If you had driven along N478 past Lisdoonvarna at 9 am Monday morning you would have seen a slightly disheveled and worn out version of myself trudging my way to the Doolin Music House (the abode of Christy and Sheila, my hosts for the trip). Long after the last taxi had left Doolin, my phone having been dead for 6 hours, I was elated, still buzzing, the songs of a truly epic 6 hour jam session echoing in my head.
I had not yet overcome my jet lag and this weekend would set me back a couple days. But I knew it was all worth it. These were the moments I live for.
The Doolin Folk festival is an intimate event organized by Connor Byrne in the plaza behind Hotel Doolin. They bring together some of the finest acts in Irish music for three days and two stages of performances, ranging widely from authentic traditional music to hard rock, punk, and blues. There was a courtyard with picnic tables and bonfires all around, and a big smoky fire-pit for cooking everything from pulled pork to chili. They even had jambalaya and etoufee, which impressed the New Orleanian in me, and it wasn't half bad--- although the chili was to die for. There was one main stage underneath a tent with a large dance floor and one indoor performance area up a set of stairs with a somewhat smaller capacity. These upstairs shows were called the "Whitehorse Sessions" and were run/sponsored by a bar called Kenny's.
Lisdoonvarna used to have a larger festival with tens of thousands of people but it eventually got too big and out of hand. Christy told me a story about a huge gang of bikers imposing their own law on the festival... The cops waited for them down the road toward limerick to take care of them after the smoke had settled.
Anyway, the smaller size of the Doolin Festival was a large part of its appeal for me. Over the course of the weekend I made many new friends and kept seeing the same faces over and over again. It was also an opportunity to make connections with the great musicians playing the event.
The first day Christy told me to bring my banjo, because in years past there had been a bunch of jam sessions on the festival grounds. That was not the case this year but the banjo still came in handy. The first act I saw was a band led by Tara Howley, a young lady with a beautiful voice and welcoming personality... I enjoyed her youthful group, especially the cello playing of her sister Sharon, whose bowed bass notes really guided the feelings of their songs. Luka Bloom played a solo set which started kind of slowly, so I went and enjoyed the band on the upstairs stage for a while before coming back at the end of Luka's set, which by then had reached a good energy level with the crowd singing along. He finished with Prince's when doves cry. Didn't expect that. Next up was Mairtin O Connor, one of the most respected Accordian players and musicians in town, who played a phenomenal set of traditional music. Seamie O'Dowd was singing, and his voice was deep and nuanced--- he was one of the best singers of Irish music I heard during this entire trip.
The sun was beginning to set around this time and you couldn't see it from inside the festival, so I walked outside and spotted an idyllic perch upon the hill where all the cars were parked. I walked up the hill and said hello to a group of four people around my age sitting atop their car, passing around a bottle of tequila and cigarettes, enjoying the view before they snuck into the festival. After making introductions and chatting for a bit, I played them some New Orleans classics and some original songs on the banjo, and they were totally blown away...of course they weren't expecting a private sunset concert. As an orange burst of light spread across the clouds and sky, we were all enveloped in a haze of joy, and as the final few fingers of light stretched down upon us we walked back down the hill to the festival.
The last highlight of the first day was Jerry Fish's set. One of the best performers of the weekend, he put on a potent, hard rocking show in the upstairs space. His jagged figure left the stage and cut through the crowd, making them get low, shouting refrains like "there's a hole in the bucket," "give that dog a bone," "let it roll, baby, roll." He knew how to command the audience and he was drawing from a deep tradition of rock and roll performance that went well beyond Ireland alone. We danced our asses off. One of my friends from the hillside meeting had attached his hat to my banjo case for safekeeping, which by now had had several beers spilled on it. As I left the venue, banjo on my back, I returned the hat, but Jerry Fish saw me leaving and gave me a look like "don't even think about leaving yet." I set aside my banjo as he pulled me on stage. I started dancing with everything I had, most of my dancing skills coming from second lining in New Orleans for several years. At one point I faked a stage dive which prompted Jerry to say "just try diving off a two foot stage." The crowd responded quickly by interlocking their arms together to make a landing pad for me. I didn't flinch, trusting the audience, and dived into their arms as they bounced me up and down. Rock on!
There were quite a few highlights of the second day as well. A newly formed band called Breaking Trad played music that had some of the freshest rhythmic and harmonic interpretations of the old tradition. Freddie White, with a weathered low voice and great blues guitar chops, put on a hell of a solo performance. Dervish, one of the most popular bands in Ireland, played rollicking songs steeped in the Irish tradition and had the whole crowd jumping up and down in tandem. Hothouse flowers was like Ireland's own "The Band." I was reflecting upon the notion that a band is only as good as its drummer, as their man deftly combined a 6/8 groove with dotted eight notes so you could hear the 4 note pulse simultaneously and a variety of different rhythmic permutations. The high point of their set was a song called "Don't Go", with a African influenced guitar part and groove that really moved everyone's feet. As their lead singer broke into Gaelic for a soulful final song, I reflected upon how similar it sounded to Arabic music, both in terms of the sound of the language, the choice of the notes (b2s leaned heavily upon), and the free, passionate delivery of the notes. I've noticed at times how these ancient folk music traditions seem to have an unseen common thread, and I really notice it with the blues, Arabic music, and Irish music. The pentatonic scales in Eastern music often make me feel that way as well. The deeper you get into the soul, the more it is the same.
