Dingle finally calling: 72 hours at Other Voices
Since 2002, Other Voices has been bringing musicians, pundits, punters and hangers-on to Co Kerry in the depths of an Irish winter to record a TV show in the tiny Church of St James in the heart of the town. …
Since 2002, Other Voices has been bringing musicians, pundits, punters and hangers-on to Co Kerry in the depths of an Irish winter to record a TV show in the tiny Church of St James in the heart of the town. It started out on a diet of Irish singer-songwriters, added some roughage with bands, went exotic by booking more acts from outside the country and headed for the hills with the big names providing the fruit and fibre. The roll of honour lists The National, Elbow, The xx, Jarvis Cocker, Richard Hawley, Laura Marling and every single Irish act of note over the last decade. It’s quite an achievement for any music show set in Ireland, but it’s doubly, trebly so when you’re talking about a show located a long, long way from the heart of the media action. Getting an act to Dublin for this kind of thing is one thing; getting them to Dingle is considerably more difficult.
While there are naturally many acts who get away (the organisers start out with a huge list and a lot of telephone numbers), the number of repeat performers and acts who make the trip based on word-of-mouth recommendations from their peers is testament to the pull of Dingle and Other Voices. Acts respond to many things and you’ll get a long list of reasons why they get their Dingle-Dangle on, ranging from the prosaic (it’s a TV show and provides exposure) to the romantic (that Kerry air, the scenary, the vibes, the dolphin…you know the list).
It took me a decade to get to Dingle and Other Voices, but that was not down to some appalling had luck with transport to Kerry. Other things got in the way, other events took precedence, other writers from the paper were ahead of me in the queue and 10 Other Voices quickly slipped by. There was also, I’ll admit, a hesitancy based on the party line which seemed to be prevalent amongsy my peers who headed to Kerry every December. It was as if they gulped down the Kool Aid en masse once they hit the Kingdom and cogged their opinions from each other. Everything was a rave. There was no dissention from the core message: Dingle had the best bands, the best performances ever, the best venues, the best restaurants, the best B&Bs, the best hangovers, the best everything (well, bar hurlers; no-one ever praised the hurling skills of those resident on the Dingle peninsula).
Those who never went to the deep south-west would frown and start the slagging. A lot of this was probably down to sour grapes – a lot of the bands and scenesters who rag on Other Voices every year would be down in jig-time if they were invited – but there were still valid reasons to wonder about the groupthink. Surely it wasn’t that good?
In many ways, I’m probably the worst person to talk to about Other Voices 2012 for a variety of reasons. For a start, there has to be a serious declaration of interest because I was there to do a job of work, which was the Banter Salon at Foxy John’s (more on this below). Aside from that – or perhaps because of that – I just didn’t get to see as many acts as most other people. I saw nothing on the pub trail, saw one band playing one song about three times (that was the excellent Drenge, who we wrote about here previously, shooting their slot on Friday) and saw one full set and bits of two other acts in the church. Other journalists will be able to report on all of the musical action (here, for example, is my colleague Tony Clayton-Lea’s report) so, bearing all of that in mind, this is really a snapshot, a sense of what goes on in the town over the weekend from an Other Voices’ virgin.
First, let’s set the scene. It’s worth remembering that Other Voices is first and foremost is a TV show, something which is often forgotten for those outside the bubble. There are cameras, very hard-working film crews and bright lights everywhere to remind you of this. Think of it as Later With Jools Holland decamping to an out-of-season seaside town on the northeast coast of England for a weekend and bringing all the bands, crews and entourages with them. Sure, there are gigs happening other than the gigs in the church – naturally, too, some attention-seekers who are not on the TV or fringe bill of new acts come to town to try to hijack what’s going on – but it’s a town of small venues so we’re probably tapped out at a couple of hundred people.
Those people make up the cast. You have the bands who are playing, you have the people who work with bands and you have the people who think they work with bands. You have the journalists who are here to cover the event, a surprising number of industry people from out foreign and people who have come from out of town to see the bands or just simply hang out for the weekend. You have the Other Voices’ working crew, which number around 70 or 80, taking care of it all. And you naturally have the locals who are out to enjoy the fuss and squeeze into the pews.
It’s the performances in the church which are the heart of Saturday (and Sunday and Monday) night. It’s a tiny room, seating or standing around 100 to 110 people to watch acts playing on Caroline O’Connor’s striking, atmospheric set. While the performances are relayed to various pubs around the town (and streamed online by The Guardian who cover the event with great elan), you really want to be there to see the whites of the artist’s eyes and be at the centre of the action. Everyone wants to be there and space is at a premium so, unless you’re someone who wants to hog the seat all night, many will go in and come out to allow others in to see acts at various stages of the night.
Watching Villagers playing there on Saturday night was spinetingling, especially when you recall how Conor O’Brien’s star has risen over the years. He’s made many trips to Dingle before; first as a member of The Immediate, then as Cathy Davey’s guitarslinging sidekick, next as a solo Villager and now as the leader of the Villagers. Tonight, playing songs from the forthcoming “Awayland”, Villagers soar and sparkle. Those songs we raved about back in June in Dundalk are now fully formed, fully bedded down, fully alive to the moment. From “The Bell” to “Newfoundland”, the perfectly weighed emotional heft of the set strikes you again and again. Here’s a band who have truly taken things to the next level
Earlier that day, Conor opened proceedings at the Banter Salon. Regular readers will know Banter very well by now and, back in September, Other Voices approached us about doing something in Dingle. What we came up was the Banter Salon, two days of conversations, discussions and performances in the back-room of Foxy John’s, the town’s only pub and hardware shop. We’d awesome peformances from Conor (playing “Earthly Pleasure” and “The Waves” from the new album), the mighty Bridie Monds-Watson AKA Soak (who has the quips and timing of a pro even at this stage, especially when she talked about playing “Sea Creatures” earlier in the day surrounded by penguins) and Riona, the girl with the gorgeous voice from Tipperary who now lives in Dingle.
We’d memorable, brilliant, enlightening and rocking chats with The Observer editor John Mulholland (very open and fortright on everything from the journalism trade to political access), historian and author Diarmaid Ferriter (who had some great lines on branding 1916), the poet and Princeton scholar Paul Muldoon (the first ever poet to feature at Banter – we’re OK with poetry now – and the most rock’n'roll man in Dingle last weekend), Guardian media writer Lisa O’Carroll (who provided a whip-smart review of a wild media year with much emphasis naturally on the Levenson report) and the project director of Derry City of Culture 1913 Dermot McLaughlin (who also became the first Banter talker to also play some tunes, treating us to a gorgeous slow air and a jaunty jig with his fiddle).
We’d readings from Silver Threads of Hope writers Peter Murphy (who read from his forthcoming second novel Shall We Gather at the River) and Siobhan Mannion, plus a discussion with anthology editor Sinead Gleeson on the state of the Irish writing business. And we had Jerry Kennelly and Kieran Murphy to end it all and bring it all back home by talking about the spark which leads to great ideas and innovation. It was all filmed and recorded and it’s in the can for broadcast online or offline at some future date so keep an eye out for that. The Banter Salon returns in February when we head to Derry with Other Voices and in April when we do it in London.