Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 11/09/2003.
There was a vague feeling at the time I wrote this that they might hold more Lisdoonvarna festivals in future years. Well, they didn't.
Meanwhile, Glen "COME ON!" Hansard went on to win an Oscar.
Here we are in the county Clare / And it's a long long way from here to there... It's a fantastically appropriate quote, which is presumably why every damn paper in Ireland used it in their reports of the 2003 Lisdoonvarna Festival. But you can see their point.
The quote comes from a song called Lisdoonvarna, written and performed by Christy Moore. It's his tribute to a series of music festivals that took place in the eponymous Irish town between 1978 and 1983. Over those six years, organisers Paddy Doherty and Jim Shannon brought the best local and international musicians to a small town that was previously better known for its regular matchmaking festivals. Christy's song celebrates the wide variety of those guests: "Clannad were playin' Harry's Game / Christy was singin' Nancy Spain / Mary O'Hara and Brush Shields / Together singin' The Four Green Fields / Van the Man and Emmylou / Moving Hearts and Planxty too" - okay, if you know anything about Irish music you'll realise Christy has just namechecked himself three times in six lines, but you get the idea.
The festivals ran happily till 1983, and then stopped. Twenty years later, the suggestion was made that it could well be time for another one, which would at the very least be a great showcase for contemporary Irish music. So the wheels were set in motion for a seventh Lisdoonvarna festival, with a whole string of top artistes being booked. And then a snag was hit: they couldn't hold it in Lisdoonvarna. In a spectacularly short-sighted decision, the council decided they couldn't cope with the town being flooded with lots of young people and their fancy cars and drugs, so they refused to grant the festival a licence.
Which seemed to knock the whole idea of the show on the head, until a bit of lateral thinking was applied: after all, the festival was just called the Lisdoonvarna Festival, it could theoretically be held anywhere. Say, for example, in the Irish capital, which would be less likely to complain about a large crowd turning up for a music event. And so on August 30th 2003 the Belated Birthday Girl and I found ourselves in Dublin's RDS arena, with a crowd of around thirty thousand, as they tried to turn Ireland's premier showjumping venue into some sort of simulacrum of an Irish country fair. Like yer man said: it's a long long way from here to there.
The advertised 'country fair atmosphere' basically boils down to half a dozen fairground sideshows, scattered around the usual fried food stalls associated with open-air festivals. But there's an enjoyably relaxed feel to the day regardless. Compared with its English equivalent, the Finsbury Park Fleadh (of which, more later), its audience is less, erm, mature, but better organised. The press made a big fuss about the queues for loos and beer, but these tended to only peak at the end of bands' sets: within minutes, they were back down to an acceptable level again. The best kept secret of the day turns out to be the indoor Acoustic Stage 2, whose loos are the least crowded and whose bar has the fastest and funniest staff in the arena ("I try to serve the people at the front before I do the ones at the back," a barman politely explains to one punter). It's also the bar with the least rigorous enforcement of the ID card rule, a trick many of the grumpy sober teens at the show seem to miss.
And in the middle of all this, there are four stages worth of music: although when the show kicks off just after 2pm, only three of them are running, with the largest arena starting and finishing later than the rest so everyone can see the headliners there. So we start off by checking out each of the three active stages in turn. Nina Hynes is holding court in the big tent of Stage Two, with a slightly schizophrenic set - for some numbers she's a fluffy girl singer, for others she hardens up into a blonder Irisher PJ Harvey. There's a mystery during her final number Universal, when she's joined on stage by some ginger guy during the final choruses, and it brings the house down. Who is he?
From there we wander to the two Acoustic Stages. The first one is basically the back of a big Guinness articulated lorry in the middle of a large open area, and Anne Scott comes off rather badly there: her fragile approach makes her just a background soundtrack to the people sitting, drinking and chatting on the grass in front. Declan O'Rourke comes off better on the more welcoming Acoustic Stage 2, inside one of the RDS' function rooms. The room is crammed, with every seat taken and every standing space filled, and O'Rourke responds well to the crowd.
