The stormy wind has died down and the bar at Benners Hotel is jammed with friends and strangers that have blown in on it. They’ve every right to feel giddy; they’ve come out at the end of the long, long car journey down to Europe’s most westerly point to be within touching distance of one of the world’s most intimate music love-ins. That journey sure works up a thirst.
Fuelled by Blue Zone pizza and Murphy’s addictive Sea Salt ice cream, State is able to remain awake for David Gray’s opening set which is drummerless and borne on the keening insistence of its author’s introspection. The one-in-four Irish people who purchased a copy of White Ladder all those years back are not as vocal a group as they once were, but no one begrudges Gray a role in tonight’s maiden voyage of Other Voices 2013. Inside the cosy illuminated confines of St James’ Church, he trembles and wobbles and quakes soulfully, all the things we know and respect him for, while being buttressed by a fancy-pants support cast that includes David Kitt, Lisa O’Neill and Mossy Nolan, all adding instrumentation and vocals. Songs like ‘Skellig’ and ‘Dun Laoghaire’ attest to the Briton’s Hibernophilia in a set that occasionally reaches for the ceiling but mostly remains at naval-level.
Perhaps it is the intention of Other Voices lynchpin Philip King (arguably tonight’s star performer) to start the evening dry and end it juicy, but that pesky Hozier has different ideas. Wicklow’s man-of-the-moment might not have his image or stage patter perfected just yet, but he suddenly thumbs his guitar, opens his mouth and releases a noise from his 2m frame that is like oak-aged single malt for the ears. The tunes are handy too, built from an array of fundamentals – delta blues, gospel, torch song, soul – and full of something very primal and somehow lascivious. St James’ womenfolk duly yelp and sigh with each awkward, apologetic smile of their hero after treats such as ‘Like Real People Do’ and ‘Angel of Small Death & the Codeine Scene’. The real hysteria is saved for that song and a standing ovation closes the set. A victory, then, but with momentum building and a dual deal just signed with Island/Columbia, Hozier and his six-man group can now afford to buck up and work on the live spaces between the songs.
Any other act than Lisa O’Neill might grumble at having to follow such adoration. O’Neill, though, is very much her own woman, and bounds into life with a show-stealing set that is simply masterful in its stagecraft, tone and rawness. The voice is an acquired taste and part of your brain ponders whether it is to be loved or tolerated. What is never questioned though is the authenticity of its deliverer who is a rare creature indeed. Plucked from obscurity by Gray (who brought the Cavan lass on a US tour), O’Neill is entirely unstudied in her eccentricity and working off some internal engine that you daren’t resist. Thusly she gnashes and stamps through songs from her second LP Same Cloth or Not as her wee hands pluck and thump a seemingly huge acoustic. Another feat is how she completely disarms cynical hacks like your correspondent with a mix of dotty little asides (“Dingle, you make me tingle,” she blurts at one point) and heart-wrenching memories of her late uncle on ‘Neillie’s Song’. There’s a string slightly out of tune on final number ‘Dreaming’, but it can’t dispel the feeling that something special has just taken place.
Despite craning necks and expectations, Patty Griffin is tonight without partner Robert Plant, but who cares. Percy’s rock god credentials would have been fun to have around Dingle for the night but Griffin is perfectly able to whip up a storm of her own with just a few guitars, some foot-stomping and hard-strumming, and good old southern-fried guts. She’s delighted to be back in the hometown of her grandmother and tends to the St James’ congregation with a nice blend of gospel honey (a cover of Hank Williams’ ‘House of Gold’), blues-rock sandpaper (‘Flaming Red’) and brazen folk (‘Get Ready Marie’). Philip King is grinning like a halfwit and Benners is bracing itself for a night your mother wouldn’t approve of.
Main image by Rich Gilligan.