Kilkenny Rhythm & Roots Review

The Kilkenny Roots Festival is now in it’s 20th year and it has evolved over the years to it’s current singer/songwriter Americana axis but with enough diversity of music to pretty much please ever taste from some hardcore country to the harder edges of rock. There are numerous venues taking part in the event and while some are more suited to the live process all have gained their reputations as welcoming venues. Here is a selection of just three of many acts playing this year.

There were obvious highlights, as there are every year, and they will depend on personal taste but from the word of mouth on one such act was the Western Centuries. The band, who feature three key singers and songwriters, had a winning combination of musical skill, humour, love of what they do and perhaps most importantly a set of good songs. Western Centuries consists of Cahalen Morrison, Jim Miller and Ethan Lawton who ostensibly play rhythm guitar, lead guitar and drums respectively. But in truth are more variable with Morrison and MIller swopping acoustic and electric guitar depend who was taking the lead vocal on their self-written song. However it doesn’t stop there as Morrison and Lawton also swop roles with the later coming to the front to sing and Morrison playing the drums. This proved to allow for some onstage banter and for the set to have a variety that was with entertaining and effective. Completing the line-up and adding much to the overall context of the show was upright bassist Travis Stuart and very talented steel player Leo Grassl. The steel added a layer to the overall sound that grounded it solidly in traditional country roots.

However, Western Centuries are not retro copyists and are in fact a living, breathing entity whose music is as relevant to an audience now as it would have been back in the ‘50s. The set included several from their debut album Weight Of The World. These included Knocking ‘Em Down, Off The Shelf, Hallucinations, In My Cups a song that Lawton noted was about his 6th grade teacher who had got into trouble; a bar fight with another adult he added rather than anything more salubrious. They also played Double Or Nothing by special request. There were also some new ones such as Cloud Of Woes and Three Swallows - a drinking song or rather a song about drink that references the Powers Whiskey label. There was one about a telemarketer, an inverted individual who likes to drink at home listening to his own records in his own private honky-tonk. One that mentioned “warm guns” and the way they played it tonight was, they said, their best yet. These tales from the “United States of Weird Americans” are scheduled for the next album which they are hoping to start recording on soon. 

They played two sets to a packed room, at one point asking the audience to move forward in the already crowed space to allow late comers to enter. Then commenting that there was room for one onstage who could play tambourine or rub board! They also asked that any pictures of the band should not show them drinking as the told their families that they didn’t drink on tour. This envisaged a big laugh as the evidence was very much to the contrary. Aside from the obvious strength of the playing and songwriting on offer there was a sense of ease and humour among them that enhanced the enjoyment of the show. One that finished with them being called back for an encore. That was dedicated to some of the great musicians lost recently and was a spirited version of Merle Haggard’s Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down. But tonight the band didn’t let us down and showed that Western Centuries would be welcome back at any time.

Holly Macve, joined by her three piece band, played a short 40 mins set that confirms her a new and interesting voice. One who seemed to have been a highlight of the weekend for many. Drawing on her debut album Golden Eagle. Initially she took the stage accompanied only by her guitar player Tommy Ashby who brought some subtle but telling tones to her songs. Anyone familiar with her voice on record would have seen her duplicate it’s tremulous and tender voice onstage. Those who may have been fans of Paula Frazer and Tarnation will recognise a similarity. Though having seen both acts Frazer and her band varied the tempo and mood of the songs more than Macve does here.

Macve moves between (borrowed) acoustic guitar and electric keyboard for different songs. Some employ bass and drums to underpin them with an added depth but alongside the key element of her voice it is Ashby slide guitar that is the main focus of the song. Aside from the her own songs the 9 song set included two covers, Melanie Safka’s We Don’t Know Where We’re Going a staple of her live set and sung solo at the piano before with to guitar one which she described as risky - a version of Willie Nelson’s Crazy (performed for Willie’s birthday that day) with a fine Nelson influenced electric guitar solo from Ashby. Communication between Macve and the audience was sparse enough as she preferred to let the music speak. Something that worked in the short set but may have seem lacking over a longer time frame. 

There was a pervading melancholy to her songs of heartbreak that included a piano-led Golden Eagle and closed with a slow lament in Sycamore Tree. She left the stage to resounding applause from the faithful as well as a set of new fans and there is no denying her talent and voice. It will be interesting to see how Macve develops her sound and songwriting in the future making her next album one to watch out for when it emerges.

Another making his debut at the Kilkenny Festival was the former Sons Of Fathers member and now solo artist Paul Cauthen. His album My Gospel finds the singer/songwriter delivering his music with a solid voice and traditionally leaning soulful country sound. In person it is a different story as it is stripped right back to it’s essence of story, voice and guitar … and Cauthen’s presence. Which is a big one which holds the audience’s attention for the hour long show. “I come from Texas and have been traveling America for the last 10 years. Now I’m thankful to spread my music across the big water” are the words that Cauthen greets us with. He also tells us that coming here to Kilkenny was the first he had stepped outside of an airport and that previously the oldest thing he had seen was the Alamo. He reflected that Kilkenny was a beautiful old city. 

He also told us that his relationship had recently broken down and that had resulted in some new songs. He said that the particular lady had been his muse for 5 years. It is these hard won (and lost) relationship with family that are at the core of Cauthen’s writing and of his album. A couple of the songs especially received a strong reaction from the audience who felt empathy with their theme and immediacy. These were Better Last Name and Hanging Out On The Line. Other songs that came from the album included

Let’s It Burn, Still Drivin’, Saddle as well as the title song. His version of Fulsom Prison Blues also we well suited to him and was equally well appreciated. 

Cauthen’s music has the air of an outlaw and his beard and black cowboy hat pretty much reflect that image. But that is backed up by his mix of tender and tough, of passion and pain. Contrasts that make his music more real and rewarding. This is obvious across the set of personal ballads that talk of his life and times, of his background and upbringing. His father, he explained, was leader in the church in Tyler, Texas and that his grandfather and his twin brother would lead the service. He also sang there and was dressed up in a 3 piece suit to make him look snazzy in the church. However, he then quipped, “I haven’t been snazzy since!” 

That grounding may play an important part in the way his voice is used to express his inner feelings. It has been noted that there are reminders of Waylon Jennings in his vocal as well as a hint of Raul Malo's vocal dexterity. Cauthen also impresses with his range and delivering that goes from big and boomy to something gentler and considered. An hour in this basic form might well be enough and it would be interesting to see him with a band next time out. Either way Cauthern made his mark and wetted the appetite for his next album and his next visit.

All of these gigs took place in the welcoming surrounding of Billy Byrnes pub whose back room is one of the premier venues that participates in the Roots Festival. 

With thanks to Willy Byrne, John Cleere and also to Willie Meighan

Review by Stephen Rapid   Photography by Kaethe Burt-O'Dea