Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

Guest post: Joe Griffin at the Lisboa Irish Festival

Continuing the international theme on OTR this week, Joe Griffin reports on last weekend’s Lisboa Irish Festival in Portugal

Thu, Mar 14, 2013, 15:22


Joe Griffin attended last weekend’s Lisboa Irish Festival in Lisbon. Here’s his report on the proceedings translated from the original Portugese.

Imagine four Portuguese bands you’d never heard of were playing a gig in a venue three times the size of Vicar Street. Now imagine that these bands – all of whom are reputable but hardly stadium-filling at home – started popping up on local media, including TV to promote the festival. Would the gig be well attended? What sort of crowd would it pull? I pondered these things while attending Lisboa, a Lisbon-based Irish music festival that took place last weekend featuring Ghost Estates, Ham Sandwich, Wallis Bird and Le Galaxie, with a DJ/VJ set from Generic People.

“It’s my idea,” says Conor Gillen, an Irish expat and bar owner in Lisbon who’s the festival’s director. “Well I got the idea from an Irish folk festival [that ran] for many years in Germany and I always thought it would be wonderful to do it with contemporary Irish music. The amount of good music that comes out of Ireland is phenomenal. Somebody should be presenting it to the world, especially with what’s happening these days with music sales. Bands have lost the ability to produce revenue with music. They’ve had to go back to gigging, especially the young bands. This is a chance to play somewhere beyond bars, to play on a big stage.”

In the lead-up to the gig, some of the bands mentioned that they’d done TV interviews, but that they didn’t know what shows they were for or what sort of audience they got. It could’ve been the Portuguese equivalent of The Late Late Show, Other Voices or some music show in a graveyard late-night or mid-afternoon slot.

The venue looked like a converted warehouse, not dissimilar to Dublin’s old Point Depot, slap bang in the middle of LX, a newly converted pocket of Lisbon that could be described as Hipster Heaven (or hell, I guess). Renewed old buildings, with brickwork still exposed, house gorgeous bookshops, galleries, cafes, graphic design companies and even an acting school and casting studio. Actors in stilts appeared outside the venue posing for photographs, and the uniformly good looking local bartenders wore shirts that either said “I like Irish boys” or ”I’m not Irish but kiss me anyway”.

The crowd was sparse, but enthusiastic, mostly local. Ghost Estates played their sunny indie pop to just over a hundred punters, but they were well received, with each song generating its share of cheers, whistles and “woos”. Most bands had their music for sale there (at the box office, curiously, and not at a stall) and after Ghost Estates’ set I saw a few young women clutching vinyl copies of their album. Ham Sandwich were up next, sounding tight, loud and harmonic. The crowd had thickened a little, so the sound wasn’t bouncing off the bare stone walls as much as before. As always, Niamh’s sweet voice was a nice counterpoint to the wall of indie guitars and she had a good rapport with the punters. When she told the audience to stomp, they slammed their feet dutifully.

Bellowhead: Wallis Bird

Wallis Bird is one of those Irish acts who I (and a lot of people I know) didn’t get until seeing her live. Her albums are interesting, imperfect and endearingly confessional, but her live act is something to behold. With a bellowing voice leaping from her tiny frame, Bird commands the stage – whether she’s indulging her drummer as he goes on a human beat box solo, singing acapella, or springing around with an acoustic guitar, the audience is with her every step.

Le Galaxie were a nice counterpoint to Bird, with their fat synths, deep voices and retro outfits (but without their masks this time). Sounding at times like Depeche Mode, Kraftwerk and The Human League, they were a well chosen closing act. Michael Pope was an engaging frontman, precariously straddling the line between geek and geek-chic. The night was topped off by a strong, inventive set by Generic People, mixing dance with elements of hip hop with some pulsating, occasionally disturbing images that morphed with the music.

Lisboa could just about be considered a success, a promising first outing for an ambitious project. It was a good opportunity for burgeoning Irish acts to get a toehold in a foreign market: Everyone was well received and the numerous sponsors probably meant that it probably wasn’t a financial loss (or at least not a big one). But the venue was optimistic to the point of Quixotic, filled to only a fraction of its capacity. Gillen says he’s in talks to bring the festival – or something much like it – to other European cities. From what I’ve heard, Irish bands might be advised to brush up on their conversational German.