The biennial festival in Cork produced another unique feast of fine music and good vibes.
Custom House Quay
Anybody around the docks of Cork on Saturday evening may have been surprised to see a navy boat coming up the River Lee, with ethereal music audible over the sound of the engines, and a woman wrapped in a foil blanket visible on the deck.
That strange sight was part of a hugely ambitious project from Cork artist Dorothy Cross, that had the LE James Joyce carrying a human heart (originally taken from Cork by a British army officer in the 19th century) from Haulbowline to Custom House Quay.
It was themed around the navy’s work in saving the lives of over 18,000 refugees in the Mediterranean.
The woman on board was Lisa Hannigan, who performed a set of haunting tunes on the quayside.
Intertwined in the songs of heartbreak and loss was a version of ‘My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean’; in other settings, it’s a song that leans towards the twee, but here it was a tear-inducing reminder of the thousands of people lost on those awful journeys across the Med.
A most unusual collaboration between an arm of the state and an artist, there’s always a danger that a project like Heartship might fall slightly flat. However, this was brilliantly realised, in terms of both spectacle and message.
Much kudos to the navy for getting involved, and to Cross for drawing together such a multi-faceted project.
- Des O’Driscoll
The music programme for the 2019 edition of Sounds from a Safe Harbour got off to a flying start with UK producer Jon Hopkins performing a DJ set to a sold-out Dali.
It was Hopkins’ first ever club show in Ireland and was a rare chance to see a man usually found at the top of festival line-ups in such an intimate setting.
The UK producer is best known for his ambient brand of electronic music but his set in Cork leaned a lot more on heavier house music.
Dropping some of the more delicate tempos that characterised his recent album, Hopkins leans heavily on pounding techno beats, glitchy synths and blistering bass, many of which are nods to his contemporaries.
He mixed in a few of his own tracks late on in the set, and dropped an Orbital cover which draws a huge reaction from an adoring audience.
At almost two hours, it is an intense, incredible show. Hopkins has the audience hanging on every note from the very first seconds of the set.
- Kevin O’Neill
Cork Opera House
It’s been a while since we last heard from Damien Rice — four years since his last shows in Ireland, five since his last studio album.
His headline slot at Cork Opera House festival serves as a reminder of what we’ve been missing.
Anyone unsure of what to expect is put at ease at the outset as, face hidden in darkness, Rice eases into ‘Delicate’, the opening track from the era-defining album O.
He is instantly joking with the audience and late arrivers before conducting them all for an amazing singalong to ‘Volcano’, the left and right side of the Opera House harmonising before the upper tiers hit the high notes.
He only plays 13 songs over two hours, almost all prefaced with a story; from ‘Older Chest’, where he “couldn’t beat the demo”, to Rick Rubin’s “no taste in music”, recording with Black Sabbath and Eminem either side of Rice for what became My Favourite Faded Fantasy.
It’s a lot of talking, but you hang on every word.
Prefacing the first of two new songs by discussing trying to right his environmental hypocrisy, Rice is joined on piano/vocals by support act Jofridur Akadottir aka JFDR.
The other new song, ‘Astro’, a love song that’s not about love, finds him standing over a noisebox.
It all plays out over minimal lighting, the scene set with a couple of bottles of untouched wine on one side and a piano on the other.
He only uses one guitar that seems to require very little tuning - Rice doesn’t need much to enchant. He launches into the Juniper rarity ‘Insane’ with ease, having asked the audience if there was anything they’d like to hear - for those wondering, there’s no ‘The Blower’s Daughter’ and ‘Cannonball’ in the setlist.
The finale finds Rice joined onstage by an Italian friend, Greta, for ‘9 Crimes’ before he invites Sounds From a Safe Harbour director Mary Hickson out to play a little percussion on ‘Trusty and True’.
The reveal of Gemma Sugrue and her Voiceworks choir is magical, the slowly escalating song easily the highlight of the night.
The encore sees the choir and Rice standing in a line, with no amplification, for a powerful rendition of ‘It Takes A Lot To Know A Man’.
Hickson maintains that the festival is about putting the artist first — hopefully Rice left the Opera House as fulfilled as everyone in the crowd.
A special show from a special musician.
The following day, Rice also treated a small crowd to a few songs at a surprise gig at the River Lee Hotel.
