15 June 2023

Omagh 2023: a personal note

The BIB editor writes:

The BIB published last week (7 June) a comprehensive report on Bluegrass Omagh 2023 by Declan Fox, and a link to Eilis Boland's equally solid report on the Festival on Lonesome Highway. Both reports came from responsible journalists who took care to see all the acts on the bill. The following, in contrast, is a jumble of personal impressions; and if it mentions only a few of the acts, this should not be taken as any derogation of the others.

My general impression of the Festival was overwhelmingly positive; the only serious criticism I heard from others was how long the queues were for food and drink. Over the decades Omagh has built a reputation for presenting A-listers of the bluegrass world. Budget constraints prevented this in 2023, and some fans may have been disappointed; but not me. The PA systems made everyone sound good: understandably, I specially enjoyed the tone of the banjos of Michael Ashe (Broken Strings) and Ben Krakauer (Zoe & Cloyd) - the latter's style was a remarkable combination of a left hand that matched the melodic complexity of klezmer music, and a right hand that brought out the banjo's essential percussiveness.

Any mention of instrument tone at Omagh has to include the powerful mandolin sound of Matteo Ringressi (Truffle Valley Boys) - Buzz Busby might have envied it - and the banjo of Germano Ciavone. There was a sound in the audience's response to the Truffle Valley Boys that suggested that a fair number of people welcomed their music and their stage presence at least as much as I did.

The peak musical experience for me, however, came from hearing Janet Henry sing 'Sunny side of the mountain' - the words exactly the same as Jimmy Martin's, but at a tempo and with feeling that revealed that this can be a heartbreaking song. I gather that this treatment was inspired by the singing of Wil Maring (USA) - whose version, accompanied by the fiddle of Robert Bowlin, can be heard on YouTube. Good though they are, I would back Janet Henry's voice when it comes to music that can break hearts.

The photo above of Colin and Janet Henry, from the Ulster American Folk Park website, dates from before the Festival. They were supported there by Ivan Muirhead on lead guitar.

All possible thanks are due to Richard Hurst and his team, who have deserved them annually since 1992.

© Richard Hawkins

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