E need our festivals to surprise us,” shouted Justin Vernon of Bon Iver from the stage of Cork Opera House on Friday night. It’s a statement that seemed to sum up the philosophy behind the second incarnation of the city’s Sounds From A Safe Harbour.
The event mixed an amazing array of music with a unique ethos that filtered from the organisers at the heart of the festival right through the crowds who packed the dozens of venues.
Organised by Bryce and Aaron Dessner of The National, Cork impresario Mary Hickson, actor
Cillian Murphy and playwright Enda Walsh, such a list of curational luminaries would normally raise the spectre of laminates, luvvie-heaven and Instagram-fodder. Not here. The velvet ropes and VIP areas were conspicuous by their absence as a love of music became the great
As well as their sold-out Opera House gigs, both Justin Vernon and The National popped up for free appearances in other venues. They hung out in city and used such facilities as the CIT Cork School of Music to rehearse and collaborate on new music. The Safe Harbour really did provide a respite from the circus that modern music tours and festivals can turn into.
Alongside the American headliners, a flock of Irish musicians of various profiles also got to showcase their talents.
“It was an amazing weekend, with big crowds at almost every event,” said organiser Mary Hickson. “The musicians also really enjoyed it, and the city of Cork really played its part in that, as everyone was so hospitable.”
Looking into the future, organisers hope to hold the festival every two years in Cork. Start the countdown to September 2019.
BON IVER, CORK OPERA HOUSE
At 5pm in St Luke’s Church, we had seen frontman Justin Vernon unleash his more experimental side for a free gig that featured the Dessner brothers on guitar and the drum machines of Andi Toma from German electronic act Mouse On Mars.
At 10pm exactly (a live stream ensured everything was kept to schedule) Vernon takes to the stage of Cork Opera House alongside his fellow Bon Iveronians Sean Carey and Mike Lewis for a triumphant performance that shows why they are one of most interesting acts of our age.
Over 16 tracks, we see the many sides of the genre-melting group. In the vocal department alone, we get Vernon’s soaring falsetto, his stoner-country drawl, the digitised vocoder effect, and the Beach Boys harmonies with Carey.
Megahit ‘Skinny Love’ is always going to be a biggie, but a raw, heart-and-soul version turns it into a spine-tingling experience rather than just a rendition of a familiar favourite. At the other end of the production scale, an epic take on ‘The Wolves (Act I and II)’ finished out the night with 13 backing vocalists, and guitars courtesy of those Dessners again. Truly magnificent.
THE NATIONAL, OPERA HOUSE
The love in the room is palpable for the National in Cork Opera House on Saturday night. It’s the first date of their Sleep Well Beast world tour, and we get the majority of that new album in the Opera House, often abetted by Lisa Hannigan. The record is emotionally draining, but live it’s searing, arms-around-each-other comforting.
‘Day I Die’ is the undoubted highlight, featuring Justin Vernon, in and out throughout the sub-two-hour show, on guitar. ‘Guilty Party’ is stirring, while relative oldies such as ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’ and ‘Fake Empire’ are anthemic.
Singer Matt Berninger stalks the stage throughout, later swigging from a bottle of wine, commanding attention even while it seems like he wants to shirk it off, twice throwing his drink hard in the direction of the recording cameras upstairs.
He sings mostly low and monotone, the payoff coming on the likes of ‘Terrible Love’ when he lets loose. “We wouldn’t be anything without you guys. We act all cool but seriously this is everything for us, so thank you,” says Berninger before a loving, domestic ‘Born To Beg’. It’s everything for Cork as well.
Saint Sister, who headlined St Luke’s as part of SFASH on Sunday, were on support duty for The National, and their combination of harps and harmonies made for a pleasant experience.
Earlier in the day, David Keenan wears Mumford-alike braces but still wowed in a packed Callanan’s, while later in Coughlan’s David Kitt and Margie Lewis played their first ever show as Mona Lo. It’s experimental — Kitt is surrounded by four keyboards/controls and plays guitar while Lewis loops her Bjork-ish voice throughout — and the best bits came when they trade vocals and channel pop.
Over at the Old Oak, Gemma Sugrue shone as Cork ensemble FreezerRoom wheeled out the full brass and string sections for a sizzling set that featured covers of Kate Bush and Masters at Work, as well as tunes by local heroes Fish Go Deep and Joe O’Leary.
On Friday, the Everyman hosted a night of mostly contemporary classical music that underlined the Dessner brothers’ polymath qualifications.
The duo played guitars over Cillian Murphy’s menacing monologue, gave us a Renaissance-inspired piece for string quartet, and also contributed to collaborations with Crash Ensemble and Enda Walsh.
Cork composer Linda Buckley provided interesting pieces that combined cello with electronic
effects, while Iarla Ó Lionáird’s haunting vocals sounded just as at home in the contemporary sphere as his more traditional outlets.