- Eoghan O’Sullivan
Live at St Luke’s
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💙@caoimhinoraghallaigh & Thomas Bartlett // @liveatstlukes // Sat 8pm // €30. 🔹Two of the most celebrated talents making contemporary music today - Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh and Thomas Bartlett - renowned for their work together as part of @thegloamingofficial and individually with the likes of Laurie Anderson, Garth Knox, Sufjan Stevens and St. Vincent. On a new self-titled album, released by The Dwelling / Real World Records 13th September, they unite to create an LP of exceptional beauty. With Bartlett on piano and Ó Raghallaigh on Hardanger d'amore, it's going to be a really special show. 🎫 On Sale Fri 28 June // 10am 💙 #SFSH19
The former church provided a perfect venue for the exquisite sounds of a duo best known for their work together as part of The Gloaming. Despite their collaborations in that trad super-group, this was far from a Gloaming-lite affair.
As their new album illustrates, the duo have taken two steps to the left of that acclaimed super-group to produce music that has much less of a trad sound, and will presumably end up in the ‘contemporary’ section of record stores.
In a live setting, there are few musicians who look as absorbed in what they are doing as American pianist Bartlett (aka ‘Doveman’, with a list of collaborators in his CV that includes Yoko Ono, The National and Sufjan Stevens) as he hunches over the keyboard, contorting with every note while nudging along tunes of fragile beauty.
At times, Bartlett and Dublin-born fiddler Ó Raghallaigh bring a jazz-like sensibility to pieces that are minimal and precise.
It’ll be too quiet for some, but when tunes like ‘Further Than Memory’ connect, it’s at the emotional, contemplative level that underpins so much of the music in this festival.
Both musicians look delighted at the end by the warm applause for a project that is clearly a labour of love.
- Des O’Driscoll
Cork Opera House
The evening may have gotten off to a slow start, but velvet-voiced Canadian singer-songwriter Feist’s performance at Cork Opera House on Saturday night was worth waiting for.
Irish-Nordic folk trio Slow Moving Clouds took to the stage for a few songs, starting at nearly half ten: “We are your prawn cocktail starter,” Cork cellist and singer Kevin Murphy quipped.
If so, the main course came out cold. The chanteuse emerged at 11.15pm, clutching a bouquet of flowers, and had to be given extra time by Opera House management so she could play a set of reasonable length.
But if the delays were caused by the happy, familial haphazardness that had descended on musicians on the penultimate night of Sounds from a Safe Harbour, surely that’s part of the point of this festival: to unlock artists from the alienating, creatively stifling grind of touring and to permit them to enjoy playing together and collaborating.
Feist had spent a few days in Cork, attending two showings of Loch na hEala, the festival’s astounding opening show, as well as spending time rehearsing with other musicians for two festival projects, Odyssey, based on words from the Homeric epic poem, which took place in the Kino; and closing show Lhasa, a tribute to Mexican-American singer Lhasa de Sela.
Before being joined by her backing band, the first half of her set was performed solo and included songs from her most recent album, 2017’s Pleasure, with breathtakingly sophisticated and beautiful vocal looping on a more introspective and less upbeat version of her 2004 hit ‘Mushaboom’.
Ariel Engel, a fellow Canadian who has stepped into Feist’s shoes in alternative outfit Broken Social Scene, joined Feist for a beautiful and otherworldly rendition of Antony and the Johnsons’ ‘Another World’, the highlight of the night.
To close, she was joined by the choir from the Odyssey project, amongst their number, musicians including Bryce Dessner and festival director Mary Hickson, for one of the songs emerging from the collaboration, adding to the sense that this was very much a family affair.
- Ellie O’Byrne
St Luke’s, Saturday
On Saturday afternoon, Danish indie folksters Efterklang take us to church, with St Luke’s hosting their first Cork concert since 2013.
The set has all the hallmarks of an anthemic indie show: lush harmonies, soaring orchestrals and dark pop drama and the audience is more than happy to come along for the journey.
Most of the set is comprised of tracks in Danish, but that doesn’t stop the audience singing along at the prompt of lead singer Casper Clausen.
At one point, he even leaves the altar and walks down the aisle, singing as he walks and encouraging audience members to join in.
It is the type of stunt that can fall flat if the audience doesn’t buy in but there is no such issue here.
It all appears effortless for the band, who look refreshed and excited to be back on stage after a few years break.
- Kevin O’Neil