ONE of Ireland’s largest musical showcase festivals is set to return for its 18th year this October, having weathered the pandemic better than most. Ireland Music Week, formerly Hard Working Class Heroes, will take place this year from October 5 to 8, digitally for the second year in a row. Spearheaded by First Music Contact, the team found a way around the pandemic last year by filming several high quality pre-recorded streams in Dublin's Lost Lane venue that were then broadcast to industry tastemakers over some days. This year, it’s The Grand Social that plays host and the festival is poised to be as strong as ever.
IT’S easy to feel as if we’ve been stalking through a desert over the last 20 or so months. The relentless pressure of the you-know-what-19 has been bearing down on us with the force of the sun, lockdown gave each new day the sparkling idiosyncrasy of a sand dune (each one as varied as the last 100 in all the ways you don’t like), and an end goal that was as fleeting as a mirage. Indeed, the promise of a return to normal, or even a roadmap as provided by neighbouring power bodies, seemed continually within sight but further away. It would seem, though, that we’ve finally stumbled onto an oasis – or is it just another trick of the light? It was announced that from September 6, live events were to return to Ireland, whereas nightclubs were slated to return on October 22. However, there's a catch, as always. Until the 22nd, indoor shows are capped at 60 per cent capacity whereas outdoor is limited to 70 per cent, with no real indication as to whether or not late October will permit a full return for the night-time economy. These cap restrictions on outdoor events seem particularly ill-thought-out when compared to the likes of GAA attendance and their maskless masses in the filled hostelries post-show (no harm intended towards the clubs and fans, sport is equally important to our cultural consciousness).
IT seems that the whole industry is making good use of this unexpected good weather before the summer comes to a close. As I write this, hurtling down the motorway towards the rebel city, things have begun to heat up within the music industry: in the charts, on stage and in the release column. First off, a follow up from last week. Orla Gartland and Villagers battle it out as both vie for the number one slot on their hometown music charts. On one hand, the independent underdog armed with fresh energy, internet clout and an indie rock fan battalion. On the other, the seasoned artist with a decade-plus of fanbase-building around him and his most accomplished record in years. We await the results eagerly of this Ali vs Foreman-esque sales brawl. But as spectators in this fight, we are the real winners. And for those avoiding the sun, fear not for there's a number of high quality recorded concerts headed your way. Although the practice has wained given the return of the outdoors as an option, the past year and a half have seen a huge swell of competent and talented production companies present our native talent in stunning A/V instances. Take the newly announced ‘Seconds Away’ series. Spearheaded by independent promoters Singular Artists, an offshoot of the legendary Aiken Promotions, this multi-week presentation of Irish music begins on September 1. Recorded in the National Stadium in Dublin and presented by BBC R1’s Gemma Bradley, the programme will be broadcast every week of the month and features great northern talent such as CHERYM, Soak, Conchur White, Dani Larkin, Sam Wickens and more. With highlights broadcast from RTÉ 2F on Dan Hegarty’s show and visuals hosted on Nialler9’s YouTube page, there’s plenty for you to dig into this month.
AS tensions between the arts sector and the government continue to rise in the south, two powerhouses of Irish music dropped their long-awaited albums this year: one a debut, and the other a magnum opus. As the summer months and the window for Ireland's festival economy come to a close, calls have increased for the powers-that-be to establish a clear and concise plan of action for the return of entertainment. This was compounded with voices such as Festival Republic director Melvin Benn. He was on RTÉ Radio One last week, where he compared leadership between the UK and the South, voiced his concerns for the long-term damage to the industry, and compared the sector's treatment to the infamous Thierry Henry handball of 2009, stating: “Everybody knew it was wrong and yet the ref ignored it... everybody knows this is wrong.” When accompanied by the Events Industry Alliance’s statement of disappointment following a meeting with Minister Catherine Martin and news that cuts to the PUP will be incoming, one can only wonder where FF/FG’s priorities lie.
