Ulster American Folk Park 26th Annual Bluegrass Festival - Omagh Sep1-3 2017


Richard Hurst and his team at National Museums NI near Omagh, Co Tyrone have pulled off yet another successful and enjoyable festival of Bluegrass despite the constraints of reduced budgets and sometimes inclement weather. It’s not for no reason that the festival was nominated for an International Bluegrass Music Award for Bluegrass Event Of The Year in 2017.

Utilising the park’s ready made sets of historic American and Irish homesteads, barns, shops and even a replica famine ship, the artists get to play in a variety of indoor and outdoor locations. Most of the stages have an excellent sound system installed for the occasion.

The main stage is a semi-open tented area, close to the bar and food stalls.

Regulars know by now that they can bring their own seating and set themselves up there for the day. The unique joy of this festival is being able to wander through the woods, corn fields and paddocks en route to finding another interesting act from Ireland, the UK, Europe and the Americas.

Wellies and an umbrella are sometimes needed, but this doesn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the crowds that turn up in their thousands every year.

Robirohi returned here from Estonia for the umpteenth time - and they are beloved by the locals. They mostly perform traditional and modern bluegrass covers in English, but this year one of their surprises was an Emmylou Harris song sung in Estonian. They closed out one of their sets with the gospel standard Get Down On Your Knees And Pray - which they did, literally.

Another Friday night highlight was the Sligo string band Old Hannah, who are going from strength to strength. Not bluegrass, no, but they are purveyors of mostly original material in the folk/country/swing realm. 

Flats and Sharps came in for the weekend from Cornwall - they performed six sets over the three days, always at breakneck speed. Each of the five band members are expert players and unusually they play mostly original material. 

Saturday provides a choice of six stages throughout the park, and the clever programming allows one to see most of the acts at least once. 

The Clew Bay Critters were paying their first visit from their Wesport base and impressed with their mix of gentle bluegrass, old time and gypsy jazz - perfect for a sunny(ish) afternoon gig while the punters relaxed on their deck chairs and picnicked.

Richie Foley & Paddy Kiernan are well known throughout the country among fans of the genre, and have played in various combos over recent years. This was my first time seeing them play extended sets together and they were one of my highlights. Paddy (Dublin) plays banjo, including a six-string model, while Richie is equally impressive on both bouzouki and mandolin. Their huge repertoire covered traditional bluegrass and old time tunes, original tunes and even modern covers like Springsteen’s I’m on Fire.

The undoubted highlight of the weekend was the return of one of the living legends of bluegrass, Dale Ann Bradley and her band. She was in fine form and her voice was stronger than ever. She and her band were clearly delighted to be back, and this time she had her son, John Fitzgerald Bradley, on bass. The band’s repertoire is so vast that they played an almost completely different set on each of the three occasions when they played (to very appreciative audiences). Dale Ann lived up to her reputation (five time IBMA Female Bluegrass Performer of the year) with her effortless, clear and pure vocals. And they didn’t just play the usual bluegrass standards and Dale Ann’s own compositions - they covered songs from other genres, for example an 80s hit song by the Gin Blossoms Until I Hear it From You. Dobroist Matt Leadbetter showed that he’s not just a mean dobro player when he took the lead vocals on a Reno and Smiley number. Mike Sumner on banjo is also a multiple award winning player (Winfield, Kansas, Merlefest) and Tennessean Scott Powers impressed on mandolin. There’s a strong gospel influence here and Dale Ann is not afraid to wear her heart on her sleeve. She admitted to getting “choked up sometimes when you’ve lived these songs”. She wasn’t the only one.

Particularly moving was her rendition of the Kenny Rogers song The Stranger, which was covered by Kenny and Dolly. Their cover of U2’s I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For was a complete surprise but it really worked!

The night was ended on high octane by the ever popular RackHouse Pilfer, who played a blistering set. They cleverly weave bluegrass with rock and roll into something indefinable but always very well received, even by the musical purists. There was disappointment all round, however, when they confirmed the rumour that they were to disband (or ‘take a sabbatical’) in two weeks time. Ironically, this coincides with the release of their new rockier album on vinyl and cd. Let’s hope we see them back again in the future.

Unfortunately I missed one of the popular Saturday events - the McLecture. This year, Dale Ann Bradley was interviewed by Frank Galligan, and sources report that it was a superb and moving experience.

Sunday dawned with more of the same wonderful musical offerings around the park, and although the drizzle arrived, this didn’t stop the families and music fans from turning up and making the most of the day.

Vancouver’s Viper Central were, for this reviewer,  another of the standout acts of the weekend. Despite the fact that they were at the end of a long European tour, and had to have a substitute bass player drafted in for the weekend, they were nothing short of superb in the many sets that they performed. Kathleen Nisbet’s vocals and fiddle playing were matched by the inspired Steve Charles’ flatpicking, and by Chris’s banjo playing. Each of the three of them were more than competent at taking the lead on vocals, although Kathleen’s rich and powerful voice is up there with the best of female vocalists of the genre - could it be something to do with her Irish heritage?! Look out for a review of their latest recording on this website in the near future.

The new addition of some outdoor games and themed photo opportunities was an inspired move and went down very well with children and ‘bigger kids’ alike.

The not-so-secret weapon of this annual festival just has to be mentioned - Frank Galligan. Frank is the best MC in these islands, full stop. His good humour and stories are matched by his deep understanding, knowledge and love of the music and of the characters that populate it, (and his sartorial elegance is equally renowned!)

The day was rounded off by the Spirit Of Bluegrass concert in the appropriate location that is the Mountjoy Meeting House. I just had time to sample a smidgeon of Robirohi’s set, in the atmospheric historic venue as the sun went down, and I was certainly envious of those who got to enjoy the sold out event, capped by the Dale Ann Bradley Band doing what they love best.

There were several more bands playing over the festival but unfortunately I didn’t get around to experiencing them all. And there’s a parallel programme of visits to local schools, nursing homes and churches that only the lucky local residents get to experience. Do put the festival in your diary for 2018.

Report by Eilís Boland  Photography by Ronnie Norton (except Clew Bay Critters from their website)