Cork Folk Festival Review: Roy Harper, The Unthanks at St Luke’s, Cork


Cork Folk Festival Review: Roy Harper, The Unthanks at St Luke’s, Cork

Soft music, hard old benches. Easy on the ear, hard on the rear. Could you find a more soulful venue for acoustic music than the former church St Luke’s in Cork?

You’d forget just how readily folk music lends itself to chat, audience interaction and anachronistic grey-beard diatribes about the evolving state of humankind. Of course, the gods prefer choristers.

“It’s great that this venue is now, in my view, being put to a much better use than when it was a church,” said Manchester folk legend Roy Harper, who was then instantly struck down by a gnarly fit of coughing. “Take that, you heathen,” he joked on Thursday.

Harper won warm applause for his rants against racism and the death penalty. He even won applause for his own typically honest self-review of the show. “I’m glad that I was alright tonight.” Well, he was and he wasn’t. The first 30 minutes were only OK. The next hour or so was awesome; once he’d warmed up, it was a privilege to see a 75-year-old master at work.

From the moment he was joined onstage by gifted guitarist Bill Shanley, Harper’s vocals and guitaring went skyward. The West Cork resident didn’t play all his signature songs, but he did treat us to ‘Girl From The North Country’, ‘Hangman’ and ‘January Man’. ‘Me And My Woman’ was epic. ‘When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease’ was my favourite.

On Wednesday, the eery vocals of The Unthanks were a treat of a more ethereal kind. This unique sister act touches every emotion and seeing them in such an otherworldly setting was an experience of pure joy.

You’d have to be a stone not to find a connection with the canyon-wide reach from their often grim Northumbrian folk tales of shipyards and coal mines and their cheery delivery.

What an incredible bagful of songs, with gems from pianist Adrian McNally standing proud alongside epics from Ewan MacColl, Elvis Costello and Sting; the latter a northern neighbour with whom they’ve recorded.

A word also to the two local warm-up acts, the nascent Caoilian Sherlock and the magnificent John Blek.

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