If hot cakes had been baked by the fair hand of Elvis himself and embedded with solid gold flecks, they’d hardly have sold out faster than the tickets on offer for each of this year’s Other Voices: Songs From A Room gigs. Even those with an innate talent in fastest-finger-first were left bitterly disappointed as 80-odd passes were snapped up by folk enamoured of the prospect of seeing a bubbling cauldron of acts perform in some seriously intimate environs.
The windswept enclave of Dingle is a hub of creative activity year-round, but for one week in December, the Kerry fishing village becomes a Mecca for musicians, TV types and music industry figureheads. An eaterie on Dingle’s main strip – The Goat Street Cafe – gets rightly into the spirit of things with gusto by providing a special ‘Other Voices’ menu. One music PR consultancy has elected to have their week-long Christmas office party down there, and rightly so. In short, it’s the type of atmosphere that cannot be bought (unless your mouse-clicking hand is double jointed, of course).
Home-grown musicians jostle for a space on a deliciously eclectic bill alongside established international acts and the chance to play in front of a truly devoted, impassioned crowd. Now in its 7th year, Other Voices has in the past recorded jaw-dropping performances from the likes of Rufus Wainwright, Amy Winehouse, Aimee Mann and The Frames.
This year Elbow, Richard Hawley, James Morrison, Emiliana Torrini and Lisa Hannigan are ostensibly the event’s main draws. Although all deliver majestic, enthralling sets, it is the other, smaller acts that really provide the week’s talking points. And this sort of unorthodox turn of events is part of Other Voices’ unique charm; Colm Mac Con Iomaire, Halves and Mick Flannery all prove to be an unexpected, understated and delightful treat.
Playing in a church – an active one no less, that has already witnessed a christening and wedding in the week running up to the event – predictably holds much appeal for the acts in question. Guy Garvey admits that their rousing set is the perfect and highly fitting ending to what has been a bumper year for Elbow. Mick Flannery appears nervous at the prospect of taking to the Other Voices stage to the point of mild nausea; during recording of his set, he affects an endearing air of studied, stuttering shyness. By contrast James Morrison, by now a regular fixture on the shiny pop circuit, seems positively giddy at the novelty of taking to the altar with his guitar.
Anyone looking for jollity and rampant camaraderie certainly gets their money’s worth at Other Voices. John Kelly – an amiable and able master of ceremonies – regularly doles out sweets to the assembled crowd in what is by now an Other Voices tradition, playfully admonishing anyone who hogs the Quality Street tin. Other Voices organiser/producer Philip King, now a long-time Dingle resident, addresses a heartfelt speech to locals, visitors and musicians that is positively drenched in goodwill. Famously, there is no backstage or VIP area at Other Voices, and so artists are free to roam among the crowds. In all, it makes for a truly magical and brilliant setting.
Despite Other Voices’ fun, jolly-hockey-sticks vibe, one sobering thought rings constant. This is not only a party with a great soundtrack; there is also the serious business of taping a TV show to contend with. Paddy McPoland, the show’s production manager, is the buffer between the audience and the chaos of TV production. Sometimes the twain do meet, and the first night in particular seems beset by production glitches. Duke Special is forced to record three takes of ‘Diggin’ An Early Grave’ after a gramophone-related trick goes awry. Later, as Emiliana Torrini’s set is in full flight, McPoland shouts ‘Cut!’, intimating that the director has spotted a potential hitch. Add to this the usual sound/camera problems that often besiege a recording, and the audience finds itself having to wait around. A lot.
But no matter, for it is after the shows are in the can – and across the road in Benner’s Hotel – that much of the magic happens. Just as musicians and fans sit side by side during the shows, so too do they descend on the hotel bar for some spirited, serious imbibing. On the Sunday night, Elbow keyboardist Craig Potter is celebrating a birthday and it seems many fellow Mancs have made the trek to the Dingle peninsula to help him along. Suffice to say that Kerry hasn’t seen the like of it…well, not since Elbow were last here, anyway. Tales of musicians run amok in the week hours of the morning are rife, and there is much exchanging of tales of misadventure during daylight. But what goes on down on Dingle’s main street shall remain just there.
Amid it all, one intriguing rumour abounds; the prospect of moving Other Voices to a similar space in Dublin has allegedly been mooted. Sure, it would be a convenience for all involved, but let’s face it – the village of Dingle is as important a part of Other Voices’ equation as Lisa Hannigan, John Kelly or even the boxes of Quality Street. Besides, making the pilgrimage to the arse end of nowhere is half the fun.
Other Voices: tonight on RTE 2, 11.20pm
Elbow, Liam Finn, Jape, Steve Reynolds, ‘Other Room’ – Villagers.