Kilkenny this year was a festival of major coups. Of the many musical revelations, however, perhaps the most remarkable was the inclusion of the great American guitarist Bill Frisell. A celebrated musician who more usually plays one-off concerts in far larger venues, Frisell came to Kilkenny as one of the festival’s artists-in-residence.
Over five days, he popped up in collaborations with members of Irish supergroup The Gloaming; with Berlin-based contemporary chamber orchestra Stargaze; and in a sensitive, playful and quietly virtuoso solo performance.
It was his headline concert at the sumptuous Set Theatre though that best displayed Frisell’s wonderfully adventurous approach to music. A guitarist who is equally at home playing jazz, Americana, bluegrass, pop and classical, Frisell was joined on stage by some of his musical friends and fellow travellers: American progressive folk hero Sam Amidon; then by a band augmented by famed Irish music duo Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill, and by American pianist, producer and polymath Thomas Bartlett and New York clarinetist Doug Wieselman.
The ground covered was wide and varied. Stephen Foster’s mid-19th century parlour song ‘Hard Times Come Again No More’ was given a potent protest edge by Amidon’s gravelly vocals. Thelonious Monk’s seesawing jazz standard ‘Misterioso’ featured Hayes in a solo that suitably refuted his notion that “I can’t improvise at all”. And in lively reel ‘The Humours of Tulla’ Frisell gently improvised behind and beyond the traditional melody. There were several striking Frisell originals too, such as the poignant ‘Steady Girl’, with Amidon on more reflective vocals, and the vibrant African blues-beats of ‘Baba Drame’.
These were wonderfully skilled and sensitive players who could take the music in any direction, at any time, yet always, you felt, with great generosity and judgement. It was part session, part jam, part hoedown, and part hot club de Kilkenny. Utterly thrilling and inspiring.