Saturday, December 3rd
So I turned up late to the party. I’d like to call it fashionably late, but the truth is getting tickets for two nights of Other Voices was beyond my wildest expectations, and that they happened to coincide with non-salaried days was quite a bonus, too. I’d never set foot in Kerry before, and the final leg of an epic cross-country journey – the cruise from Tralee down to Dingle itself – takes the breath away. The saturated hills and narrow winding roads eventually burst out into a town that seems fresh from an Irish folk tale. In Dingle itself, pubs might double up as clothes shops or bike hire outlets, ice cream shops feature weird and wonderful flavours like sea salt and brown bread, and a dolphin lives in the harbour. No wonder it was deemed the perfect spot for a festival so otherworldly.
If you’re not fortunate enough to have a ticket to St James’ Church itself, the pub music trail offers something arguably as compelling. We get our first taste of the free gig series in checking out Cork three-piece Toy Soldier, who perform in the corner of a pub, their sound engineer perched in the other corner and twiddling knobs atop a knee-high stool whilst slurping on a pint and leant on a decrepit piano. The synth-driven set features harmonised vocals from guitarist Cian and outstanding, animated vocalist Ciara, particularly prominent on driving summer-pop anthem and set closer ‘So Far Away’. It’s a pulsating synth-pop set that only adds to the entire days ‘through the looking glass’ feel.
The main event, though, is what we’re really here for, and just to glance at the innards of St James’ prepped for filming is to get a sense of what this is all about. The church is tiny, capable of housing perhaps 80 fortunates, and this year’s set up sees the innards draped with coloured Perspex hearts, the windows (lit from the outside) occasionally showing torrential rain spattering across the lighting. The atmosphere’s instinctively reverential, tending to bring out artist’s more refined sides, and almost invariably met with seemingly heartfelt emotion.
Band Of Skulls, though, might just be the exception. The three-piece are undeniably oddly-matched with the setting, their blast through of tracks like ‘The Devil Takes Care Of His Own’ and up and coming album title track ‘Sweet Sour’ is delivered with a hefty clatter. Then again to expect something more toned would go somewhat against their philosophy. Frank Turner hates the tag protest singer, though his songs frequently do fall into that category. The ambience takes a toll, though, with Turner heading down a mellow road, sparkling in the homesick lament of ‘Wessex Boy’ (an ode to my own homeland that I’m not too proud to admit brought a tear or two), and reminiscing on his grandmother’s whiskey and poker habit in story-infused opener ‘Peggy Sang The Blues’. Turner might be passing on his usual source of angst, but in doing so he touches a deeper nerve.
Edwyn Collins gets off to a difficult start, something that his past neurological problems have made tragically common, yet what follows requires absolutely no allowance for the fact that the great singer was reduced to just four expressions no more than five or six years ago. When Collins gets going, playing off the confidence he seems to soak up from two exceptional young accompanying guitarists, he rampages through soulful versions of former band Orange Juice’s ‘Rip It Up’, and solo career highlight ‘A Girl Like You’ with a joyous swagger. Collin’s half-dozen track journey earns a hugely deserved standing ovation to close, the only one of the night, and sees him leave the stage chuckling to himself delightedly. The man can certainly still rock those funky hooks.
The final act of the evening is something of a collective. Opening up as Cherry Ghost, an atmospheric Manchunian vocal group adept in bouncing tuneful harp melodies off the walls, they soon expand to incorporate members of fellow Brit indie stars Doves, with frontman Jimi Goodwin unveiling new tracks such as ‘Didsbury Girl’ – a folky, multi-layered refrain. Harpist Esther Swift also displays a vocal that could melt the iciest of hearts. As a collective, though, the melded band excel in the most intricately woven of sets, another soulful, evocative triumph. In Collins and Turner’s more intricate moments, a single night at Dingle’s most exclusive of festivals is enough to convince us that this is very, very worthy of all the fuss.
