Despite a line-up laden with promise there’s undoubtedly cause for uncertainty prior to Other Voices’ Derry debut. With the RTE series a species of music programming inimitably native to Dingle, County Kerry since its conception ten televised seasons ago, an invite beyond its natural habitat to the comparatively municipal climes of the UK City of Culture posed a threat to the festival’s homespun allure. Would the shift in surroundings help make this a significant ‘Other’?
In basing the focal, ticketed portion of a programme which extends to a free “music trail” of performances throughout surrounding bars and venues in the Glassworks, a largely vacant for decades church on Great James Street, the organisers have cleverly acclimatised to the Maiden City metropolis while preserving that precious innate intimacy. With the music trail around the city blazing all day, the excitement for Derry’s cultural coronation is arresting as Other Voices co-creator Philip King makes his introductory statement, referencing not only the musicality of the local accent, a distinctive “lilt” as he calls it that resonates through the wealth of nearby talent.
An early gripe emerges though in the form of our host Aiden Gillen. Despite his on-camera credentials the actor, stripped of the fantasy world pimp fashion we’re used to seeing him draped in, makes for a fairly ardorless anchor. His dull and drivelling links seem at odds with the obvious heart invested in organising the rest of the programme and weekend wears on, begins to really sap the fluidity from proceedings.
Nonetheless a very humble sense of appreciation is already palpable as Friday’s opener Damien Dempsey takes to the stage, it hand-decorated with love hearts and lyrics from the Dingle alumni. For every newcomer to the Other Voices stage, and only a handful of the bill have no previous affiliations, this set up with its camera-courteous audience, floor awash with production staff and clerical environs is presumably alien, and the nerves are evident but the Dubliner makes for a perfect start to the show, personifying the gracious spirit that’s come to be synonymous with Other Voices. He overcomes one or two fumbles with a winning sense of humour before striking hard with chest-thumping folk songs. Slipping in and out of his Gaelic brogue the heart-rending heft of his lyrics land hard and thoroughly pronounce the southern heritage of Other Voices before its northern makeover.
And who better to chaperone the visiting fest than recent hometown graduate of the Other Voices stage Soak? Fresh from standing shoulder to shoulder with some of Derry’s greatest musical descendants at the Sons and Daughters opening gala the teenage marvel is met with an extended ovation after merely setting foot on stage. The locals are no strangers to what they have in Bridie Monds-Watson. It’s an achingly brief set of just four songs, including a new number and none from her two EPs, a sign of great confidence in her writing. But with the growing familiarity of ‘Explosion’ and the bracing ‘Blood’, a song about rows in the family, who are present tonight she laughs, it’s simply a question of how soon we’ll be graced with new recordings. As is apparent when Bridie concludes, after only one song more than footwear changes (only the feet of the dinosaur costume she promised Twitter fans she’d wear came on time) Derry’s demand for Soak hasn’t been fully met. But by leaving us hankering for more there’s a sign of a job very well done.
There’s a gut feeling that London foursome Savages (pictured) stand as a polarizing prospect. Amidst a night of Irish-blooded, tender-hearted tones their Curtis-conjuring androgy-noise risks putting the fear of Factory Records into an unwilling audience. Being newcomers to Irish soil with a reticent stage presence perhaps lowers their chances further. From the onset of dark art punk discord however the visceral power of the all-girl group is clear. French frontwoman Jehnny Beth possesses a hypnotic physicality that pulls the sheets of sinuous guitar and Hooky basslines together with bestial drums to fill the hall with a din so captivating that the feeling left once the feedback finally drains away is that we’ve been very fortunate to have them.
Saying as he was raised on the banks of the Foyle and his father once delivered sermons in this very building, NI music elder statesman Neil Hannon is about as fitting a finale as day one could hope for. Accompanied by the craic-dealing Thomas Walsh and sometime side-project the Duckworth Lewis Method, the Divine Comedy chief’s appeal is broad as all manner of ages mouth along with selections from his canon including the top ten hit ‘National Express’. It’s a stirring take on ‘Sunrise’ though, with its ‘Who cares what name you call a town? Who cares when you’re six feet beneath the ground?’ exertion, the sustained high notes near collapsing under him, that impacts most. A riskless booking to finish with perhaps, but Hannon tailors his set ideally for the turnout.
Dublin quintet Little Green Cars launch night two in the Glassworks with a performance of semi-choral majesty. The group have reportedly been gaining steady ground since their original Dingle appearance just over a year ago and at their core, with five contributing singers, vocally epitomize the human essence of Other Voices. Though by taking up their instruments after several numbers consisting of a harmonic scrum around the microphone demonstrates more than just one side to the band, it’s largely the songs rich in a capella textures that Little Green Cars have the same fortune in memorable hooks.
Filling Saturday’s local talent quota is Derry diva Bronagh Gallagher, receiving a heroine’s welcome before administering an electrifying blues booster to the Glassworks crowd. While between songs hers is a comforting, close to home voice, when her accomplished backing band kicks in she projects like a soulfully southern-fried siren and has attendees suitably re-energised for the remainder. She may only have appeared briefly in Pulp Fiction but that wide-sweeping yet unmistakable ‘Tarantino-fi’ sound, fit for nostalgic Americana diners permeates Gallagher’s performance and her obvious enthusiasm for the thrill of it all makes for a truly sincere, not to mention rollicking show.
