Let the music keep your spirits high
Some out-takes from the reporter’s notebook after a weekend at Other Voices in Dingle
The only stimulant I rely on these days is music. Of course, there are substances in that pot of Barry’s tea and endorphins from the running, but it’s music which keeps me high these days. You put on something new and you hope for a hit, the only time you get hit and feel no pain. You put on something familiar to reach for the same sort of feeling that those hygge nuts rave about. You can analyse, critique, review, mine and parse it all you like, but the only way to truly understand what is happening is to experience it firsthand. Put on the music, sit back and wait for the connection to the source to do its magic.
Usually these days, I hear most music at home. Spotify, Soundcloud, Bandcamp and a dozen other ways to listen to music in 2016 bring music right to the kitchen table or office desk. Sometimes, though, you have to leave the house and hit the road and find the right setting. Sometimes, you have to travel for a couple of hours to find the right setting to make sense of it all.
The setting, though, has to be really right. No halfways and certainly no fields. 2016 was the year when I finally accepted that music festivals are the worst place in the world to hear music. With the exception of those new music showcases where checking out new bands are the only reason the event is on, the other ones on the circuit are not fit for that purpose any longer. They’re for circus acts and carnival barkers, for IRL meetings and encounters with your social network, for large multinational conglomerates to make money from butting in on the cultural conversation, for this and that and the other. But they’re not for music. As I’ve said before and will probably say again, big fields are for cows and hurling not live music.
But, you know, #NotAllLiveMusic. There are times when a particular act in a particular room on a particular day and time just makes more than sense. Your synapses click what’s going on and you’re fully aware that there’s nowhere else you should be right now.
I’ve been going down to Other Voices in Dingle since 2012 to host Banter as part of the festival in a pub and hardware shop called Foxy John’s (this is called a declaration of interests). You go in for a drink, squeeze your way into the back room to hear some randomers having a conversation by the open fire about some dude called Tara Browne or hoovers and NASA and go home with a hammer and box of nails. It’s that sort of place. Every town probably needs an establishment like this. Maybe two, in case the first one runs out of bulbs or screws.
Over the years, Other Voices has turned and twisted and mutated and morphed into a much different sort of look than was the case when Philip King and Glen Hansard initially compiled a list of artists in 2002 and put a TV show around those names. Times change. The singer-songwriters who made the excursion to the wilds of west Kerry 15 years ago were very much a product of that time and environment. Most of them are still in business, but Other Voices has moved on and mooched on. International acts began to travel to the southwest, the event became more than just about what was recorded for the TV screen and Other Voices became a pre-Christmas gathering for around 5,000 people (read Una Mullally and Laurence Mackin’s piece for more on this transition).
Yet for all these changes, the main Other Voices’ action is still centred on the gigs in the church each evening. No matter how much else happens in Dingle around those few days, the gigs on the music trail or the talking at Ireland’s Edge, those shows are still the reason why all of this happens. We wouldn’t be here other than for the fact that a TV show shoot is happening. Like Kelis and her milkshake, the TV cameras bring all the boys and girls to the yard in the first place. The fact that there’s nothing else happening on those evenings bar the church shows and the streaming of those performances to bars around the town re-enforces this statement of intent.
Moreover, it’s the acts who play in the church who are very much the meat and drink of that statement of intent. This is where the festival gets to set out its stall and make its party political broadcast on behalf of the musical stirrings and goings-on of the moment. That’s what you watch for and listen for. The presence of three acts in particular – Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh and Cormac Begley, Girl Band and Rusangano Family – were in bold and italic 48 size print on this year’s statement. This indicated a different cut to the proceedings, another slant, another lean, another mutation.
Sometimes you need to shake things up and putting on a bunch of Irish acts who don’t conform to what we’ve kind of assumed Irish acts to be over the last few years is worth noting. You can’t make any assumptions about Irish acts anymore. Many like me will claim you never could, but the wider industry always did and honed in on either singer-songwriters or a certain kind of polished, melodic big music-y indie-pop. That was the sound of the island and we produced plenty of acts who conformed to that bias. We also produced a ton of other types, but the traction always seemed to go the other way.
The pendulum is now swinging back. Watching the three acts above over the weekend in the Church of St James was a lesson in upending perceptions. The prowling menace of Girl Band coming on strong with instruments raised and fully armed, the magnificently pure blast and intrigue of Ó Raghallaigh and Begley tearing through improvised pieces and tunes from back west, the exuberent celebration and probing questions inherent in how Rusangano Family roll: here are three acts who couldn’t be from anywhere else but here, yet who buck much of what we think this particular landscape is about.
It was a redefiniton and a redrawing of musical lines at the same time as a taking stock of what was really in the cupboard. How these acts got here and what they brought here is for the musicologists to work out in time, but there was a spirit in the pews and aisles as the three acts played that kind of took your breath away. You could enjoy it for the moment, the raw emotion of the moment, but you could also dig deep and extrapolate all kinds of things if that was your wont.
For me, those performances took me back to where I came in a dozen paragraphs ago. It was a hit, a bona-fide immersion into a world where music mattered as much to me as it did the first tine as a teenage galoot in Tipperary trying to work it all out at warp speed. In a year when everything was topsy-turvey and insideout and roundabout, it was a reminder of the power of music at its damn finest – and that’s a drug that will always work.