05 June 2022

Omagh 2022: 'Bouquets and brickbats' from Declan Fox

Thanks to Declan Fox for the first instalment of his comprehensive examination of last weekend's festival:

Part 1: Bouquets and the pure drop

I've been to nearly all of the Omagh festivals since 1992. I got most of my bluegrass education there and I'm writing this from the point of view of a fairly low-level fan.

My last one was 2018 and I was so looking forward to this festival, getting back to the Folk Park, meeting old friends, hearing great music and having my genre boundaries expanded. Did it live up to my expectations? Yes. And no. Of which more later.

Mind you, it was great to have a festival at all this year, following two years of Covid and all our worries about Richard Hurst's retirement.

Duration was reduced to two days which made the £40 ticket somewhat more expensive than previous festivals but still one of the best deals around for lovers of good live music.

Talking about good live music, there was plenty of that on show, despite stage count being reduced to three and some slots occupied by very non-genre artistes. We could debate until the cows come home about the boundaries of bluegrass, about who and what is canon, so I will start with the more-or-less pure drop.

Festival favourites the Broken String Band played two sets on the outdoor stages on Saturday. They were competent and entertaining, having recovered from the loss of Geordie and Walty, playing their usual mix of standards leavened with Neil Young's lovely 'Harvest Moon' and Springsteen's 'I'm on fire'. Plus plenty of banter! Individually and collectively they have done a lot to keep bluegrass alive in Northern Ireland over the years now and like good wine, they get better with time. I particularly enjoyed Ivan's guitar picking.

Glasgow-based four-piece The Fountaineers, another classic bluegrass band, played three sets over the weekend plus one at the launch party. They do a mixture of standards and original songs; they seemed pretty good instrumentally but vocals were an issue, both at the launch party and their outdoor set on Saturday. Unfortunately I missed their last set on the main stage on Sunday due to the cold chilling my bones and really would have liked to hear them in that venue. I thought they were simply not close enough to the mike but I saw others using the same setup without problems. Their name, by the way, came from practice sessions outside in a park either near or actually in a fountain during Covid. Seems the council turned off the water to the fountain to discourage people coming out...

Another local band, Cup O'Joe, impressed me on the main stage on Sunday. I last saw them as three siblings several years ago at Omagh when they were starting out and their talents were obvious then. Tabitha (banjo/vocals) has since acquired a husband, making Cup O'Joe a four-piece. She also got a Momentum award from the IBMA for her banjo playing and the band has already had the whole IBMA showcase experience. Definitely serious bluegrass chops there! They in fact describe their music as progressive bluegrass and folk. They have come a long, long way in a very short time. I really enjoyed their set of mostly originals, all beautifully crafted and delivered, and would go some distance to hear them again. Of note is Tabitha's performance with another brilliant band, Midnight Skyracer, a previous visitor to Omagh.

And later on Saturday, we had a superb high-energy/ high lonesome set from the amazing Seth Mulder & Midnight Run. Truly a classic bluegrass powerhouse outfit of five massive talents blending into a wonderfully cohesive whole, they played standards and originals and did them all exceedingly well. And the speed of them on the fast numbers!! Seth Mulder is a big man and his mandolin looks tiny in his hands but when he plays a fast run, oh man you wonder how the fretboard doesn't melt! Seth, Colton on banjo and Ben on guitar share the vocals and have a nice mix of styles. Ben is the funny man and his performance on the more humorous songs was a treat. They did the rooster song, which many of you probably know but I didn't, the one about the rooster coming into the yard and getting up to rooster tricks with various other inhabitants of the yard. Written by Bob Gibson, who was a big name in the folk revival of the '50s and '60s, Ben and the guys added animal noises to it, plus a more vulgar final verse than Gibson would have entertained.

They are not yet bluegrass royalty, no IBMAs yet but only a matter of time. And talking of bluegrass royalty, we have had many great bands here over the years but I have to say Seth Mulder & Midnight Run are right up there with any of the long-established big names.

The graveyard slot on Saturday night landed on the broad shoulders of Toronto's Slocan Ramblers. Their set was marred by drunk people up dancing, other folk leaving because it was bedtime or they needed to get home for the Sabbath, a very poorly adjusted set of stage lights, and low volume on the PA. Maybe the volume has to go down late on in the night, I don't know. And I do not like it too loud either, but it was just right for the Seth Mulder set and it seemed much lower for the Slocan Ramblers. At any rate they acquitted themselves well. They told us of their early days, they started off playing pure bluegrass for a weekly residency in a Toronto bar which they described as a sh*thole — I wondered if the drunk dancers reminded them of that? The bar was nicknamed 'The Puke and Stagger' which told us all we needed to know about that venue. They played a lot of original numbers, what I would call bluegrass in evolution — doubtless most of you will have your own terms. They are basically a four-piece bluegrass band experimenting with classic bluegrass form and content and giving it a gentle modern spin. They already have a major bluegrass award — 2020 IBMA Momentum band of the year — which testifies to their talent and confirms their essential bluegrass-ness. And if only to hammer that home, they did a few bluegrass originals later on in the set and played them superbly. One nerdy observation: they did a version of Tom Petty's 'A mind with a heart of its own' and - something new to my eyes - the banjo player slipped on a slide and played a type of slide banjo on that number. Doubtless familiar to many readers but I cannot recall ever seeing slide banjo before at Omagh./

Next time I'll tell you about some great artistes who were somewhere on the borderline between bluegrass and other stuff.

© Declan Fox

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