Manchester-based Californian delicacy Jesca Hoop follows and with her an exercise in daintily plucked indie-pop. Hoop isn’t the most mesmerizing artist of the female-dominated day, her songs gaunt and on stage demeanour bearing that sheepish quality that isn’t sure if its kooky or just plain shy. A couple of false starts don’t quite help but bearing with her, beneath the mawkish surface she soon reveals some inspired melodic flutters hidden away and telling of her dismay at discovering the Derry translation for her surname, has the audience just about won by the end.
In spite of the closed doors capacity seems to have literally swollen in anticipation of Marina and the Diamonds, arguably the highest profile on the bill in light of Two Door Cinema Club’s withdrawal emerging earlier in the day, citing vocal issues for the sudden decision. Void of a sufficient stand-in that ticket holders are aware of, worry surrounds Other Voices’ final day. Saturday’s headliner has no such dilemmas however, Marina in fiery form as she prowls the stage, unleashing stripped down hits like ‘Bubblegum Bitch’ and ‘Primadonna’ cloaked in her distinguished note-vaulting croon. She talks of her love for the Irish and how much time of hers she devotes to Jeremy Kyle now she’s finished with touring duties has returned to writing and it’s apparent this show, though brief, is an important one, her first live outing in some time. Well-nourished, the crowd spill out into the city lights once again, many set to engage in Derry’s vibrant ongoings for hours more.
With day three comes a genuine break for local upstarts Little Bear, who’ve struck gold with a call up to be Sunday’s super-subs at the eleventh hour. In fact, the band were reportedly out in one of the nearby haunts celebrating their earlier music trail gig when the invite came through. And here they are, propping up what could’ve been a crippled line-up and they’re in disbelief at the opportunity in front of them. As they open with the delicate strains of ‘The Devil Is A Songbird’, going slightly against the “phones off” protocol to spaghetti westernise some ambient whistling with back-to-back App Store reverb, the mutual admiration to and from the stage becomes plain as day. Little Bear’s earnestness is infectious, singer Steven McCool visibly overwhelmed as he devotes ‘I’d Let You Win’ to his five year old son, warming hearts further with a story of his boy’s altered lyrics. It’s an exhilarating performance on a very human level, certainly the weekend’s best opener. The question remains of whether this surprise package has caused the ultimate upset in outdoing Sunday’s remainder. For now though, we reckon Little Bear will gladly take that ovation.
Unexpectedly challenged with following them is Daughter, another band of London guitar-chitects, this time a trio and much more understated than Savages’ primal caterwauling. Sonically the band starts as though hiding behind the already timid presence of frontwoman Elan Tonra, but gradually their songs unfurl into atmospheric billows of bow-stroked guitar and drummed piano chords. It results in a temperamental backing to Tonra’s trembling murmurs that exceeds expectations of predictably melodramatic peaks and troughs. Incidentally while they mightn’t be the most charismatic bunch we’ve seen, it’s their sound that best utilises the venue’s spectral acoustics, casting a spell over the crowd unlike anything all weekend.
Sarcastically self-proclaimed “Daniel O’Donnell of Fife” James Yorkston serves as the penultimate act, punctuating rustic, violin-backed balladry with playfully deadpan segues. His songs are enjoyable in the moment, if just a little mild and involving. But what several of them lack in spark Yorkston compensates for in likeability, doing his best to connect using an anecdote in which he stands up for Derry in the face of a Maiden City misanthrope. While not bowled over, the crowd, weary at the tail-end of a long weekend, politely responds in wait of the programme’s final voices.
Before her return to recording last year, singer-songwriter Beth Orton had enjoyed a six year interim in which she began a family with her on and off stage other half Sam Amidon. Re-emerging with 2012’s Sugaring Season, the Norwich native was somewhat sonically retooled, shifting away from some earlier elements of her sound that didn’t survive the life change and subsequent downtime. It’s this progression which manifests itself as the climax of Other Voices stay in Derry. Though fans long awaiting an airing of certain older songs may be disgruntled at the newer slant, and the short sets not aiding their plight, the singer appears at ease with her freshest material and songs like ‘Mystery’ and ‘Poison Tree’ chime with an elegance born from their relevance to the life she now lives. With the assurance of her imminent return in the spring for a fuller performance she incites a flurry of excitement, only to realise it would be to Belfast and lets slip an impulsive “shit!”, before then remembering the rolling cameras. Thankfully it’s only going out live online the showrunners must be thinking as chuckles erupt from end to end.
It’s a gratifying note to end the festival on, the echo of all-round good vibes warming the congregation of a derelict old church. For an entire weekend an idea planted and sewn in a small Kerry community has kicked a startling amount of life into the City of Culture. Well, as many have probably already said, you can take the festival out of Dingle…