There can’t be many better times to explore a new city that the outgoing, open-minded and welcoming events on offer during Culture Night. With the event having newly expanded to almost every corner of the island of Ireland (and even across to London), we found ourselves strolling the dimly lit streets of central Cork, navigating at random between the two rivers and strolling into any building that happened to grab our attention. Inside each, we were welcomed by performances galore, gallery tours and sights that are normally closed tight to the public. We catch funk-reggae act Final Frontier strutting their stuff in front of a group of manic break-dancers in the Camden Palace Hotel, before exploring the gravity exhibition in the Crawford Art Gallery, which features some clever, mind-boggling photographs of oddly placed balloons. The English Market might not be a specific part of culture night, but it’s also a must-see, with great restaurant-stalls and a lively early-evening vibe. There’s only going to be one highlight tonight, though, and that’s the semi-secret gig on offer from Galway’s theatrical starlet Julie Feeney.
The previously unannounced location of Julie’s soiree turns out to be the 18th-century Montenotte House, positioned high on a hillside and overlooking the harbour. A crowd of around 50 charges in out of the rain and natters in an ornate reception area, before a delicate vocal filters down from above. Opening track ‘Impossibly Beautiful’ sees Julie stroll around the room’s balcony, backed up by the rest of her band chipping in with a stunningly harmonised, unamplified surround-sound vocal. Towards the end of the track Julie strolls down the stairs, jerks her way through the crowd in full character and beckons us into the area where the show will take place.
I must admit to being a bit of a Feeney sceptic before tonight. Having seen her theatrical oddness go down spectacularly indifferently in front of an award show audience at Vicar Street, I hoped a smaller crowd might give a better taste of what the undeniably talented and charismatic vocalist is truly capable of. Tonight’s set – both vocally and in terms of making full use of a unique location to enhance the performance – is nothing short of sublime. Dressed in a highly ornate crystal and silver dress borrowed from a local designer and wearing a model wooden house on her head, Feeney seems to hover and lurk in the room, toying with the audience during numerous tracks, yet remaining vocally immaculate. ‘Love Is A Tricky Thing’ is unveiled as a story of the problems with romance that might ‘solve’ a thing or two, and delivered with a clap-along rendition from Feeney’s red leather gloves. ‘Mr. Roving Eye Guy’ shows her confident sense of humour, before ‘Monster’ unveils another level to some truly prodigious vocals. If there’s a weak spot – and it’s genuinely difficult to pick one out – it’s in the storytelling chuckles of ‘Myth’, which comes across a touch more theatre silly-season than musical brilliance.
Still, to pick holes when Feeney’s hitting such heights just unfair. Julie chooses halfway through the show to announce an up and coming third album that’ll be financed entirely though FundIt, and released early next year. She’s also working on more stage material, an area that’s cross over tonight is what makes her so well-suited to this venue. Feeney’s tailored expressions, theatrical jogging and secret whispers come across just perfectly, lending itself to the hushed tones of the tiny sea-view room. Even the pluck of a harp string seems to hover powerfully and permanently in the air, Feeney’s voice offering a flawless counterweight.
The whole sets given a beautiful cyclical nature by ‘Impossibly Beautiful’ (not a bad description of the performance in general, as it happens) reprise on audience request, with Feeney leading the crowd back into the hallway and spending a large part of the remainder of the evening chatting with her visibly overwhelmed fans; having delivered the kind of show that leaves a number wide-eyed and open-mouthed. Shows like this has to be what Culture Night was created for, particularly with this year’s musical emphasis. It’s a breathtaking setting, hosting a songwriter doing something different and performing at the absolute top of her game, and it’s absolutely heartbreakingly evocative. If only larger venues offered opportunities to play like this.