Launched three years ago, 2014 may well be the year that the Westport Festival finally arrives. Set in the surroundings of Westport House, it fits a lot into a small space and, although there are only three music stages, there always seems to be something worth seeing – without the pressing need to dash off after two numbers. A local festival for local people, some of the main stage acts may head straight down the middle of the road but the second Marquee stage mixes it up with more success and the Roisin Dubh curated courtyard features nothing but the best in new Irish music.
As State arrives on the Saturday afternoon the atmosphere is genial yet certainly in need of something to kick the weekend into gear. Thankfully, the Hot Sprockets are on hand to get the party started. Last year they faced a lethargic, early afternoon open air crowd but this time the result is never in doubt. A band turning into genuine rockstars before our eyes, they are spellbinding from start to finish. The Brother Nature experience has clearly boosted their confidence and audience, with the front of the stage rammed with excitable young folk. The Jim Jones Revue pull a similar trick later in the evening, also fuelled by a clear love of old school rock ‘n’ roll but there’s something missing in comparison – perhaps a sense of being the real deal. In those terms, the Sprockets walk as tall as anyone.
Given the mainstream nature of the majority of the audience, much of what’s on offer seeks to bring them songs they already know in a slightly different form. The Overtones are awful – five Michael Bublé wannabes singing to backing tracks – but at least 2Cellos are a slightly more interesting proposition, even if their classical goes metal schtick wears thin after a while. Best of all are the Ukulele Orchestra Of Great Britain, who bash out old punk, pop and disco hits in black tie and are a huge amount of fun.
If you’re looking for something more contemporary though, the Roisin Dubh stage is the place to be. Lisa O’Neill charms as always and is certainly better suited to these more intimate surroundings than some of the larger festivals she’s played of late but others struggle to connect with an audience that ebbs and flows. The Cast Of Cheers suffer most, strangely ineffective this evening. Their own brand of indie guitar rock, once so fresh and exciting, seems not to have progressed at all and the once bright young things are in danger of getting left behind. Not so Little Green Cars who, while not exactly cutting edge, have clearly struck a chord and are strangely headlining both nights on the third stage. While they sometimes come across a bit staid on record, here they breath live and drama into their songs and, if the new material given an airing is anything to go by, show no signs of letting their opportunity slip.
Sunday brings more good weather, bigger crowds and the traditional appearance of the Clew Bay Pipe Band on the main stage. Backed by local musicians and guests including Dexys’ Pete Williams, Mundy and Matt Molloy from the Chieftains it’s another way of presenting some familiar tunes and probably the most effective of the lot. From ‘Danny Boy’ to ‘Staying Alive’ and ‘Get Lucky’, the kids are clearly having a ball and it’s a stirring sound when it all kicks in. Hell, we’re even getting a bit emotional during Coldplay’s ‘Fix You’. They certainly exude more genuine passion than Sophie Ellis Bextor, so we head over to the Roisin Dubh stage to catch Maud In Cahoots. In contrast to the bright sunshine the trio are a sombre experience, but in a good way. Zoe’s mournful cello defines their elegant sound, while sister Maud has more charisma than most across the festival – although The Selecter’s Pauline Black is still hard to beat, bouncing round the Marquee Stage like a teenager as her cohorts old and new bash out the 2-Tone hits.
The main stage is hardly the place for curve balls at Westport, yet here comes the biggest of the lot as the picnickers settle in for an hour in the company of Tinariwen. What could have been a drastic misfire actually works a treat, as the Saharan sounds fit the environment perfectly. As ever, not understanding what the band are singing does provide some sort of barrier to the experience but the joyous musicianship more than draws you in. There’s a similar experience to be found with Kilà on the Marquee Stage, who are absolutely on top form. With brass flourishes adding a definite afrobeat flavour to their Irish roots it’s a performance that rolls back the years and ups the ante for those that follow.
It seems that every Sinead O’Connor album release leads to talk of a comeback but you sense that this time there is something to prove, that a musician exists beyond the lurid tabloid coverage. Westport proves the point and then some. Opening with a cover of John Grant’s ‘Queen Of Denmark’, this is uncompromising and brilliant. There’s no sign of that, still bizarre, glammed up artwork with the defiantly natural singer leading a small band that includes the brothers Papenfus from Relish. To the crowd’s credit they go with it, as she moves from a gospel a cappella piece to ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ to a song about the blood of Jesus. They’re rewarded by a late greatest hits run through, with ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’, ‘Last Day Of Acquaintance’ and ‘Thank You For Hearing Me’ all delivered with heartfelt verve. Back in business and no mistake.
We Cut Corners are at the other end of their career but manage to match O’Connor to come up with one of the sets of the weekend. Whereas they seemed a little lost at their recent Button Factory show, here the duo are spellbinding. The fast, loud approach still works the best yet only thanks to stripped down contrast they throw in. In contrast, Daithí arrives, kicks off and never looks back. Liza Flume and Elaine Mai both slot into the continuous stream of music and help the experience bridge the cap between club and gig.
In many ways, Bryan Adams is the perfect choice of act to close the Main Stage, an artist capable of delivering two hours of hits without a bother and – while it is a little underwhelming in large doses, State can’t pretend that it wasn’t having a crafty little sing-a-long to ‘Run To You’ and ‘The Kids Wanna Rock’. Our final memory of the weekend though comes, as it started, in the Marquee. Bell X1 have been through a number of phases in their career but you feel you’d be hard pressed to find them happier than they look tonight. While their stunning Choice Music Prize performance made us wonder if the acoustic set up was the way forward, this band show proves there’s life in the old dog yet. It’s as much a celebration of a musical life as a gig, a meeting between band and audience. A joy to behold and a night to remind you just how special music an be – much like Westport Festival itself.
Photo: Declan Courell