Not wishing to piss on O'Rourke's chips, but in fact most of the crowd is really there for Barry Murphy's Comedy Circus, a rapid-fire 60 minute collection of some of Ireland's best stand-ups. It's slightly marred by one drunk woman at the front yelling continually for Christy Moore, and getting abuse of ever increasing hostility hurled at her by the acts ("I bet you're wondering why the telly's talking back at you" is probably my favourite line). Unfortunately, it also leads to the comedy conceit of everyone on the bill being introduced as Christy Moore, which is a terrifically sustained running gag but means I can't tell you who the hell anyone was. The German Proclaimers tribute band is rather fine ("I would walk 800 kilometres..."), as is the guy who confesses that he hasn't got much sleep since his kid was born - "I'm not going back to the house at night when there's a feckin' child in there". Two novelty acts also go down well: one whose entire act consists of impressions of rock stars singing lullabies to their kids, and another miming an entire 10 piece band just doing noises with his mouth. The only big name on the bill is Jason Byrne, whose manic energy rounds off the hour perfectly.
After fish and chips al fresco (to be honest, there isn't really an alternative, this not being the sort of event that caters for non-meat-eaters like the BBG), we catch the tail end of Damien Dempsey's set on Stage Two. I don't know him, but he's got a huge following who are packing out the tent, singing along to the anthemic finale of It's All Good and cheering the contributions of his backing singer. Admittedly, she does have a stunning voice, and I wonder why someone that talented is stuck on backing vocals behind a B-lister like Dempsey, when she could probably do rather well in her own right. (It's not until brunch at the Mermaid Cafe the next morning that I pick up a copy of the Trib and discover that the backing singer is, in fact, Sinead O'Connor. Observation's not my strong point, apparently.)
But as large as the crowd is for Dempsey and O'Connor, the crowd and reaction for Luka Bloom is even bigger. For my money, he's the best act of the day - in comparison to most of the singer/songwriters here, he's more rhythm-based (witness his legendary cover of LL Cool J's I Need Love) and willing to take on serious topics, rather than just whine about how he can't get laid. There's a fine new song - No Matter Where You Go, There You Are - which looks at Ireland's attitude to refugees: "we're all great at the cead mile failte when the holidaymakers come over, but we're not so welcoming when people come over here to start a new life". You Couldn't Have Come At A Better Time is a full-on barnstormer, but he tops it with the just-written-that-morning Dublin 4, a comedy rewrite of Lisdoonvarna which he has to read off a sheet of paper held up by his tour manager. A number of people have rewritten Lisdoonvarna today with varying degrees of success, but as Bloom is Christy Moore's brother - he took his stage name from a Suzanne Vega song, of all things - I think we can let him off.
By comparison, Josh Ritter - the headliner on Stage Two - is a comparative letdown. At least he is to me and the Belated Birthday Girl, but not to the noisy fans here, even though his second album was only released in Ireland the day before. With his frizzy hair, suit and enormous smile, he looks ludicrously happy to be here - which worries the BBG a lot, as this is part of the reason for her irrational hatred of The Polyphonic Spree. On a couple of songs his enthusiasm rubs off, notably on the silly joke of It Is Not Love and a raucous cover of Black Velvet Band. But for the most part, sensitive singer/songwriter cliches abound.
And ultimately, that's the main problem I have with Lisdoonvarna: this is a sensitive singer/songwriter's festival. Which is strange, because if you look at the bills for Lisdoonvarna in the early years, you got all manner of musical styles. It's a shame, because Irish music is a much broader church than what's represented here - only the night before, the BBG and I had been grooving to The Sticks, who performed a deadly mix of dance music combining programmed beats and live percussion. It seems a little limiting to tie the format down so strictly to folk and a wee bit of rock.
