There’s nothing like thunder laden clouds and a thick layer of puddles outside to strike fear in a festival-goer. In the anxious lead-up to this year’s incarnation of Castlepalooza, there’s an impulse to peer outside any and every window and gaze at the sky, to feverishly check weather apps and to pack and repack thermal long johns and various forms of fleece. But landing on the grounds of the magnificent Charleville Castle, placing a tent on the bouncy field of grass (albeit a bit damp) and catching the contagious atmosphere of excitement puts these anxieties away.
For the first time in ten years the festival’s date has changed – it is no longer scheduled during the August bank holiday, pushed back a month to accommodate the headliners’ tour dates. The jury’s still out on whether this is a good decision or not, being situated on a bank holiday does have its benefits, as is seen on Sunday when a steady stream of revellers travel home, leaving those left behind questioning how the hell they are going to get up for work in the morning.
Castlepalooza also steps up a level this year in terms of scale, with Aiken Promotions coming on board and the associated booking power meaning a heavyweight line-up for the outskirts of Tullamore. However, there is still a real sense of intimacy, with each stage within swift walking distance of the next and even the campsite just five minutes from the arena. Far from a sellout, the benefits are clear. Faces around the campsite soon become familiar, and most of the musicians can be spotted kicking back and enjoying the festival without much notice. There are an amazing number of clean port-a-loos complete with toilet-roll and sometimes hand soap, with little to no queues – a fact we’re chalking up to a definite win for the organisers. The campsite is a gentle stroll to many of the stages too, and crucially there is little to no need to crane or jostle in order to see an act.
Fringe benefits, such as a rich array of comedy performers including Alison Spittle, Andrea Farrell and Chris Kent in addition to headliners Apres Match and Tommy Tiernan, not to mention the opportunity to challenge Steve Davis to a game of pool, only serve to complement a formidable programme across the weekend. The biggest headliners in the festival’s history have hit Charleville Castle grounds this year too; with international acts like Caribou, Jurassic 5 and Cat Power taking top spots, though the bill has a smattering of the best in Irish talent in tow, from headliners Villagers to smaller bands like crystal-clear authentic folk band Lynched, the buoyant Sea Pinks and the ever potent Bad Sea.
Not to miss an opportunity, we dive right in for some droning alt-rock as The Altered Hours kick start the weekend with ‘Way of Sorrow’ powering out of an initially murky main stage mix and surmounting the challenges associated with an early evening set in the midst of one of the worst rain showers of the weekend with aplomb. ‘Dig Early’ concludes a rewardingly heavy set as the dreaded rain begins to draw to a close. And so on to Lynched, playing the Original Penguin stage located within Charleville Castle itself. A rapt crowd assemble and are rewarded with a passionate, powerful set from the Dublin quartet – a truly memorable moment in a stunning setting.
Flying visits to a pulsing Daphni set from Dan Snaith – limbering up to headline later on – and a reasonable if forgettable turn from shoegaze/post-rock “super group” Minor Victories (featuring Rachel Goswell from Slowdive and Stuart Braithwaite of Mogwai) means it’s time for a return to Snaith for his Caribou headline moment. The biggest crowd of the weekend to date gathers for the slightly late arrival of Snaith and co. to the stage and a lengthy line-check builds anticipation for what turns out to be a spectacular set in magnificent surrounds – the white clad four piece rattling through choice cuts predominantly from Odessa and Our Love, peaking with a two song encore in ‘Can’t Do Without You’ and ‘Sun’. Live, he certainly gives the audience a bulkier and tougher sound than his albums would suggest.
Come Saturday, it’s a day for Irish bands to fly the flag, and Oh Boland, the riotous three piece from Tuam, are tasked with kicking off proceedings on the Centre Stage. And this they do with some gusto over the course of a cracking half hour of grin-inducing garage rock, whereas Tandem Felix bring something else entirely to the party, a hazy, lilting proposition that is rewardingly low key and resolutely melodic. Belfast trio Sea Pinks bring a certain jangly menace to the early evening, packed with melody but delivered with something of a sneer.
Let’s Eat Grandma are a different animal altogether, a pair of British teenagers that offer a blend of experimental pop quite far apart from anything that has come before on this (or many other) weekends. Another interesting gambit comes from the former Viet Cong, who have returned to these shores as Preoccupations, and roundly prove that nothing has changed but their name. Theirs is an angst ridden, snarling take on post punk, infused with noise and rage, delivering a mix of material from their debut LP and upcoming debut as Preoccupations, due in September, interspersed with some wry/rueful patter about their onstage beverage options. It’s a sapping set, culminating in the ever coruscating ‘Death’ which runs for far longer than its already lengthy recorded duration, but one which proves as rewarding as ever.
