16 June 2022

Declan Fox on Bluegrass Omagh 2022 (continued)

BIB editor's note: Thanks again to Declan Fox for the second and third instalments of his analysis of this year's Omagh festival. The concluding instalments will appear here tomorrow. This is the fullest review of a festival that has appeared to date on the BIB.

Part 2: More bouquets and 'Is it bluegrass?'

I'll write here on the artistes who struck me as not quite pure dyed-in-the-wool bluegrass but still pretty close. Do not take my classifications too seriously - this is more to do with my impression at the time.

No Oil Paintings are described as a rowdy Belfast Americana outfit. They play guitar, banjo, upright bass and drums. Their original songs on CD lean towards the morbid and melancholy end of the spectrum but when I saw them on the main stage on Saturday evening they were very much the living manifestation of bluegrass meets rock and roll. 'Outlaw bluegrass' would be my monicker for them. They were lively, they were up-tempo, the lead singer made me think of Robert Plant with his vocal power, and it was a knock-out set. I cannot even remember all the songs they played but I made sure to see them again on Sunday in the school field when they were quieter but still very good. They offered a bluegrass-y version of a Pink Floyd song from Dark side of the moon and were delighted with our response. They went out with 'Foggy Mountain breakdown'.

Vivian Leva and Riley Calcagno are two young American musicians with great stuff in their DNA. Quite simply, awesome talents. Initially I thought not pure bluegrass, but in retrospect I think they would be fully accepted at purist festivals. Originals and standards, beautiful singing by her and great picking by him, her voice was high and sweet and angelic. I saw them once on the main stage and they really shone there with the better sound and acoustics.

Long Way Home is another duo I initially thought 'no, not the pure thing', but in retrospect was probably wrong. She is American, he is Dutch, they live in Cork and are pretty active performers. They both sing and while her voice does not match Vivian Leva's, it is pretty good. They did covers mostly, she picked well on mandolin and guitar and he played dobro. A pair which could go far, crying out to be heard and enjoyed in a small venue with good acoustics.

Aaron Jonah Lewis is one of these performers who both entertains and educates. He is an authority on the banjo, he also plays fiddle and sings. He opened our minds to some great banjo history. He talked about seeking out banjo tunes from 100 to 120 years ago and finding some of them on old wax recordings. He told us about Joe Morley, described as 'the Mozart of the banjo'. I bought Aaron's CD of Joe Morley pieces and it is certainly worth a listen. He wears a three-piece suit, has a massive beard and a pair of what looks like dime-store sunglasses but are probably some expensive designer make. Again, more suited to a small venue but nevertheless a worthy addition to the Omagh lineup.

Part 3: Definitely non-genre

The act which provoked the most negative reaction among the bluegrass fraternity was the trio of entertainers, Katie Richardson, Rachel McCarthy, and Jackie Rainey. I caught them on Sunday on the Smoky Mountain stage and they were down to two, Rachel McCarthy having gone home sick. First problem was their choice of songs. The only one they did with any relation to bluegrass or old-timey was 'Down to the river to pray' and their rendition was just about adequate to my ears. There followed a forgettable set of covers, mostly performed competently, although their vocal limitations were clear on Gram Parsons' 'Ooh Las Vegas' which most of us know better from the Emmylou Harris version.

Second problem, related, was their failure to stick to their brief. The festival organisers spoke several times of how these musicians would do old songs which had inspired them. Now maybe there was a misunderstanding along the way but there wasn't much homage to bluegrass or old-timey in that set. I sat to the end, bored, thinking of what I was missing on the other stages.

Joshua Burnside is a great talent. I'm not really into folk music these days but I think he is a fine exponent of some quite unusual field of folk and I mean that as a compliment to him. He has a great voice, is good on guitar, and his songwriting has been critically acclaimed. He also has good stage presence. I saw him on Saturday evening doing his own stuff and I thought: 'This guy is really good but he is at the wrong festival'. The Omagh bluegrass festival has always been non-purist and many of us are very happy about that, but Joshua was way outside the tent.

Anthony Toner, on the other hand, made a significant effort to fit in. He appeared with the Doone brothers (half of No Oil Paintings) who do have good bluegrass credentials, but unfortunately a banjo and upright bass are not automatic bluegrass passports. We all know Anthony's stuff, he is a major talent, good singer/ songwriter/ guitarist, but he is not bluegrass or anything near it. He did do one number with a good bluegrass feel but again, not much homage there either. While I enjoyed his set I sat there thinking he too was at the wrong festival.

[To be concluded]

© Declan Fox

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