Because the BBG and I are old, we watch The Frames' set seated on the ground at the back of the main arena. The large space is laid out beautifully, meaning we can see everything on the main video screen, albeit in closeups (and those crane swoops from the middle of the crowd to the rhythm guitarist that you always get at these things). The mystery of the ginger man who caused such a fuss during Nina Hynes' set is finally solved: it's Glen Hansard, the Frames' vocalist and some sort of unofficial patron to many of the acts here today. He's a COME ON! kinda guy. He's intensely passionate and committed about everything, and keeps yelling COME ON! just before every chorus in the hope that his fervour will communicate itself to us, rather than becoming bloody tiresome like it does here. Again, there are fans thronging, and the occasional good song, but The Frames are generally indistinguishable from any other rock band that's added a violin player to give them Soul. The intensely passionate and committed version of Two Little Boys that takes up part of their encore may well be the last straw for me. "There's room on my horse for two, COME ON!"
After a slide show of highlights from the first six years of Lisdoonvarna - a photo of Phil Lynott overlaid with the caption "1978-1983" producing the comment "Jayz, didn't he die awful young?" - we have the only person who could possibly top the bill at the festival's first comeback. Sadly, a Christy Moore gig will never have the same intensity that it did in the old days, when I saw him stand on stage at the Albert Hall or Finsbury Park and silence a crowd of thousands just with his voice and a guitar. Nowadays, following an absence of several years due to ill health, he has to sit down for the whole gig, with his old mates Donal Lunny and Declan Sinnott adding musical colour to the songs. These three have been playing together for decades (most notably in Irish supergroup Moving Hearts), and work beautifully as a unit: but it's a shame that where Before The Deluge used to climax with Christy belting out "let the music keep your spirits high" at lung-bursting volume, now it has to end with a Sinnott guitar solo instead. The other consequence of no longer being a solo act is the odd surreal bit where Christy will suddenly yell out a prime number in the middle of a song, to warn the other two how many more bars it'll be before he starts singing.
But this is all carping, because musically it's still beautiful stuff, and the audience is captivated. "Sing it so they can hear you in county Clare," says Christy during Nancy Spain, and we all oblige: a moment subsequently eclipsed by the Nagasaki of lighters raised during Ride On. The noisiest response comes during Joxer Goes To Europe, Christy's still hilarious celebration of Ireland twatting England in Euro '88: well, given the way the English still go on about 1966, we probably deserve it. It all ends in the inevitable performance of Lisdoonvarna - surprisingly, no changes to the lyrics for today - and a final few reels in collaboration with the Kilfenora Ceili Band, which sets off the drunk lads in the crowd in a riot of reels, falling over and vaguely homoerotic grappling.
And this gets me thinking about the Fleadh again. Because this year, for the first time since its inaugural show in 1990, the annual celebration of Irish and roots music in London's Finsbury Park didn't take place. Organiser Vince Power claimed in an interview that there weren't enough good Irish acts to fill a bill. Which is obviously bollocks, because they managed it here. And though some of the acts aren't particularly big names in England, the huge following they've got over in Ireland would surely translate to enough ex-pat support in London to create the makings of a great festival. So congratulations to the Lisdoonvarna organisers for pulling off a great day out against the odds, and a Guinnessy pawful of monkey poo to Vince Power for not trying hard enough. I'll be waiting to see what your excuse is next year, Vince. Being a monkey, and all.
Lisdoonvarna Festival [dead link] had an official site in the run-up to the festival, and at the time of writing it still does: given that it was set up specifically for this event, though, I can't guarantee how long it'll be there. Biogs of all the artists who played in 2003, plus an archive of information about those first six years [dead link].
Christy Moore, The Frames, Josh Ritter, Luka Bloom, Damien Dempsey, Declan O'Rourke, Ann Scott, Nina Hynes and the Kilfenora Ceili Band all have their own homepages. Barry Murphy's Comedy Circus doesn't, but Dublin residents can see them once a month at Vicar Street.
Matchmaker Ireland is an attempt to replicate the old traditions of Lisdoonvarna in an online format.