Over the first weekend of the Kilkenny Arts Festival, two acts in particular stood out. On Saturday evening, while Robert Fisk was delivering the Hubert Butler lecture in St Canice’s Cathedral, Pierce Turner was ripping it up in Kilkenny’s Parade Tower with his blend of singing, storytelling and more than a touch of vaudeville.
Turner divides his time between Wexford and New York and here, with accompaniment from Karen Dervan and Lynda O’Connor on viola and violin respectively, he bounced between piano, guitar, and a bit of xylophone, and interspersed his set with various stories relevant to his songs. His show opener was a narrated short story with some projected images about two men enjoying a marvellous conversation. The set was exciting stuff, with plenty of humour and skill and a real traditional feel, in that the audience wasn’t so much listening to a series of songs, as been told a long story, with all the different elements interlinking along the way through song, spoken word and even the odd few shapes that Turner was throwing on stage.
On Sunday, Erik Friedlander brought his Block Ice and Propane project to the Set Theatre, and although it was a much more contemplative affair, it had a lot in common with Turner’s show. Friedlander is the son of Lee Friedlander, a US photographer, and every summer the family Friedlander would be packed into an ageing pick-up truck, with some accommodation built on top, and they would take off on a mad, few months’ long dash from the east to the west coast. Friedlander’s father like to make the most of the summer months, the beautiful light and the long days.
The result is a cache of photographs that depicts the US from coast to coast, and hundreds of pictures of little Erik, his sister, parents and oddball aunts and uncles, supplemented by some haunting films by Bill Morrison. Block Ice and Propane (Friedlander specifically referred to it as a “project” rather than an album) is directly inspired by this, and Friedlander narrates various slides of his family and tells a few very charming stories about what sounds like nothing less than a great American adventure during the 1960s and 1970s.
The music itself is stunning, switching from raw, meditative laments of open prairies to rollicking, blistering reels which rip of Friedlander’s carbon-fibre cello with astonishing alacrity and technique. Some of the tracks are sophisticated and delicate, whereas others sound like they have just rolled in off the Appalachian mountains.
So where do this unlikely pair meet? Well, Turner’s show was not entirely solo whereas Friedlander was, but both were crossing a lot of boundaries with these concerts. There was a modern, multimedia element to both, but the beauty was in the very act of telling stories, using music and sound, film, video and instruments, in a very naturalistic and accomplished way. Many performers get up to sing their songs and think it is enough – and in many cases, it is. But in these two acts we have performers, from very different places and very different backgrounds, who go a step further in bringing their message out into the open, and creating an experience that is all the more immersive and engaging.
And just in case you’re more than a little intrigued, here is Turner with The Sky and the Ground, named after a Wexford pub. Drink it in. For a little taste of Friedlander, check out Friday’s post on the weekend’s events.