17 June 2022

Omagh 2022: brickbats and conclusions

Thanks once more to Declan Fox for the fourth instalment of his review of last month's Bluegrass Omagh festival, concluding with a detailed analysis of the event.

Part 4: Brickbats - festival organisation

Many of us regular Omagh attendees had a bad feeling going into the weekend. We knew months back that National Museums of NI had outsourced it to Snow Water Ltd, an events management company. How, we thought, could non-bluegrass experts possibly run a good festival?

In the event, there was a decent number of good artistes to appeal to many of us. I've mentioned the totally non-genre acts and I hope that mistake will not be repeated. I attended with a group of twelve and we all had a good time this year, but several bluegrass friends either did not attend or left early. Regardless of views on exact mix of bluegrass/not-quite-bluegrass acts, a programme which had that effect on some dedicated bluegrass fans was not a good programme. In all the years I've been attending this festival, I have never heard so much upset and disappointment.

Programming aside, the festival was truncated compared to previous years, down to two days instead of three days and only three stages.

Some NI/Irish bluegrass musicians were not invited this year; people like Northern Exposure and Niall Toner and others who have been festival stalwarts for years. And talking about stalwarts, where was the respect due to the memory of the late great Geordie McAdam? I remember him fiddling at the first ever Omagh festival and complimenting his wife on coming out to hear him perform in public — he said he had been fiddling for thirty years and that was the first time she came to a show. This festival should have been dedicated to his memory.

But the biggest omission from the lineup was Frank Galligan, our indefatigable MC who has done a superb job for so many years. His knowledge of bluegrass, his love for live music, his willingness to get to know the band members, his on-stage banter and the way he encouraged us to call for an encore when one was deserved - all of that was missing this year. Frank tells me he didn't even get a text message about his dismissal.

I'll go through the event from beginning to end now:

  • The online ticket sales worked well enough. Admission price was up quite a bit when you factor in two days instead of three, three stages only, and absence of A-list American bluegrass bands.
  • We were all a bit disturbed by the presence of G4S security personnel at the gate. Thirty years of festivals and suddenly we have private security? When asked why, the security men — who were all very pleasant — said they had to check for alcohol. I entered at least four times over the weekend and my bag was not checked, nor those of the people with me, so the checking was intermittent at best.
  • A nice printed programme was available free of charge on admission, but it should have been up online days in advance to allow people to plan their visit.
  • The sound from the main stage intermittently drowned out quieter performances on the Smoky Mountain Stage. That should have been sorted out in advance and if not, then a careful manager of the calibre of Richard Hurst or Paddy O'Kane would have picked it up as they walked around.
  • The general atmosphere was not the same as previous years. Granted we have had two years of Covid, granted any change of management would have had us on edge, but it just wasn't the same.
  • Bar and food stalls seemed to be working well though I have to say I didn't eat inside and others had some complaints about the food service. Some complaints also about the price of drink (e.g. £4 for a smallish glass of Fanta orange wasn't pleasant), but hats off to Bogan's for having plenty of staff on the bar. There was one man pulling pints all day. I bought Prosecco a few times and each time the barman took a few minutes to fill the glass to the brim. Good work, guys.
  • Two nice wee touches near the toilets; warm water for hand washing — plenty of places would not bother — and drinking water on tap all weekend for filling bottles. Again, some cunning operators would encourage attendees to buy water.
  • Only one word for the standard of MC-ing; abysmal. Please bring back Frank Galligan.
  • I thought that in previous years the Saturday night exodus and drunken dancing had settled down. Anyone remember for sure? Unfortunately it was all back this year, and fair play to the Slocan Ramblers for powering on regardless. This needs to be sorted out.

Overall, did the new dispensation work in terms of pulling in people? The NMNI post-event press release trumpeted the figure of 4500 visitors, up from the 2019 total of 3300. It was possibly a bit disingenuous to say that, when NMNI's own figures show that the 2018 festival attracted 6400 and 2017 pulled in 6700.

I don't know what the future holds for this festival but I, like many others, will likely go elsewhere unless this year's mistakes are corrected.

© Declan Fox

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