The Irish Festival calendar has becoming increasingly crowded these last few years so organisers must be aware of the need to offer a unique slant should they wish to prosper. Cork X Southwest, now entering its fifth year knows it can’t compare with the bigger name fests dotting summer diaries so instead they opted for a more home grown, parochial feel and it worked wonderfully. The atmosphere was laid back, with the ever present sunshine no doubt contributing to this lazy groove, the lack of preciousness gave the weekend a refreshing vibe.
It may lack the hipster chic of Electric Picnic or the more inclusive “all together now” of Oxegen but what it lacked in size, it more than made up for in modest ambition and execution. Its modesty was key to its appeal as despite the large grounds, the three main areas were easily accessible in regards to each other, allowing great ease in seeing as many acts as possible. Festivals should always cater to the fickle and wandering eye of the clued-in music fan as well as giving enough straight ahead fun for the more casual fest-goer.
I was initially worried that the headline names consisted of what some could generously refer to as “spent forces”, but on closer inspection that would be an overly simplistic view. The line up was solid and diverse, ranging in genres and catering to many musical palettes. Spider John Koerner, a giant of traditional American folk music and blues used the charming De Barra’s Sitting Room stage (decked out as literally as its name would suggest) to spin old yarns and bring a real O Brother Where Art Thou vibe to the occasion. A perfect mid afternoon slot then to ease into the afternoon. To show the mix of genres I ran over to Avatar who were a jazzy breezy affair which incorporated world music flourishes, such as rain sticks and odd percussion into their dense concoction and were an enjoyably loungey act.
Then came the first great high of the festival, an absolutely magic acoustic set by Patti Smith. Although initially known for her abrasive attacks there has always been a softer side to her as an artist which she has cultivated into a new age, mother nature vibe which can be cloying at times. Not so with this performance thankfully. What was supposed to be a spoken word poetry gig instead became a lilting folksy show decided by Ms. Smith herself at the last minute, her reasoning being it wasn’t the right setting for such things. This decision meant we were treated to a heart-stoppingly good show with her respectful and engaging cover of Dylan’s ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’ leading the charge.
The only concession to the original idea she made was reading an excerpt from an introduction she wrote to the book Flowers paying tribute to her late friend Robert Mapplethorpe. She was in a great mood and her banter to the audience was both playful and relaxed. It only increased anticipation for the full blown rock set we were being promised the following night.
Mick Flannery who played opposite her got a great reaction from the crowd as he continued to plough his own furrow, his loyal following ever ready to submit to his exhaustingly fatalistic views on life. He joked to me after the show how he feels he’s too dark an artist for such an upbeat setting.
We Cut Corners were an engaging duo whose quirky literate lyrics and strident rhythms, demanded attention in the best way a band playing festival should. There was an immediacy to the material which meant everyone could quickly get on board with their skewed take on pop songs. Their energetic burst gave way to the stately Interference who with dusk as their backdrop proved a soothing counterpoint. Fergus O’ Farrell is one of the most overlooked vocalists in the world today and it’s always a treat to see this large ensemble in fine form.
Drugstore on the other hand proved a little too self indulgent, their take on dream pop sounding a little forced. The show as a whole was lacking in some spark to lift it from the ordinary. ‘El President’ was a soaring moment and an enduring classic (with or without Thom Yorke) so the show wasn’t a total wash out, just a tad underwhelming.
Peter Hook had no such lack of energy and with his backing band The Light he pummelled his way through many a brooding riff and myriad downbeat themes. There was a theatrical bent to his performance that while enjoyable, it did lend itself to one vital criticism, for one of the world’s most distinguished bass players he very rarely actually played the instrument. Instead he kept his hands aloft like some post punk conductor of musical ennui. When he actually played it was for blistering versions of Joy Division classics, the highlight for me being ‘She’s Lost Control’ and ending on the predictable but no less powerful for that ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’. A surprisingly vital and thoroughly enjoyable concert.
Favourite Sons is an Irish/New York Hybrid deal in a Nick Cavian old world sensibility melded to some fine chamber pop music. ‘Safe for all Seasons’ the opening of their new album should be a huge song. Their gig was an winning brew of cautionary tale irony and gorgeous harmonies. An underrated gem. Too bad the full blown headlining act of the Saturday night proved its most dispiriting. Despite being mired in gloomy atmospherics and fevered dream arrangements there was nothing to sink in to when it came to Echo and The Bunnymen, front man Ian McCulloch cutting an anonymous figure in perpetual darkness on stage, sunglasses forever on to perhaps cover his disinterest. A powerful performance of ‘The Killing Moon’ aside this was a limp affair, very much going through the motions and as such was a bitter disappointment.
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