From small beginnings more than a decade ago, Sligo Live has grown to become one of the most significant festivals in Europe, due mainly to the never-say-die attitude of its joint directors, Rory O'Connor and Dervish's Shane Mitchell, and the committee and activists who support them in their efforts. It helps too, that the festival has an enviably wide emotional and musical spread-for example the pairing of improvisational outfit The Jimmy Cake with The Waterboys was a courageous choice on the Saturday night. Throughout the week, the same sort of programming-Ensemble Eriú, the return of Ralph Mc Tell etc, piqued the interest of attendees, many of whom-ourselves included - had difficult choices to make. Added to that, the fact that 80% plus of the gigs were free, and one can see the problem, which only bilocation could remedy!
A s to the music, it sparkled from start to finish with the intensity one might hope for, but which is all too rarely delivered to this standard. Opening for Rufus Wainwright, The Whileaways were superb, their Galway-accented Americana making the most intimate of connections with the audience. It's all original music, with the accent on harmonies, much of the material taken from the new album, with such standouts as The Queen of December Snow, and Lonesome Sparrow, among others, marking them out as being worthy of very close attention. As for Rufus, well… there's only one of him, and for the guts of two hours he bestrode the stage like a colossus, taking possession of our hearts and minds in the process. His is a unique gift, one which combines skilful piano playing with that trademark vocal, as for the duration he interspersed the performance with anecdotes about his visit to Sligo, and introductions to the two arias from his newly released opera Prima Donna ("It's not even a little bit gay"- he said with exaggerated camp) to a career - spanning performance of no little brilliance.
Opening with Come to Montauk, he quickly engaged top gear, and never let it slip, and I wrote a little note in the margins to myself about mining his catalogue with some serious ears. His choice of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah as his penultimate encore brought the house down at its conclusion, but in between, there was so much of note that I'd be here till Tuesday were I to notate it all.
Saturday night with The Waterboys, and the hum of expectancy on entering the arena was palpable. What followed, again for a two hour duration, was, as with Rufus the previous night, nothing short of magnificent, on reflection ranking amongst the best gigs we've EVER seen. Mike Scott and this new(ish) version of the band-Sligo resident, fiddler Steve Wickham being the only other link with the past - rocked out with ferocious energy for the duration, the set sprinkled with copious nods to the back catalogue, but weighted with material from Modern Blues. Keyboard player Brother Paul, playing organ for the most part, gave the material real beef, his interplay with Mr. Wickham and guitarist Zach Ernst being especially worthy of note. Scott, clearly revelling at being back in Sligo, the fount for his Yeats album of 2011, was in stellar form, and when the whole shebang came to a close with a piano based, and raucous version, of Fisherman's Blues, we all knew that we had just witnessed something extraordinary.
Sunday night's performance with Jools Holland and his Orchestra-of whom we latterly heard great things-was sold out months in advance, so we exercised the trad. option, and headed to the Hawkswell to catch Altan, whose new album, replete with new box player Martin Tourish on board, was the focus for much of the material played during the evening. The Widening Gyre, its title taken from a Yeats poem, is an exploration of the links between the Irish and American tradition, focussing particularly on their shared repertoire. The concept is not new, musicians like Tim O'Brien, for instance, having done an amazing job with The Crossing some years, but, executed with a Donegal accent, and such obvious enthusiasm, it resonates even more strongly. With this album, Altan are clearly at the top of their game, and when they brought on Fiddler of Dooney winners Hailey Richardson, from the U. S., and Sarah O'Gorman from Dunmore East, the cross generational effect of the muse was seen to work its magic. The electricity generated from four fiddles, and the rest, was enough to power a small town, and job done, we tumbled out on to the windswept street, musing as we headed to Strandhill, that festivals like Sligo Live have a unique place in our cultural spectrum. And, yes, next year cannot roll round quickly enough. Magic days, and no mistake.
Oliver P. Sweeney
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