AS live festivals and outdoor events continue to get announced in the South, festivals and concerts have begun to return to the North. First off, the boots on the ground stuff. The Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival has announced a full music, comedy and art line-up that will take over the gentrified area of the city for ten days in early September. One of Belfast's best-run and best-quality festivals, the line-up include Irish talents such as songwriters Ciaran Lavery and Luka Bloom, the LP launch of rapper Leo Miyagee, performances from Robocobra Quarter and Amy Montgomery and folk singers Reveal and Brigid Mae Power. With autumn fast approaching, get back out there and experience some of the best that the city can offer. And just before that, their cultural neighbours at Custom House Square hosted two of the biggest evenings in two years. Tom Jones and Gavin James headlined stages that played to sold-out crowds of 5,000 citizens each, North and South. Credit to organisers and crew, who’d demonstrated that proper planning and coordination, when paired with Covid testing and vaccinations, can lead us back into brighter times. And, of course, Féile an Phobail pulled in the crowds yet again with a series of hugely popular outdoor events in the Falls Park. This is on the heels of the tenth anniversary of Stendhal Festival in Limavady, which featured a diverse range of native talent. I enjoyed performances from NewDad, The Magazine Club, Jordan Adetunji and Lonesome George (amongst others). A fitting way to cap off a decade of Ireland’s biggest small festival. Meanwhile, Irish government inaction in creating a roadmap for events on this scale faces growing (and fully deserved) criticism. There are still no plans for large scale outdoor performances, even with the likes of PCR and lateral flow tests becoming more abundant than ever, and it won’t be the 3Arenas of the world that will suffer – it’ll be the hard-working, tax-paying working-class crew and venues of the industry that feel the brunt of the Dáil’s feet dragging. On the subject of these exemplary, essential components of the entertainment that we all rely on, there have been several announcements. First off, the Summer Of Love socially-distanced festival was announced for the end of August in Meath. Taking place over the 27th and 28th and with tickets on sale now, headliners such as Krystal Klear, Boots & Kats and R. Kitt will scratch that dance itch you’ve had all this time. This news was followed by the announcement that my favourite southern festival, the wholesome It Takes A Village, returns to Trabolgan in East Cork on Sunday, September 19. Famed for the great care shown to both patron and artist, if you make one staycation this summer I highly advise you to check out this festival. Taking place in a community of self-catering accommodation and with amenities that include a beach, spa facilities, a sauna and a number of bars, it's idyllic compared to the normal muddy slog of Glastonbury. And with a killer line-up of John Francis Flynn, Yenkee, Aoife Nessa Frances and more, there's plenty to be excited about come September time. And while we give a special shout out to both Fontaines D.C. and For Those I Love for their Ivor Novello nominations, we end the article as always by shining a spotlight on releases from independent artists in the last week.
THIS is the lessons we can take from the last seven days of developments. You might remember the call to action from some of Ireland's biggest culture activists and creators that we spoke about in last week’s column. In the wake of the Irish government's announcement of a road map from the end of August for the events industry (universally acknowledged as too late in the game), hastily constructed advice was announced that allows a maximum of 200 people at outdoor events. This spurred the announcement of a new festival in Cork, ‘The Great Beyond’. The two-day music and comedy line-up that features BellX1, Lisa Hanigan, The Scratch and more will take place in early September in the Kinsale region. This announcement is also good news for the likes of the Claremorris Folk Festival (which features northern talent like Malojian, Dani Larkin and Robocobra Quartet) which will look to launch in the first week of September, and for the second round of Stendhal in Limavady.
TWO of Ireland's musical institutions have announced full lineups and day-by-day breakdowns in the last week. This comes on the heels of the much-criticised announcement from TD and Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht Sport and Media Catherine Martin that she has “signalled her intention to work closely with Government colleagues towards developing a re-opening plan for the sector”. After over a year-and-a-half of lack of clarity from their elected representatives about the safe return of work (I notice Croke Park hasn’t faced the same level of issues – fancy that), there's been a swell of well-deserved anger voiced. Journalist and blogger Niall Byrne, founder of the Nialler9 website and an advocate for Irish music, published a brilliant piece simply titled ‘The Irish live event industry needs a roadmap NOW, not at the end of August’. I advise you give it a read to see exactly how the arts sector has been abandoned by those who are supposed to advocate for it.
PLENTY of live news for the hunters this week. It's really starting to feel like normal again – what a day for the parish. First off, we have Stendhal Festival announcing their second lineup, a three-day extravaganza in the second week of August. Following the resounding success of July’s weekend performances (which featured the likes of Lyra, Kilá, New Pagans and Joshua Burnside), the Limavady festival has announced that local legends Ash, And So I Watch You From Afar and singer/songwriters Ryan McMullan and David Keenan as headliners. As a veteran of the aforementioned July dates, I cannot recommend getting your sunshine fix at Stendhal enough.
