Live Reviews: Cork Folk Festival

Cork Folk FestivalVarious venues, Cork City5-10 September 2006After last year’s lavish Capital of Culture edition, Cork Folk Festival 2006 presented a positively minimalist face to the world. Gone were the big concerts in the big venues. In their place,...

Cork Folk Festival
Various venues, Cork City
5-10 September 2006

After last year’s lavish Capital of Culture edition, Cork Folk Festival 2006 presented a positively minimalist face to the world. Gone were the big concerts in the big venues. In their place, for the most part, stood a range of smaller events similar to the lattice of gigs that has underpinned the festival since its foundation in 1979.

In the City Hall on Saturday night, due tribute was paid to singer Seán Ó Sé. The choice of venue and the presence of some of Cork’s great and good lent an air of civic occasion. Martin Donohue brought the Cavan accent, Peter Browne added the tones of the ‘other capital’, but the event was proudly Corkonian and unashamedly old-fashioned. The first-half backdrop was provided by Natural Gas, the band who gave Seán a hit four decades after his first with ‘The Langer Song’. ‘Great for my street cred,’ Seán assured us. John O’Shea, known on his native heath as ‘The Singing Fireman’, joined in, reminding us of his role as the real source of many of the city’s enduring street ballads, such as ‘Lloyd George’ and ‘The Armoured Car’.

For the second half, Cór Chúil Aodha provided the musical muscle. The spirit of Seán Ó Riada hung over the hall. His son, Peadar, the choir which he founded and Ó Sé, one of his closest musical colleagues, somehow created a proud sense of continuity, almost four decades after Ó Riada himself last performed here. Seán Ó Sé is, on this evidence, in better voice than ever, particularly on songs such as ‘Bantry Bay’. He is clearly in his element and covers all the bases – ‘De Banks’, ‘An Poc ar Buile’, ‘Seán Ó Duibhir an Ghleanna’ and the Cúil Aodha anthem, ‘Mo Ghile Mear’.
The curse of the present-day concert, the mobile phone, raised its ugly ring-tone on a number of occasions. One idiot, in particular, answered his twice. ‘No, I’m at a concert. No, it’s OK, go ahead.’ In addition, Peadar Ó Riada’s grand piano was miked in such a way as to threaten to drown the power of the Cór, and a persistent low-frequency hum – no, not the Cór’s – remained unchecked.

Unlike other festivals, Cork Folk Festival has always infiltrated the city rather than invaded it. In recent times, it has developed a greater presence on the streets. Last year, the city centre was taken over for a successful attempt on the world Siege of Ennis record. This year, the dancers – the word is used advisedly – captured the statue end of Patrick’s Street on Sunday afternoon, where The Kilfenora Céilí Band provided the necessary beats. Further back the street, food stalls, acrobats, face painters and gewgaw sellers completed the carnival picture. The sun shone, the citizens smiled their approval and tapped their feet.

Back in the Spailpín Fánach on Friday night, the real heart of the festival beat strong. Mary Greene & Noel Shine, Séamus Begley & Tim Edey gave us the kind of gig that typifies the event. Greene & Shine work on a deceptively simple template of two voices and two guitars, but they use them to create a blend of music and magic; of the new and the familiar. Greene gives us ‘Little Fingers’ and ‘The Sign’ from her new album, Sea of Hearts; Shine mixes in ‘Billy Gray’ and ‘The Hesitation Blues’.

There is a thin line between virtuosity and circus act. Begley & Edey trampled both sides happily. Séamus Begley has a knack of attaching himself to uncommonly good guitar players. In Tim Edey, he has found one of his most extraordinary. Edey plays like a man possessed, incorporating thrilling, technically-daring runs, ascends and descends, mid-tune changes of guitar tuning, high-speed flashes of inspiration, all conducted with an apparent lack of effort. In the face of such bravado, Begley contents himself with playing the tune and flexing those impressive scalp muscles. Kerrymen are, after all, past masters at letting the ball do the work. Entertaining? Certainly. Musically satisfying? Despite the sensory overload, the answer is still yes.

On Sunday night, Cork Singers Club presented three of their regulars – Elaine Flannery, Con Fada Ó Drisceoil and Rory McCarthy – each of whom had a new CD on offer. In a clear breach of club rules, musical instruments – pipes, guitars and accordion – were present, but the song police adopted a benign approach. This three-cornered concert worked well, with contrasting styles setting each other off.

Over the past twenty-seven years, Cork Folk Festival has survived on a mixture of voluntary effort and old-fashioned faith, plus the generosity of its sponsors. However, a festival such as this needs more than goodwill in order to survive. It is not simply a series of events; it needs a critical mass in order to fully succeed. Cork Folk Festival 2006 did not achieve that. Small may well be beautiful in other contexts but, here, size does matter. The festival needs a wider range of medium and large-scale events in order to finally establish itself as Cork’s other festivals have done.

Published on 1 November 2006

Pat Ahern is a musician and producer. He lectures in mathematics at Cork Institute of Technology.

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