Temple Bar Tradfest is now in its twelfth year, and as a certain Michael Eavis would say, this year's was the best one yet! A welcome attraction at the end of the bleak month of January, the event is comprised of concerts, recitals and special events in venues, pubs and churches in the centre of the capital. The term trad is applied loosely. There are indeed events that are very traditional, but the line up also included Billy Bragg, Fairport Convention, the Rails, Martin & Eliza Carthy, Mundy and an ultra-rare concert by Maria McKee.
Perhaps not quite as extraordinary as Kate Bush returning to live performance after thirty years, this Maria McKee show had a similar vibe to it all the same. Maria has not toured since 2006 and she released her last conventional album in 2007. Since then she has been working with her filmmaker husband on films and soundtracks. She still has a devoted fan base, which became clear when she asked on Twitter what people would like to hear at this one off concert in Dublin. Many obscure requests were tweeted. People travelled from the U.K., Holland, Belgium, Germany, Italy and Norway to be at this gig.
St Patrick's Cathedral is a fabulous venue for a concert. The vicar came on to welcome us, mention fire exits and introduce support act Luan Parle. After a short interval Maria walked onto the stage, to a huge ovation, which prompted her to say, “I must come out of retirement more often!”
On some songs she was accompanied by friends on acoustic or electric guitar, but the main part of the show was performed solo, either with acoustic guitar or piano. It is amazing how well complicated songs such as 'High Dive' and 'Absolutely Barking Stars' translate into acoustic versions. She played the hits - 'A Good Heart', 'If Love Is A Red Dress' and a particularly impressive 'Show Me Heaven'. Her voice is as strong as it always was, and it sounded huge, reaching all corners of the cavernous cathedral.
Maria's in-between-song-chat was very funny and despite her becoming a bit of a recluse she seems well and happy. We learned that she is the same age as her dog, is Facebook friends with Linda Thompson and is not ruling out living in Ireland again. The encore, 'Life Is Sweet', was the highlight for me. Several people were wiping away tears.
Afterwards Maria came out to chat and was generous with her time. Fans stood around and listened to each other's conversations. A man in front of me announced that he had come from Italy, which caused Maria to exclaim, “Are you Lorenzo? You called your baby after me!!” Hard to top that... My trump card was a photo of me and her at Tower Records Piccadilly from 1986. Most people just wanted to say however how grateful they were for the opportunity to see her perform again after such a long time.
The Tradfest has a number of free events, including the Front Row Sessions, with artists such as the Fureys, Stockton's Wing and Sharon Shannon. Each act performed a number of times over the weekend. I caught Sharon Shannon at the Old Storehouse for an afternoon gig. I have followed Sharon since her Waterboys days, so I knew she would be great. It was lovely see her in an intimate pub setting.
Sharon was accompanied by Jim Murray on guitar, Sean Regan on fiddle and beatboxing and Jack Maher on electric guitar and vocals. This is as good as trad gets and it is to Sharon's credit that she has made this music accessible to an audience that would not normally go for this kind of thing. Of course none other than the late great John Peel was a Sharon Shannon fan.
Her one hour set featured her biggest tunes, 'Coridinio', 'Mouth Of The Tobique', 'Rathlin Island', but also a new set. A new album will be out in March. Jack Maher sang a lovely version of Dylan's 'Don't Think Twice, It's Alright' and the inevitable, but always hugely enjoyable, 'Galway Girl'. For the final song, 'The Bungee Jumpers' the band were accompanied by a class of special needs children on about twenty bodhráns. It sounded fantastic and put a smile on everyone's face.
Grammy nominated multi-instrumentalist Wunderkind Sarah Jarosz played St Werburgh's Church early on in the festival. There was a long queue well before the doors opened. I had seen Sarah before but this was her best show yet. She was accompanied by two musicians who played various string instruments and who were superb. I thought the electric guitar parts were particularly beautiful. It made you wish you were somewhere in a vast sunny open space, rather than in this extremely cold church (note to self: If I ever go to a concert in St Werburgh's again bring a flask of vodka..).
Sarah commented on the cold a number of times, also indicating that it affected the instruments. Some furious tuning went on. It made for a very quiet atmosphere, though it is hard to say whether people were too cold to move much or just listening so intently as the show was that good.
Notify are a modern trad quintet, lead by concertina player Pádraig Rynne. Their songs feature traditional-sounding melodies, played by Pádraig, backed by more contemporary sounds coming from keyboards, drums and an electric bass. It works wonderfully well. The compositions are their own. The band are unassuming and non-showy. Check out their CD 'In Concept'.
Notify played in St Michan's Church (heated!) and were followed by Jiggy, a nine piece collective who are trying something not dissimilar to the Afro Celt Sound System. Although the group includes very talented musicians including Éamonn De Barra on flute and Matthew Noone on sarode (a Indian instrument) it did not work for me as a whole. I would always be sceptical of a band that includes someone on MacBook on stage...
I saw two lunchtime recitals at the City Hall, and they are terrific events in a very pretty setting. The most traditional of gigs, they are introduced by festival director Kieran Hanrahan himself, and his enthusiasm for the music he is presenting is plain to see.
Concertina player Mícheál Ó Raghallaigh treated the lunchtime crowd to an hour of reels, jigs, hornpipes and airs on three different types of concertina. His banter was witty and the tunes hypnotic. I often think that in trad less is more and it was great to have the opportunity to hear these instruments at length and unaccompanied.
Flute player Órlaith McAuliffe is from London with Kerry roots. She played a one hour show on flute and whistle. As Mr Hanrahan said afterwards, not a note was out of place. It was also refreshing to hear Órlaith talk about the tunes, in a break from the trad habit where musicians think it is hilarious that they do not know the names of tunes.
LIVE AT THE HUB
Under this banner the Tradfest presents up and coming artists at free late night concerts at the Old Storehouse. Singer/songwriter Sive has her own band, her own songs and a confident stage presence. One to watch for sure.
Female a cappella quartet Landless were good too. They sing four part harmonies, with songs from the Irish, English, Scottish and American tradition. Their set was well received. They made people stop chatting despite the late hour.
Cáitlín, Ciarán & Cathal were not listed in the festival programme, so they must have filled in. Their set was one of the most traditional and all the better for it. The guys looked old-fashioned in their tweed jackets; their music was top-notch. Ciarán is a member of the Na Mooneys musical family from Co.Donegal, and Caitlín Nic Gabhann is an All-Ireland concertina champion and a former Riverdancer.
Temple Bar Tradfest is held annually the last weekend of January.