IT’S only natural after the roaring success of Stendhal and these shattering heat waves that the festival buzz will kick in. With news of, for better or worse, England’s removal of restrictions this week, several festivals will be proceeding this summer as test events to gauge the viability of large scale outdoor music performances.
IT’S hard to believe how far we’ve come since the cold blues of January 1. While we’re not back yet (Can ANYONE get the Assembly to define ‘ambient’ music for the taxpaying musician? Míle buíochas), scenes at Stendhal in Limavady and test events in the south are visual reminders of the hard-won progress that industry activists and professionals have fought for all year. With the last six months in mind and a positive eye on the horizon, we’re able to have a proper inspection of our creative output this year without a grimace. After all, we’ll be able to SEE some of these people sooner or later. With this in mind, I’ve collected a handy list for the intrepid supporter of local banjo pluckers to peruse, a top 10, if you will, of the best albums released in the year of our Lord 2021 so far. In no particular order, here’s my selection of the crème de la crème...
LIVE music is back and the north is leading the charge. In an unusually clear-headed move, the Assembly has voted to remove restrictions on outdoor events. This comes off the back of tireless campaigning and activism by the NI music industry and by a new cultural task force set up to tackle a post-Covid world for the arts, and the payoff is immense.
IT’S certainly been a week readers, one of ups, downs and circles. With the likes of Stendhal festival and Electric Picnic growing ever closer, the cultural standoff between creators and legislators at every end of the island continues to rage as prime time for festivals slips away into the summer. Conflicting advice and deadlines see the likes of the singular artists’ flagship festival ‘All Together Now’ cancelled for the year in the same week that ‘Sea Sessions’ announced their headline lineup and CMAT headline Academy show tickets went on sale.
AS the rare sun beats down, festival organisers have begun rolling out the necessary precautions needed to formally open their campsites and stages for the summer. With the very curious position the North finds itself in with regards to the easing of restrictions, outdoor entertainment will prove to be a litmus test for what sort of gigs we can expect in the winter. In the South, Electric Picnic is postponing its opening by three weeks, but the bravado of their press statement suggests that bookers view this as a temporary setback rather than a death toll. Meanwhile, in Limavady, the mighty Stendhal Festival announced on Friday that they are confident that Stormont will stick to their guns and announced a further run of acts taking to their Karma Valley stage – bringing the total line-up to 200 bands and comedians. I’m not a spiritual man, but I do believe Karma would find us all in credit over the next few weeks. Festivals are not the only ones rolling out dates, however. A tour was announced for Belfast alt-jazz cult Robocobra Quartet, 25 million euro were doled out to the live music industry in the South to support events in the summer and Dublin's Button Factory announced a series of events that will inject some life back into the city. Socially distanced shows will begin inside the venue from July 5. With capacity capped at 85 tickets per show, these will be the first series of indoor gigs in over 18 months on the island. With performances from the likes of Melina Malone, Aonair, Alex Gough, Local Boy, Scattered Ashes and more, it’s a unique collection of Irish talent that already has several sold-out shows. With a blueprint for providing this sort of entertainment in a confined, controlled area, the Button Factory sheds some light on a return of normality that will ultimately lead to brighter, better places.
A PILOT music event in the South has been met with mixed results over the past few days. First, the basics: Singer-songwriters James Vincent McMorrow and Sorcha Richardson, plus a crew of 40-plus live industry officials, played an organised gig in Iveagh Gardens in Dublin. Patrons were sectioned in a socially distanced manner. All safe, all good, right? Whilst the face of this might look fantastic, reports of issues with ticket allotment (it seems the elected officials who barely hid their contempt for the arts over the last year had zero problem securing tickets) and of any necessary testing at the event call the spirit of what happened into dispute. Good for the crew and artists, get your wages, but the optics of what could be seen as a PR stunt by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil shouldn’t be ignored.
REJOICE, for music has returned to the glens and alleyways of the North. Potentially. News broke this weekend from Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey of an indicative date where researchers and scientist reckon that holding a guitar in a public space WILL NOT make everyone around you catch Covid… Wait, I’m being told that was never an issue? Go figure.