AS THE Cork Midsummer Festival heads into its second weekend, it has some trump cards yet to play. Among them is Bowerbird. Showcasing the diversity of music that plays around the boundaries of folk, the project spans a pair of concerts in the exquisite acoustics of Triskel Christchurch.
The concerts are the brainchild of Gary Sheehan, who as director of Note Productions, has promoted a wide range of cutting-edge talent in venues across the country. The Bowerbird concerts were programmed with singer-songwriter Adrian Crowley at the invitation of festival director Tom Creed.
“The idea was to create a weekend of modern folk,” says Sheehan. “Bowerbird emerged pretty organically in response to some of the themes in the theatre programme. Tom was great in that once we had agreed the core idea he left us free to come up with a line-up that we thought worked.”
The collaboration between Sheehan and Crowley was an easy one. “Somewhat strangely, myself and Adrian pretty much agreed on all the artists as we threw names about,” Sheehan says. “We liked the idea of bringing together legends of the music with younger artists who are doing their own thing with folk music in the loosest sense. I also think we were trying to bring in artists with similar interests but from different backgrounds and histories.”
Among the musicians Sheehan says are key to the project are Andy Irvine and the English folk star Martin Carthy. Irvine recently celebrated his 70th birthday and has a reputation that stretches back to Planxty in the early 1970s. Londoner Carthy remains one of folk music’s most influential innovators.
Adrian Crowley will also play a set. Sheehan considers him to be one of Ireland’s finest singer-songwriters. The concerts also feature Sam Amidon, the sensational songwriter from Vermont.
Amidon is looking forward to returning here. “Ireland is a beautiful country,” he says. “The first time I came here was around my 15th birthday with my family, who brought me to Clare to find Tommy Peoples who was and is my guru. Sure enough I found him and had a life-changing evening of tunes, just he and I playing our fiddles and chatting quietly.
“I’ve had great times all over the country, including a memorable night in Cork about 11 years ago with Mick Daley, Aidan Coffey and the great, late fiddle player Séamus Creagh.”
These days Amidon travels to Ireland as one of the leading figures on the folk scene. “Now, when I come here it’s more frequently to play my own music, singing versions of old American folk songs and playing banjo and guitar. Life has twists and turns,” he says.
A less familiar artist on the line-up both nights, one who could well be flying home from Cork with a host of new fans, is the deliciously peculiar Serafina Steer. An accomplished harpist, she has concentrated on writing and performing her own extraordinary songs since graduating from London’s Trinity College.
Steer has been championed by Crowley since he first met her. “I have supported Adrian a number of times, once in Dublin and once in London,” Steer says. “He’s an old friend. I love his voice. We met through the band Geese. Actually, we were meant to have a gig together at King’s Place in London last year when Adrian suddenly had pneumonia. So a bunch of us performed covers of his songs.
“I think Adrian asked me to join the Bowerbird concerts because he knew I’d love to be involved in this particular project, and he was right. We have mutual friends who are musicians and festival organiser demons, such as Adem with Homefires in London and Pictish Trail, aka Johnny Lynch, with Homegame in Scotland, so it’s a logical progression. I, fortunately for all, have not been asked to organise anything to date.”
And what is Steer planning for her Cork Midsummer Festival audiences? “I’m planning cosmic harp,” she smiles. “I do like to plan these days actually. I used to think it was more in the spirit of things to do everything on the spur of the moment but after years of attempting that, I am trying to cultivate a more methodical approach. I have also discovered that this is ‘what other people do’ and not a bad idea at that.
“I have been making a new album so I shall be mostly be playing new material. I have also made a new arrangement of some text from The Countess Cathleen, a play by WB Yeats which I think is apt.”
Steer has no current plans to record in Cork, quipping: “My planning skills are not sufficiently evolved just yet. But I am really delighted to have this opportunity to visit another part of Ireland, I have only played in Dublin so far. Hopefully, when The Moths Are Real, my new album, comes out, I will be able to book some more gigs.”
Another Bowerbird musician who has ploughed his own musical furrow is Malcolm Middleton, one half of the dark Scottish cult-pop act Arab Strap, who has released five solo studio albums and a recent sixth under the moniker Human Don’t Be Angry.
Completing the line-up will be Middleton’s erstwhile collaborator in Arab Strap, Aidan Moffat. Moffat will perform with multi-instrumentalist Bill Wells, with whom he recently released an album of jazz-inflected love-songs. “Aidan and Bill have made one of he finest albums of recent years in the form of Everything’s Getting Older,” Sheehan says. “While not folk in the pure sense, it’s rooted in an everyday reality. It’s searing in its lyrics and beautiful musically, so getting them was essential.”
Sheehan looks forward to presenting two extraordinary nights of music. “Cork can expect a pretty stunning group of musicians performing full sets each night, most likely with moments of similarity and real contrast. When you have people like Andy Irvine, Sam Amidon, Martin Carthy, Aidan Moffat, I think you can leave it to them to deliver something special.”
* Bowerbird: Modern Folk & Beyond 8pm, Friday and Saturday , Triskel Christchurch.&