the few pints having taken hold, I’m lost to reverie. As modern life stomps all over you in its jack boots of mediocrity, things of beauty are not to be ignored. Can’t you see? CAN’T YOU FEEL? I’d follow these lads into hell, but they don’t want me, ‘cause I don’t speak the language. “They knew it in Cork” says Ó Maonlaí as the Dublin crowd make a collective balls of singing along to an Irish air the name of which I don’t know. I’ll go and stand in the corner.
All is forgotten and forgiven once they go into ‘Lakes Of Pontchartrain’ and all critical faculties go out the window. A beautiful song, beautifully played, it would get tears out of a tax inspector. I remember singing it in a New York Bar a hundred years ago to a woman I thought would love me forever, although it turned how she had more in common with the alligators who are preventing our man from sleeping out in the woods. When Liam gets to the section about draining a flowing glass at each social gathering, I’m very close to losing it altogether. They could have called it a night there and not one of us would have felt cheated but there’s more, a swaying and playful ‘Eyes Wide Open’, Fiachna’s turn on the tin whistle for ‘Sí Do Mhaimeo Í’ with Clarke’s bass drum finally getting Ó Maonlaí up off his piano stool to throw a few shapes with his bodhrán and the inevitable ‘Don’t Go’ encore where everyone gets a turn to shine, most especially the absolutely brilliant Clare Sands who guested on fiddle throughout the evening, taking songs that were already great up to another level. The Flowers need to hire her full time, today. We get a drum solo, of course, but you can’t have it all. The band are introduced, with Ó Maonlaí – Jerry Lee O’ Lewis, Múinteoir Longhair himself – getting the loudest roar. They pull the song into port and take their applause. National treasures. They should have a festival of their own.