When you are driving from Cork city heading for West Cork, there is a road sign that says simply ‘The West’. It doesn’t give any clues to towns or villages on the way; that is on a need to know basis. The fact that you are heading to ‘The West’ is all you need to know. Aoife O’Donovan knows that sign well. She would pass it on her way to the home of her grandparents in the village of Clonakilty. She was telling us about it on her introduction to “Magpie”, a song written for her grandad who passed a couple of years back. And as the warm memories of the man stacked on top of each other, the song gradually explained the loss this would have been. “The magpies along the way sounded like you” she sang, eyes closed, smiling, his memory permeating every mile of that road to the village.
However, it wasn’t just “Magpie” that carried grandad’s presence over to us in Belfast for this afternoon gig at the Out To Lunch Festival. Her recently released In The Magic Hour album was central to what was emanating from the stage, and her Irish heritage, obviously linked with her West Cork grandfather, drifts and jigs from its songs. “Hear my granddaddy singing far away …” she sang in “Magic Hour” as Steve Nistor on drums added that extra layer of childlike association to the sound with the tiny jingler he had clamped onto his drumstick – chiming a percussion that made sure O’Donovan would have music wherever she goes.
“Any Joni Mitchell fans” she asked as she tuned up before the soul pulling “You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio”. The smiling O’Donovan had her eyes closed as the song progressed.” Honey you turn me on/I’m a radio/I’m a country station.”
It had been ten years since she had played the Black Box. Last time was with Crooked Still, and Buckfast had been involved. “What’s Buckfast?” asked bemused guitarist Anthony Da Costa as we laughed. “Tonic wine” responded a helpful member of the audience. We all knew it is so much more than that, but this gig was not the time to address those issues. We left it at that.
Da Costa’s guitar had added miles to O’Donovan’s songs at this show. He helped make “Red & White & Blue & Gold” twelve miles deep, just like that hole she dug in the sand according to the song. The beautiful sliding strokes on his guitar made it dreamy, while she smiled into the microphone; again her eyes were closed as she sang.
This was one of Out To Lunch’s afternoon shows. She knew there was no playing over the hour. People had to get back to work, had to attend to the parked car before the traffic wardens did it for them. But this hour, it lasted only 15 minutes, or so it seemed. The songs she had sung had harked back decades, and had lasted the length of her words. This was a tiny measure of time, and we had drunk it all up.
Originally posted on CultureHub Magazine