I finished off the second night head-banging in a fluorescent red wig borrowed from someone in a hen party, before joining the last band on stage at the Whitehorse Sessions as they played the House of the Rising Sun. Mid-song, I asked if I could sing the last verse and chorus, and they kindly obliged me.
When the third day of the festival arrived, I was fairly exhausted, and I expected to take it nice and easy as I enjoyed the final day's sets. The festival audience was sitting around the main stage, enjoying the band Old Hannah. The band, a group of friends from Sligo, were a balanced mix of personalities that complemented each other nicely. That alone is a difficult feat. I know from experience how unbalanced egos can change a bands structure or dismantle it entirely. They had four singers, each with their own style, and they'd join together for brilliant harmonies--at one point covering a personal favorite, CSN's "Helplessly Hoping". Each of these unique voices also contributed their own original tunes to the mix. They drew upon both Irish music and the history of folk, blues, and bluegrass in America. The picking of the five string banjo interlocked seamlessly with the slide lap guitar. During one song they talked about how Irish music had travelled to America and been foundational in the folk and mountain music there, before returning back to Ireland. This was an insightful notion for my journey and their music would interface very well with the type of music I had been playing. I sought out the members after the show, they were very friendly and we hung out as the day wore on.
Finbar Furey played a set shortly thereafter. The headliner of the festival, here was a storied musician who growled and plucked his way through his songs like a man possessed. You could tell he really lived his songs-- he had been a touring musician since the 1960s. Wikipedia states that he popularized the Uilleann pipes worldwide in that decade. The band he formed with his brothers, "the Fureys," began touring as the back up group for The Clancy Brothers, and had a great run of touring and recording for 30 years before Finbar left for a solo career in 1997. On this night at Doolin Folk Festival he would be receiving the festival's lifetime achievement award, an accolade my host Christy Barry received last year. He delivered a soulful solo performance on the pipes, played his hit "Sweet Sixteen," and closed the set with a rousing singalong o of "Green Fields of France." By the last few choruses, everyone in the audience was singing "did the band play the last verse and chorus, did the pipes play the flowers of the forest" as Finbar conducted the impromptu choir with tears in his eyes. You could tell he was truly grateful as he reflected upon his rich musical life.
I will only mention one or two more music groups for fear of getting long-winded.
Later in the evening, Wallis Bird delivered a performance on guitar and vocals that was rivaled by no other solo performer during the weekend. While she had two supporting band members singing light harmonies and playing trumpet and clarinet, it was really the sheer force of her being that blew the crowd away. She mustered more energy alone with her voice and strumming than entire bands often do. She had "it" -- the intangible, irresistible presence that kept the whole audience enthralled. Her songs were beautiful and spoke from the depths of her soul.
Earlier in the day I had been feeling sleepy, I was nodding off by the side of the tent before Finbar's set. But as I downed a few whiskeys with friends I had met over the weekend and with the band members from Old Hannah I started to realize this might not be an early night. By the last set, at 1 or 2 am, we were all in full force, dancing like maniacs in circles while the band Rackhouse Pilfer played on. At one point they played the song "Atlantic City" which always makes me think of my late sister Molly, because of her love for weekends there and the chorus, which we all sang along to: "everything dies, baby that's a fact. But maybe everything that dies someday comes back. Put your makeup on. Fix your hair up pretty. And meet me tonight in Atlantic City."
After the final notes had been played, we were amped up and ready to keep going, so Old Hannah and my friends from the hill jam Friday night spread the word that we would be having a jam session at the house they were staying at next door. We all gradually made our way there as the festival winded down and started playing at around 3. Many friends who I had met that weekend showed up later on-- it was like all the connections I had made were coming together in one place! We played Irish ballads, rollicking bluegrass tunes, original songs, we even had a eillean pipe player accompanying the music and he would take over in full driving force when the singers went outside for a break. One musician on Bodhran (from Tara Howley's band) kept the beat nicely throughout. Someone brought a case of beer and a bottle of whiskey at around 5 am to keep us going. We continued until about 9 am, and were all thrilled to the bone. It was one of those rare moments, those nights that you never want to end, a fortunate meeting of souls passing through for the evening only. They'd all be gone tomorrow.
But as the morning sun beat down and as I walked down N478 back home I knew it was a weekend I wouldn't soon forget.
"To be in that world when the days would grow long/ The nights never ended. They started in song/ and everybody just played along" Fast and Still, Twin