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TRIP TO BIRMINGHAM TRADFEST - 23-26 November 2017

We got delayed on the M6, so our particular trip to Birmingham was not the smoothest, but we made it in time for a lively session in The Spotted Dog. Our settee in the angle of the L-shaped bar enabled us to hear both groups of musicians at the same time. Great craic!

After a brief rest, we headed to the South and City College for the Friday evening standing only concert. I prefer seated gigs these days but they were limiting the number of chairs and, to be fair, if I’d sat at the back I’d probably have seen and heard nothing. Having the bar inside the hall meant inevitably that there was a level of noise during the evening. It was noticeable that the evening attracted a higher proportion of young people than the Saturday concert.

Ignition kicked us off in great style. This young band, who won the 2016 Molloy Award, is led by the irrepressible Kevin Meehan on whistle. Seeing them for the first time, it was clear to see why they had won the award, with their modern take on traditional music. Bodhrán player Dale McKay also played the “hang”, a flying saucer-shaped tuned metal drum, to good effect.

Next came Blás, a new group who played lively traditional tune sets interspersed with an eclectic choice of songs including The Call And The Answer, The Curragh Of Kildare and The Beatles’ You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away. Singer, Anne Brennan, got the audience joining in, though I’m not sure how many of the younger ones actually knew the words to the Beatles’ song.

The evening was brought to a close by the wonderful Flook. After an incredible 13 years, they had what seemed to be a permanent break in 2008, but, thank goodness they are now back, and are playing a limited number of concerts. According to Brian Finnegan, “We never intended to break up; we just wanted to make space for life.” Birmingham did well to get them.

We spent some of Saturday sightseeing and if you’re ever in the city, I can recommend a visit to the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter. The main event was the evening concert; I was relieved to find that this was an all-seated event – a recognition perhaps that the audience would probably be slightly more decrepit than the previous night’s! The duo of Conor Connolly (accordion and vocals) and Catherine McHugh (piano) opened with an excellent set of traditional songs and tunes. In addition to being a great box player, Conor is an accomplished singer who takes traditional songs by the scruff of the neck and gives them the full works. His first song, The Banks Of The Nile from sean-nós singer Tom O'Coisdealbha on De Dannan’s 1980 album, The Mist Covered Mountain, was particularly impressive.

Next came a very different set from solo singer-guitarist Alan Burke. He has real stage presence and the audience loved everything he did. His tastefully assertive guitar never swamped his singing and he found it easy to get the audience joining in with songs many of them knew well. It was excellent programming to separate the evening’s two predominantly instrumental sets with a great singer.

The trio of Frankie Gavin, Noel Hill and Brian McGrath was due on next, but Noel was doing emergency repairs to his concertina so missed the first set of tunes. Eventually he appeared, only to find the repair had not been successful and he disappeared again, giving Frankie the chance to tell a few jokes. On his return Noel apologised and the trio got going, provoking whooping and foot-tapping. Brian McGrath’s inventive piano set a steady rhythm but he sometimes had to change gear when the fiddle and concertina really got going. There were the obligatory furious sets of jigs and reels but also some slower tunes, including Lament For Oliver Goldsmith and the haunting air, Bán Chnoic Éireann Ó, composed by Donnchadha Ruadh MacNamara (1715-1819). It was also good to see Frankie play the flute on the Boulavogue / Edenderry Reel set.

The Sunday afternoon concert was in a smaller, cosier venue, The Castle and Falcon, an Irish pub on Moseley Road. Despite its size, there was an audience of 100 or so to see three great acts.

The Friel Sisters, Clare (fiddle), Anna (flute) and Sheila (uilleann pipes), opened proceedings. Clare had been awarded the Gradam Ceoil award for Young Traditional Musician of the Year in Belfast the week before. Hajime Takahashi on guitar and Eamonn Nugent on bodhrán accompanied most numbers, but were, in my opinion, sometimes too high in the mix. The song, Free And Easy, was sung to the mesmerising accompaniment of the Tibetan singing bowl.

Next on stage were Edel Fox (concertina) and Neil Byrne (fiddle) who played eight great sets of traditional tunes to a spellbound audience. They played mostly together, but they also played a solo set each. Edel provided a wealth of information about their tunes; the story of the beautiful barndance tune Kitty O’Neill’s (aka Kitty O’Shea’s) was particularly interesting: originally an American variety showpiece from the early 1900s commemorating Kitty O’Neill, a dancer and singer, it was introduced into the Irish repertoire by fiddle players Tommy Peoples and Kevin Burke.

The final formal performance of the festival was from singer Karan Casey and her band. Tastefully sparse accompaniment on guitar, concertina and cello ensured that Karan’s powerful voice reached the audience unchallenged. Karan has sung professionally for over 25 years and is best known as a former singer with Solas, but earlier in her career she was a jazz singer and there are still traces of this in her singing.

So ended another Trip to Birmingham Tradfest. The organisers must be congratulated on once again putting on a weekend of varied, top class Irish music. In these days of over-commercialisation, it is great to attend an event where the music and the craic are so obviously the most important considerations. Roll on Tradfest 2018.

birminghamtradfest.co.uk

Simon Haines