Temple Bar Tradfest got under way on 27th January with a performance by the Aoife O’Donovan Band at The Button Factory. O’Donovan has been a regular visitor to Ireland over the years as part of Crooked Still, playing solo and touring with Sara Watkins and Sarah Jarosz as part of the I’m With Her tour in 2015. Her show at The Button Factory was the opening show of her whistle stop European tour and her first appearance in Ireland with a band.
Her Dublin gig this evening is followed by a lunchtime and evening appearance in Belfast tomorrow, "the anti- jetlag part of the tour’’ she jokes, an appearance in Glasgow at Celtic Connections, five dates in the U.K and finally a slot at The Vinterjazz Festival In Copenhagen on 6th February. "First date at a Trad festival and last date at a Jazz festival, how about that" she noted. In fact that throwaway remark actually emphasises her well deserved appeal across many genres whether it be folk, country, trad or roots.
Her touring band consists of Anthony da Costa, a talented singer songwriter in his own right, on guitar and Steve Nister, better known for his work with Daniel Lanois and Danger Mouse, on drums. Together with O’Donovan’s polished guitar work and melodic yet chilling vocal they are more than the sum of their parts.
O’Donovan’s relaxed, gentle and charming stage demeanour often camouflages the strength and resolve of an artist capable of penning simple ballads, dark country-noir and everything in between.
She recounts having only arrived in Dublin this afternoon, quite fortunately given the weather conditions in New York where she currently resides and how she spent December in the UK before making it back to New York just in time for the storms!
Tonight’s show is sponsored by the American Ambassador and is also attended, we are told, by Aoife’s parents.
Given that her latest album In The Magic Hour has been released last Friday it is not surprising that much of her set list features material from the album.
The title track Magic Hour is performed early in her set and hits home immediately with its striking melody and lyrics that sound almost childlike and fairy tale in content ("we run down to the Virgin Mary’s ban /while our mothers cried and our fathers drank /we all just trying to see where the ship sank")
Stanley Park, the opening track on the new album follows and also connects on first listen with O’Donovan’s splendid vocal range dominating. The song, we are told, was inspired by the beauty of Vancouver’s 1000 acre public park. Magpie, also from the latest album, was conceived a few years back while O’Donovan was driving to West Cork. "You arrive at this huge roundabout with only one signpost, The West!". What follows is a beautiful tale of innocent childhood memories recalling visits to Clonakilty, the land of O’Donovan’s grandfather. The song, without chorus, brings to mind a young Joni Mitchell.
The evening also includes a short solo set by Aoife ("We are here at a Tradfest so I thought I’d play these few numbers") including a rendition of the traditional ballad Pretty Polly followed by the Paul Brady Lakes of Pontchartrain to the obvious delight of the audience. She tells the story of performing with Crooked Still at the Clonakilty Guitar Festival some years back and how nervous she was noticing from the stage that Paul Brady was standing at bar. "He’s not at the bar tonight, is he!" she exclaims.
She visits Fossils, her acclaimed debut album released in 2013, including Red and White and Blue and Gold, Thursdays Child, Lay my Burden Down and Briar Rose in the set.
"My Auntie Carmel requested this from the auditorium last May when I was touring with I’m With Her, I’ve finally got the chance to honour that request now, the song is obviously popular with family members" she jokes and proceeds to play Lay My Burden Down, the opening track from the debut album.
Briar Rose, without doubt the most moving yet beautiful song relating to child abuse written since Suzanne Vega’s Luka, is possibly the highlight of a splendid evening, delivered to perfection and enthusiastically received by her audience. Oh Mama is the set closer, followed by Emmylou Harris’ Boulder to Birmingham as an encore.
The overall enjoyment of the show and artist is obvious by the long queue at the merchandising desk with the ever smiling O’Donovan meeting and greeting and finishing off what has been a marvellous evenings entertainment.
To survive long term in the highly competitive music industry, extreme talent, work ethic and an absolute love of what you do are vital requirements in equal measures. Aoife O’Donovan, without doubt, possesses all three in abundance with some to spare.
Review and photograph by Declan Culliton