The bonnie prince – and the bonnie festival
I gave up on Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billie years ago. I remember going to see him a bunch of times in Vicar Street and Whelan’s and getting the sense that there was some sort of in-joke going on which I didn’t …
I gave up on Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billie years ago. I remember going to see him a bunch of times in Vicar Street and Whelan’s and getting the sense that there was some sort of in-joke going on which I didn’t particularly want to know about. There was the odd release which piqued my interest – that cover version of “Thunder Road” from the album with Tortoise, “The Brave & the Bold”, is immense – but for the most part, Will Oldham did his thing (an album a year followed by a bunch of shows) and I just ignored it. Nothing more to see here. Other fish to fry, other cats to scald, other shows to see.
Last Thursday, though, I went back to church.
I’d interviewed him a few weeks ago for The Ticket and he was great value for the price of that phone-call. Oldham sounds like a man who’d prefer to extract his toenails one by one rather than engage in the interview process but, now and then, he comes out to talk. I’ve a theory about interviewees like Oldham, those who’ve got to the stage where they don’t actually need to talk turkey with interviewers. The fact that they decide to take some calls means they have something to say and are prepared to engage. After all, if William Oldham doesn’t want to do interviews, that’s his perogative. He’s not John or Edward Grimes, you know. So I enjoyed the chinwag, checked out some of his recent records (that live album “Funtown Comedown” is ace), heard a lot of good post-match chat about the first night and decided to go along to the second show.
Leaving aside the fact that he came onstage with what looked like a towel on his head, Oldham was peerless last week in Whelan’s. Growing old appears to suit him as he finally gets comfortable in his skin and wrinkles. The extra years have added another layer to his songs too, cloaking them in new suits of unvarnished truths and canny realisations. Like his heroes Cohen and Haggard (and maybe even Kelly), Oldham now invests his material with a saltier, more earthy sense of life. Any pretence or pretension has been wiped clean from the slate. What you see is what you’re getting and that creative restlessness at work here is far rarer in artists of Oldham’s vintage than you might imagine.
It’s this restlessness which has ensured Oldham’s 20 years innings has been so prolific (sometimes good, sometimes not so good) and why he’s a lifer. Like a John Prine or a Kris Kristofferson, Oldham is firmly in this one for the long run and he’s going to be returning to Dublin town again and again and again for many years to come (Foggy Notions will still be putting on these shows two decades from now). The audience will get older, fatter, balder, less bitter, less twisted, more accepting of their fates. They’ll come back to remember the first time they saw him back in the ’90s and they’ll holler along to the songs they remember from those days when they first got off with the woman who is now their wife (or ex-wife). They and he, you could say, are now joined at the hip through “I See A Darkness”.
But the interesting thing to note from last week’s show – and something to note for the future – is that Oldham is now investing his material with the careworn effects of age and living. These songs could never be pickled in aspic and presented as museum pieces. Instead, they ebb and flow as Oldham sees fit. It’s this fact which makes him such a highlighted performer, someone who hops, skips and jumps along a creative tightrope without a care about what might happen if he falls. More than just peerless, Oldham is fearless. Me, I’m already looking forward to seeing him in 2020.
To Tullamore on Sunday for a taste of Castle Palooza, the festival in the woods around Charleville Castle on the edge of the town. Set up in 2006 by Cillian Stewart as a 30th birthday party for himself, Castle Palooza has slowly and surely become a bank holiday weekend fixture with a lot of positive word-of-mouth coming back from Co Offaly about it.
Within an hour strolling around the site, it’s easy to see why Castle Palooza works so well. A superb location, a smart selection of bands, a happy crowd (2,000-3,000 folks) and a bubbly, chilled, laidback vibe provides ample proof that small can be beautiful when it comes to Irish festivals. It reminded me of that buzz the Electric Picnic had at the very start – the one that existed before the self-proclaimed hipster families moved in with their Clodaghs and Jacks and the festival took off in another direction – or some of the less messy raves which were held in woods and on beaches down through the years. People were here to have a very good time, but they weren’t going to do the absolute dog in pursuit of that high.
At a time when smaller events like this have replaced the attractions of the big soirees like Oxegen and the Picnic for many, Castle Palooza is a case of right time, right place, right event. Brands seem to agree too – there was an energy drink sponsoring the main stage, a whiskey distillery over at the second stage and a Sunday newspaper tent providing on-site cups of tea – though this may also has something to do with Stewart’s form in the advertising business. Still, those are a couple of brands who’ve decided the way to their catchment audience is through Castle Palooza and not one of the Big Two.
Musically, I saw a rake of good stuff. The Lowly Knights and Cashier No 9 (showcasing songs from a soon-come debut album produced by David Holmes) were superb in that kind of cocky “look, we know we’re good, pal” way which only the better new bands seem to possess, while Daithí Ó Drónaí proved that there is life after the All-Ireland Talent Show with a set which was a strangely effective mix of Martin Hayes, Scooter and Unicorn Kid. Wave Machines played all the kooky offbeat pop angles, First Aid Kit are now well able to stare us in the eye as they slay us with knitted-jumper folk and LoneLady took more of shine to the ’80s than her album might have necessarily suggested, but was none the less enjoyable for all of that.
The only damp squib was the one act I’d really come to see. James Vincent McMorrow did himself and his album no favours with a sloppy, stodgy, bland, atrocious set. Later on Twitter, McMorrow blamed “guitar issues, monitor issues, backing harmony issues” for the mess, but those are issues which were totally within his control and should have been dealt within during the first song. It didn’t help that the lad and lass standing onstage with him to provide harmonies looked sorely out of place – the lad with his hands in his pockets, in particular, looked like a neighbour who’d given McMorrow a lift to Tullamore and was sticking around to drive him back home again.
Another takeaway from Tullamore is a thought for the next four weeks as we head into the countdown for Stradbally. Between Castle Palooza, Indiependence, CorkXSW, Le Cheile, Milk and a few other smaller fests which have occured since Oxegen or are about to occur, I’d reckon that’s about 10,000 punters who could well be planning to give the Picnic a miss this year and have gone elsewhere for their festival thrills.
This, though, may change. The weeks of heavy advertising which are ahead (memo to the promoters: you do know that you are using “Falling Slowly” on the radio ad, a song by The Swell Season who are not playing, right?), coupled with the “will I/won’t I?” factor as pals plump for the Picnic and maybe even a spot of fine weather, will see many punters push on towards Co Laois. Seeing as Oxegen sold 15-20 per cent of their total ticket tally within the last week of the campaign this year thanks to a heavy advertising push, expect the Picnic to probably be another late, late show this year.