Temple Bar Tradfest
Various venues ****
The wash of tunes that engulfed Dublin’s historic quarter over the past five days provided a welcome respite from the aquatic deluge that visited upon punters as they loped from session to hallowed hall at this year’s Temple Bar Tradfest.
This year’s programme was characterised by a robust coterie of musicians, dancers and singers and an imaginative expansion of venues, with St Werburgh’s Church and the Irish Stock Exchange debuting as venues with a difference.
Unsurprisingly amid a schedule that boasted almost 200 events, quality was variable, particularly during the pub sessions, when paddywhackery trumped musicianship at times. Bands trading under hokey titles (The Molly Malones, Shamrog, The Wild Rovers and The Duelling Banjo’s – complete with errant apostrophe) peddled rambunctious pub trad: solid but too frequently forgettable.
At the other end of the spectrum lay a heady mix of formal concerts, many of them hosted in churches and cathedrals. The attraction of these large venues within the boundaries of Temple Bar is understandable, but the reverential undertones, not to mention the unforgiving seating and sometimes plummeting temperatures did little to make this an attractive proposition for repeat visits.
Maura O’Connell made a long overdue return from her Nashville home for a relaxed performance in Christ Church Cathedral. Accompanied by guitarists John Mock and Bill Shanley, she reprised some old favourites, including an electrifying Sally Gardens. Her chutzpah hasn’t been diluted by the years, as was clear when she undertook an a capella reading of Joan Armatrading’s The Weakness In Me. No small feat for any artist, but a walk in the park for a singer whose stubborn streak served the wide arc of her voice magnificently.
One of Tradfest’s highlights was the premiere of Neil Martin and the West Ocean String Quartet’s new album, An Indigo Sky, in St Werbugh’s Church.
Fittingly, the concert was prefaced by the playing of Keith Jarrett’s reading of Gershwin’s I Love You Porgy. Jarrett is one of the most distinctive performing musicians these days. Cellist Martin, as West Ocean’s primary composer and arranger, infused the new material with a rich melancholia (albeit with a glint in the eye) , and hinted at the foursome’s capacity to straddle the centuries from Dowland to O’Carolan, Ó Riada, and now, Martin. Fiddler Seamus McGuire’s supple tone was a delight, particularly on Martin’s searing song suite, Oileán na Marbh (with sublime guest vocalist, Maighread Ní Dhomhnaill) , his instrument tracing shapes every bit as distinctive as anything John Coltrane, Ben Webster or Martin Hayes have created.
There was a spirited celebration of Sharon Shannon’s 20 years playing music. Her buoyant playing and unfettered joy have never been more evident.