Meanwhile, the main stage witnesses the legendary hip hop outfit Jurassic 5 delivering unstoppable energy, joy and collective happiness and goodwill. They stroll onto a rammed stage at sunset and get the crowd going like performing monkeys to their nostalgic powerhouse of an organ grinder. The old-school rap merchants are over 20 years in the business, and they know exactly what to play and how to play it. Giving the Saturday night crowd exactly what they want, with no hit from their 1998 self-titled debut album or 2000’s comeback sensation Concrete Jungle left unturned, the performance does at times feel a little staged. When the hip-hop Gods shout-out for some requests, these are ignored, and J5 promptly play whatever they were planning on playing anyway, much to the confusion of the crowd.
No Monster Club get things off to raucous beginnings on Sunday with a wildly energetic half hour set in the Centre Stage, shaking away any and all cobwebs from a continually growing crowd – a punky cover of the old Eurovision favourite ‘Rock n Roll Kids’ rubbing shoulders with tropical tinged pop such as ‘Lemonade’ from this year’s I Feel Magic LP and set closer ‘I Have Retired’. Cork’s Morning Veils don’t disappoint either, and having released one of the quiet successes of last year in Her Kind on the Kantcope label, they bring their stripped back, direct and arresting set to the castle on the last afternoon of the festival. Sets taking place in this spectacular room have been a real delight across the course of the entire weekend, and this is no exception.
Field Music go on to beautifully complement the early evening sunshine back on the main stage, as a quality-heavy final day rolls on. A manifesto made of somewhat off-kilter pop music is offered – jerky rhythms and faultless harmonies make for a joyous experience, heavily influenced by Paul McCartney from a melodic perspective but meshed with surprising cadences, proving they’re inherently danceable to boot and one of the highlights of the entire weekend.
Cat Power’s triumphant set, again on the main stage keeps the momentum going, though it’s clear that a little stage fright has crept in. Perhaps this can be seen as a negative, but it also shows an unflinching sense of emotion and feeling in an artist and Cat Power is no exception. Twisting, turning away and feeling every note and harmony as she goes, Chan Marshall and band deliver an engaging and enigmatic set in a compelling Sunday night performance that showcases an exceptional deep south, bluesy sound gathering momentum and sending the sun away to set. Totally engaging, she eventually seems truly happy playing for an excited and enthusiastic crowd.
Bookending this beautiful set are brief snippets of noteworthy turns from two Irish acts of the highest calibre in Paddy Hanna and Cian Nugent. Hanna delivers big, emotional songs calling to mind aspects of Scott Walker and Elvis Costello, while Nugent and the Cosmos are rounding off their set with a beautiful krauty mess of guitar wizardry as we enter the tent. There’s more to be seen, and Daithi, possibly one of Ireland’s most relevant DJs, plays a blinder to a crowd that should have been at least three times larger. A champion of Irish music, he bounces around to remixed tracks like ‘Amends’ and ‘Love’s On Top’. He also provides the most impressive display of multitasking of the festival so far, DJing with one hand and holding an electrified fiddle in the other.
Patrick O’Laoghaire is another welcome performer, making everyone feel warm, fuzzy and like they had just found a lovely new friend. His smooth warming voice sings of touching and terribly sad things, motifs that stick and themes that jar. Along with a tamed MayKay from Fight Like Apes, I Have a Tribe give the audience a sway-and-pinch-yourself experience.
Hidden away in the Centre Stage is producer Catharina Jaunviksna of Badlands. With orchestration, synths and beats, a shimmering sweet scandi-pop sound is created. Like the pied piper, Jaunviksna calls palooza-goers from the woods, open-mouthed as they follow this unearthly soundscape into the tent.
For a last impression, we amble to catch Conor J O’Brien, who unlocks his treasure-trove of Villagers hits for the Castlepalooza audience. Weaving seamlessly from old and new tracks like ‘Becoming a Jackal’ to ‘Courage‘ in the same orchestral re-imaging as seen on his Ivor Novello winning album Where Have You Been All My Life?, it’s a nourishing set, leaving the crowd’s ‘soul serene’ as they start their journey home.
Castlepalooza is a festival in transition. This year it’s been urged to grow, to become bigger; stages have been added, big names enlisted and more tickets printed. But its charm lies in its stature as a small festival, and while the likes of Electric Picnic and Body & Soul have scaled up beyond recognition, Castlepalooza remains refreshingly boutique at its core. It’s a personal experience shared by very few, something that seems likely to change eventually, but that’s not to discount that it has been an exceptional year to go to. The fact of the matter is that Charleville Castle boasted big names with a fraction of their deserved audience – and that’s something that a weather app could never forecast.
Castlepalooza 2016 reviewed for State by Emily Mullen & Sean Ryan. Caribou and Castlepalooza photographed for State by Leah Carroll.