Aoife O’Donovan live at The Bullingdon, Oxford
I’ve seen Aoife O’Donovan four times now, all of them in my own town, and the cynic (especially if she knew me a bit) might infer that this assiduous fanship is partly down to the artist’s willingness to keep performing in Oxford. Truth be told, I think it partly is. I am fond of Aoife O’Donovan for coming here and then coming back here, for playing so willingly to the old and crusty crowd in the comfortable dungeon that is The Bullingdon.
Mostly though I think she’s a really good performer with great presence, great skill and a stock of great songs. I would recommend both her albums, Fossils (2013) and In The Magic Hour (2016) to anyone, and there’s a lot of fire in the recordings she made as part of Crooked Still. Her style is, I think, really unusual. She says in the course of the night that she loves Joni Mitchell, that she’s sure that’s apparent to anyone listening to her, and although I hadn’t really thought it before I do see it. Her voice is very different but she uses it in some of the same ways, as another instrument, working the words into a complicated and unreproducible melody above the frisky guitar line.
All of which probably makes her sound like a nightmare – I’m not a musician, OK – but she’s not, she has a really light touch, she’s great. And she does great things with her guitar. It’s pretty cool that she has this history of collaboration, as a straight up band member in Crooked Still and more recently as part of the luminous I’m With Her trio, alongside Sarah Jarosz and Sara Watkins – and that she’s happy to stand onstage all by herself too with a guitar and reproduce that album sound I just called unreproducible.
Actually the crowd this time is a bit less crusty and old, positively well-heeled in some rows (the ones which talk too loudly and leave early) and pretty young in others. The first time I saw her play here, maybe four years ago, an elderly gent in the front row asked her loudly part way through to tell the crowd to stop taking flash photographs, because it was distracting. She politely did so.
The Bullingdon, however, retains its character from visit to visit. It’s a concrete chamber, feeling more or less underground, and to render its atmosphere complete they’ve painted the concrete wall blocks black. It’s nice. It’s weirdly cosy. My companion and I arrive pretty late, idiotically missing part of a cracking set by the support act, Blair Dunlop; almost everybody is sitting on chairs, in rows, and we can’t face bundling around looking for seats, so we stand at the back. Great view and handy for the toilets. With the interesting flipside of getting our ears blasted by the hand-dryers every few minutes, and at times actually being able to hear the louder urinaters doing their thing.
Because I missed the start I don’t know if the crowd started warm (because of the weather, perhaps, which was most unBritishly balmy) or if it was Blair Dunlop that warmed them, but they are excited to see O’Donovan hit the stage. Or walk calmly onto it with her guitar and ask, ‘You guys ready?’ The answer is positively delirious for 9 o’clock on an Oxford evening.
One of the charming things about O’Donovan is that she always looks kind of happy, even when she’s singing seriously melancholy lyrics – not in a Kylie Minogue kind of way, but more as if she just likes what she’s doing right now. She goes a bit floppy playing her guitar, like a snake in the sun. And she remains in perfect control of her voice. It’s not a huge voice, but she can do a lot of things with it and she never misses; wails and sobs and moans are pitch perfect.
The opener, Steve Winwood’s ‘I Can’t Find My Way Home,’ is seriously bluesy, setting the tone for the night; I’ve heard her play most of these songs before but not quite like this. When she sings her own ‘Lay My Burden Down’ I’m struck in a new way by the words, and how they team up with her smile and the basic gentleness of her demeanour. ‘When I was young, my mom would say, “So your life’s hard, and that’s OK. You can make it through the day. It’s not that far.”’ I mean, come on. That’s wisdom.
By the third number I’m getting tired of the hand-dryers.
The bluesiness of her style tonight underlines the songs from her last album, In The Magic Hour, I think, which is unapologetically about death, and about getting old. Or older. Aoife O’Donovan is only thirty-four but in this album, in the title track alone, her reminiscences reach back as far as the ‘songs of old Ireland’ her grandfather used to sing. When she sings ‘I wish that I was young again,’ you don’t half know what she means. Even if she has a pretty resigned and mellow smile to go along with it.
Even in the very bitter ‘Pearls,’ she doesn’t come off as harsh. And more notably, even in ‘Briar Rose,’ which was inspired by an Anne Sexton poem and is about child abuse – you want to listen. Some of the lyrics are shocking but you don’t want to close your ears. I suppose you could say the same for ‘Pretty Polly,’ that most classic murder ballad, which she hails as Appalachian but plays like blues. Not very nice, really. Who knows what makes it such a good listen.
The lovely ‘Red and White and Blue and Gold’ comes off a lot more plaintive than usual, and not just because she dwells more than usual on the ‘wondering if you’re mine’ moment. It’s slower and sadder, but not less sun-drenched or gorgeous. So I’ll take that. I’ll take a singer, even if she is younger than me, whose consciousness of death weaves into her songs and who marries melancholy with mellow. Specially one who’ll come and play in Oxford. I call that good service.
Can’t Find My Way Home
Lay My Burden Down
Red and White and Blue and Gold
Lakes of Pontchartrain
Lovesick Redstick Blues
King of All Birds
You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio
Soon After Midnight