Kilkenny Rhythm & Roots Weekend – (Kilkenny, Ireland)
Kilkenny is a small medieval city in Southeast Ireland, noted more for the prowess of its hurling team than as a notable musical landmark. (Hurling is Ireland’s native field sport, played by teams of fifteen using curved wooden sticks or bats to strike a leather ball.) Yet over the past seven years, the organizers of the city’s annual Rhythm & Roots Weekend have achieved a status for the place that has visiting acts raving about Kilkenny’s down-home ambience and its knowledgeable and friendly audiences.
Speaking to Robert Fisher of Willard Grant Conspiracy on a balmy Sunday afternoon close to the River Nore that lazily flows through the town, he refers to the festival in glowing terms. “It reminds me a little bit of a small South By Southwest,” he suggests, referring to the annual Austin, Texas, confab. “It’s a really well-organized festival, and I love the fact that it’s so open.”
Openness is indeed one of Kilkenny’s virtues, and so too is the fact that despite there being over 70 gigs at 30 venues, most acts play at least twice over the weekend, giving fans a better chance to catch their favorite acts.
Terry Allen is in town performing at Cleeres, a little stand-up theater at the back of a pub on Parliament Street. For his show on Monday afternoon, the legend from Lubbock was accompanied by longtime cohort Richard Bowden on fiddle and mandolin, with his son Bukka adding accordion and percussion to his father’s measured piano playing and emotive voice. Raw and passionate versions of “Gimme A Ride To Heaven”, “What Of Alicia” and “Amarillo Highway” were delivered to an awestruck, jam-packed audience by a man whose songwriting talents have often been overlooked.
Rockabilly is an integral part of this festival; the sight of English devotees resplendent in their authentic 1950s gear is an added visual novelty for the natives over the weekend. Fort Wayne, Indiana, band the Blue Moon Boys played a riveting set at Paris Texas on Sunday night. Lead singer Nic Roulette’s swinging-from-the-rafters routine had an eager and enthusiastic crowd baying for more at the end of a punk-influenced rockabilly rave-up.
The Ormond Hotel’s ballroom played host to Dave Alvin & the Guilty Men for midnight gigs on both Saturday and Sunday nights. With guitarist Rick Shea and pianist Joe Terry driving the band behind the former Blaster, the Saturday night performance was a blistering experience of seminal roots-rock that highlighted Alvin’s onstage charisma and mystique. “Out In California”, “Fourth Of July”, “Blackjack David”, “Shenandoah” and “King Of California” all reached out to a 500-strong sold-out crowd hanging onto every word.
Over at the Watergate Theatre was a piquant double-bill pairing the Hot Club Of Cowtown with the Willard Grant Conspiracy. The former, a jazz-tinged western swing trio consisting of Elena Fremerman on fiddle, Whit Smith on guitar and Jake Erwin on upright bass, opened the show with impressive fiddle improvisations, snappy guitar solos, heavenly vocal harmonies and stimulating bass slaps.
Next came the deadpan introductions of Willard Grant Conspiracy’s main man, Robert Fisher. “Meditations on morality” is how he describes the songs on their latest album, Regard The End. An intense set of poignantly beautiful compositions filled the theater in a captivating show of controlled emotion with a dynamic charge.
Fisher’s voice recalls the gravity of John Cale or Leonard Cohen; the six-piece band’s unifying sound closed in around his emotive vocals to produce a somber yet tingling resonance. “Another Man Is Gone” built up from a slow blues into a fully charged howl. “Soft Hand” was their obligatory pop number, while “River In The Pines” and “Suffering Song” showed why Fisher has been described as an alt-country Nick Cave.
Other acts who impressed over the whirlwind weekend included former Whiskeytown fiddler Caitlin Cary and Oregon band Richmond Fontaine — well, two of them at least. Singer-songwriter Willy Vlautin and guitarist Paul Brainard took their music beyond America for the first time, explaining that they couldn’t afford to bring the full band on this trip. They left many eager to see the entire ensemble on their next visit, performing primarily tracks from their sublimely agonizing Post To Wire album.
Other American acts who bolstered the Kilkenny lineup included Jay Farrar, Mark Olson & the Creekdippers featuring Victoria Williams, Big Sandy & the Fly-Rite Boys, Rosie Thomas, and Kelly Joe Phelps. John Miller & the Country Casuals represented Scotland, while Ireland had its share of native acts including the Mary Stokes Blues Band, Bray Vista, Niall Toner, Johnny Moynihan and Jackie Daly. All of them contributed to a utopian mix of Americana, alt-country and general roots-based music.