Our contributor Philip Watson selects his entertainment highlights of the year

Our contributor Philip Watson selects his entertainment highlights of the year
Philip Watson

Live music

Sam Amidon, Live at St Luke’s, Cork: A tribute to the seminal Anthology of American Folk Music recordings collected by polymath artist Harry Smith, compellingly presented by US singer, multi-instrumentalist and “re-composer” Amidon – during Sounds From A Safe Harbour, a world-class festival of which the city can be justly proud.

Jerry Douglas, White Horse, Ballincollig: How a small pub on the outskirts of Cork can attract, through goodwill and persistence alone it seems, some of the biggest names in traditional, roots and folk music — in this case legendary Nashville Dobro maestro Douglas — is almost beyond belief. But I’m glad it does.

Bill Frisell Trio, National Concert Hall, Dublin: I’m biased, as I’m writing a book on Frisell, but this was one of the world’s great guitarists, in an intimate and agile trio, playing music enthrallingly beyond border or genre.

Album

Lankum: The Livelong Day. The pioneering Dublin band’s game-changing third album embraced melody, rhythm, ambience, dissonance, intensity and experimentalism in equal measure, and redefined traditional Irish folk music forever.

Book

Underland by Robert Macfarlane (Hamish Hamilton). A deep, dark, poetic and revelatory journey into what lies beneath – land, time, place, ourselves – and ahead, for our planet’s fragile future.

Film

Only one thing was more viscerally moving and emotionally overwhelming this year than watching Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver tear themselves apart in Marriage Story – Aretha Franklin’s transcendental gospel singing in Amazing Grace. One of the finest and most fascinating music documentaries ever made (and thankfully rescued).

TV

Fleabag. If 2016’s first season was wholly exceptional, and like nothing else on television, this year’s second and final series elevated Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s brilliantly black, subversive and spellbinding BBC comedy-drama to the all-time TV pantheon.

Radio

Mystery Train with John Kelly, RTÉ Lyric FM. Consistently the most surprising and stimulating music show on radio, either side of the Irish Sea, especially on Sundays, when a wide range of engaging guests add their own idiosyncratic selections to the eclectic mix.

Podcast

West Cork. The series on the Sophie Toscan du Plantier murder was last year’s surprise hit, but English documentary makers Jennifer Forde and Sam Bungey brought the case thrillingly and chillingly right up-to-date, in October at least, in a sold-out Opera House event at the inaugural Cork Podcast Festival.

Visual art

Don McCullin, Tate Britain, London. A major retrospective of more than 250 haunting images, lit from within by the great British war, documentary and landscape photographer’s eager eye and hard-headed humanity.

Any other highlights?

The ongoing video series of Tiny Desk Concerts – intimate three- or four-song live performances filmed in the offices of National Public Radio in Washington DC – just gets better and better. Highlights this year include Rhiannon Giddens, Rosanne Cash, Lizzo, Snarky Puppy, Sharon Van Etten, Calexico, Northern Irish duo Saint Sister, and even Taylor Swift, solo.

Phoebe Waller Bridge, creator of Fleabag.
Phoebe Waller Bridge, creator of Fleabag.

Lowlight

The Guinness Cork Jazz Festival’s return to hard commerce, rather than high creativity, as the primary driving force of its programming led to some of the most stale and dispiriting “headline acts” in many years.

Most enjoyable piece you worked on

In October I gently asked genial English saxophonist and clarinettist John Surman, a giant of European jazz, if he had any thoughts on Brexit. “Yes, I do,” he quickly replied. “I’m absolutely furious. I am livid. For me the EU was about bonding, about assimilating and… creating a Europe at peace. So Brexit is a total disaster and I’m really angry.” I feel sure his opinion hasn’t changed. And neither has mine.

Looking forward to...

The Borris House Festival of Writing and Ideas in Co Carlow with Richard Ford, Marian Keyes, Margaret Atwood, Bernardine Evaristo, etc.

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