Kilkenny Rhythm & Roots Weekend – (Kilkenny, Ireland)
When the title of last year’s “Country & Roots” festival changed for this year to “Rhythm & Roots”, some people feared the quality of the lineup might suffer. After all, rhythm could mean any number of things. Thankfully, their fears proved to be unjustified. Despite the late cancellations of Flaco Jimenez and Beth Orton, there were plenty of names on the bill to please anyone who had enjoyed the two previous years’ festivals. The shows took place over four days in a number of locations, big and small, around this medieval city.
“They prayed to the father, prayed to the son, called to Jesus, but he would not come,” sang Harlem’s Guy Davis on “Georgia Flood”. The image of bluesmen tends to be of old men with failing sight, but then this baby-faced New Yorker breaks more than one blues stereotype. On “Let Me Stay A While”, he displayed the same urban slickness Robert Cray possesses. When he sang songs such as “Home Cooked Meal” and “See Me When You Can”, however, he retained that distinctive Southern rural sound so beloved by other bluesmen.
Humor made its way into some of his songs; on “High Flying Rocket”, he complained that “I can’t get it up no more.” He also told the story of a man waiting for a train and, with foot-stomping and a mouth organ, mimicked the sounds of a train, some chickens and a collection of bloodhounds; you had to hear it to believe it.
The finest song he played all night was “Sugar Belle Blue”, about a girl growing up too fast with disastrous consequences. “Go home to your mama,” he pleads in the chorus. Such spellbinding songs, combined with some positively evil slide guitar, made for a riveting experience.
The Derailers are consummate entertainers, from their coordinated country suits (the poor guys must have been boiling up there) to their catchy, pumping material. Songs such as “Whatever Made You Change Your Mind” and “The Right Place” are packed so full of hooks that anyone listening to them can hardly keep still.
Singers Tony Villanueva and Brian Hofeldt seemed to spend the whole show smiling or winking. They have a sense of showmanship similar to those bands from the ’50s and ’60s who smiled whether they were happy or not. It’s not corny; it works. This sense of enthusiasm infected the whole audience.
Even in their choice of covers, they aimed to please. Many bands play obscure cover that they themselves want to perform. Tonight, the Derailers played songs people knew and like: “Folsom Prison Blues”, “Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down”, “Johnny B. Goode”, and an extraordinary honky-tonk rendition of Prince’s “Raspberry Beret”. It’s hard to imagine why the Derailers haven’t had the same crossover success The Mavericks have enjoyed. But that’s another matter. Tonight, they blew the house down.
The organizers of the festival were justifiably proud to have obtained a performance from Odetta. In reality, very little of her music is known in this part of the world, but that didn’t stop her from receiving one of the warmest welcomes of the weekend when she walked onstage.
For her opening number, “This Little Light Of Mine”, she got the audience to sing along, immediately pulling them into the show. She also performed a number of Bessie Smith songs, such as “Weeping Willow Blues”. Unfortunately, she had some trouble with her sinuses, prompting her on one occasion to leave the stage for a few moments. She told us, “I often wonder why the good lord gave singers sinuses and dancers bad feet.”
This inconvenience didn’t seem to affect her singing, which was superb. Accompaniment was provided by pianist Seth Farber, whose bluesy, old-time playing was an integral part of the mood the show created. Her set perhaps could have been a bit more varied, but there was no denying the significance of seeing such a unique figure in folk music history.
On Stacey Earle’s first album Simple Gearle, she came across as a terribly serious individual. It was a surprise, then, to see her live in concert being so perky, all smiles and chuckles. Her husband, Mark Stuart, accompanied her on acoustic guitar. The two of them grinned their way through songs such as “Wedding Night” and “In My Way”, a song Stuart said they were going to call “My Way” but thought better of it. During “Losers Weep”, the stage lights failed, but they continued on regardless, singing and strumming away in darkness. The overall impression of Earle’s music is of a songwriter still honing her craft; while some of her songs were agreeable enough, many were distinctly average.
Without doubt, one of the hits of the weekend, and one of the biggest surprises, was Peter Bruntnell. Despite being English, his music has a very definite American sound, Uncle Tupelo and Big Star obviously being influences. Perhaps road music would be an apt description. The songs he and his band performed were loud but articulate. His supporting players were awesome, especially young guitarist James Walbourne, whose solos repeatedly amazed the audience.
There were a number of things working against Giant Sand before they even walked onstage. The Watergate Theatre is a sit-down venue more suited to old-time musicals than the desert rock of Giant Sand. “Shall we play electric in here? It seems sacrilege,” singer Howe Gelb remarked. Another problem was that Calexico (featuring band members Joey Burns and John Convertino) was the highlight of last year’s festival. A section of the people in the crowd had come expecting more of the same, but Giant Sand and Calexico are entirely different animals.
The early part of the show could be described as erratic, as instruments refused to work and instrumentals dragged on too long. Somebody’s mobile phone going off in the audience seemed symbolic of the way the evening was going. Eventually the show did pick up some momentum; songs such as “Bottom Line Man” and “Blue Marble Girl” made up for the shaky start. The surprisingly short set was completed with a cover of Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand”.
The following day was a different story. The band looked a lot more relaxed as they gave a free set in the much smaller Cleere’s Theatre across the road. They played a straightforward show featuring great songs such as “Temptation Of Egg”, “Four-Door Maverick” and “Leather”. A lucky local musician even joined in to play mouth organ on “Shiver”. Unfettered by interruptions, it was more enjoyable than the previous night’s performance, a real triumph of spontaneity.
“Can you turn the fan off please? We like it hot,” requested Wendell Holmes, singer and lead guitarist with the Holmes Brothers. He showed the power of an evangelist whipping the crowd into a frenzy with his howling vocal style and his genial guitar plucking. Not to be undone, drummer Popsy Dixon contributed his soft vocals on The Beatles’ “And I Love Her” and an incredible rendition of “Amazing Grace”. But it was thunderballs such as “Promised Land” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” that really left the crowd breathless. The Holmes Brothers were the final act of the festival, and a fitting climax to a great weekend.
As I left the venue afterward, I couldn’t help but think of one of the lines Howe Gelb had sung the night before: “Did you ever have one of these days when you love the town you live in?”