Sunday, December 4th
With lock-ins and unannounced pub performances part of the Dingle landscape, mornings can be a hazy time. Come Sunday, we drag ourselves from the cosy clutches of our B+B just in time to catch the only Funghie boat trip of the day, and clear out the cobwebs in the sea breeze whilst watching the Dingle dolphin loop lazily along next to the boat. Dingle’s array of charming attractions really jump out on a quick walk: the quaint cheese store, Christmas carols in a near-empty church and local seafood galore, not to mention the incredible surrounding countryside.
Early in the day, we’re lucky enough to grab a quick glance at the studio set up for the living room gigs, with a glance at the fully kitted out house where Wild Beasts are set to play an acoustic set (it really is just a little bungalow, rammed full of camera kit), before heading into the warmth of Dick Macks – an old-school pub where service is painfully slow but the atmosphere is exceptional – to check out We Cut Corners.
The pub gigs in Dingle have a real PS I Love You vibe to them. We Cut Corner’s set – which features a Christmas track and a Loudon Wainwright cover alongside staples like ‘Dumb Blonde’ and ‘Go Easy’ – sees the group adjust to using a keyboard and single drum to wow a crowd that’s entirely staring in through a door from the next room, a single toddler and his mother aside. Ham Sandwich are similarly charming, closing with a phenomenally wrought rendition of ‘Running Up That Hill’ just a few doors down.
It’s the church gigs that everyone’s counting down to, though, and tonight we’re in for the long haul. Ben Howard opens with a seductive selection of mellow tracks from his debut album Every Kingdom, displaying an evocative style that raises hairs on the back of the neck, but it’s Wild Beasts (watch the full set at The Guardian) that seem to be the star attraction. Despite obvious issues with the vocals inside the church during their opening couple of tracks, their eight-song set is superbly intense, with the likes of ‘Bed Of Nails’ and ‘Albatross’ slowly building the set to extreme, heady levels. They don’t say much, but the on-stage antics surrounding a set drawn entirely from the sensational Smother, which sees the band lose themselves in their music more than even the enraptured crowd, are something genuinely exceptional. ‘Plaything’ is a glaring, angsty stand out.
Spiritualized, then, have a hard act to follow, but backed by four aurally stunning backing singers, they look well placed to make a go of it. Tonight’s ten-track set features six new songs, each of them fairly lengthy, atmospheric guitar-shoegaze numbers that seem to belie frontman Jason Pierce’s claim that the long awaited new album will be a poppier affair – it’s tuneful but fiercely psychedelic. Interspersed with them are decade old classics such as Spaceman 3 closer ‘Take Me To The Other Side’. There are some incredible highs to be had, but the finicky, extended, psychedelic stylings do tend to drag at the low points, too. Perhaps the longer, more pedantic layerings are needed to emphasize the euphoric highs, but they do leave a little to be desired when it comes to interest levels, especially when nobody in the audience has heard most of these tracks before. From brilliant to plain dull, this is a fifty minute set that spans the spectrum.
By the time SBTRKT get their turn, it’s nearly midnight. The now thinly-masked dubstep duo are not a band you’d expect to find their niche in the reverential quiet of a Dingle church, but their set absolutely soars. The live aspects of the performance – from drums to animated knob twiddling – add a visual element to the dense, extremely danceable rhythms. A cleverly remixed performance of ‘Wildfire’, with Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano’s vocals cleverly blended into the backing track is perhaps the highlight, yet Sampha’s vocal are no slouch themselves, either. Few acts have the pews swaying so enthusiastically: SBTRKT’s set proves one of the only efforts to come close to Wild Beasts’ exceptional outing over the course of the weekend.
All of which leaves King Charles to finish things off. The poetic speed-folk-pop he touts struggles to come across a little in the church, as some leave to make the pubs before the customary lock-ins kick in, and others slouch tiredly in their seats, yet the white-suited character – who clearly has a love of volume shampoo and dubious moustaches – produces a set that’s loveably quirky but difficult to really soak up. Of course, the Dingle experience isn’t quite over for us: before heading back, we get ‘Dingled’ by sticking our hire car deep into a local ford and having to be reluctantly dragged out by a local farmer. All part of the experience, one we’ll be absolutely chomping at the bit to repeat next year. What a festival.
Photos: James Goulden.