Aoife O’Donovan @ Whelans, 27th May 2017

"Thanks so much for choosing to come to see me rather than Guns ’N’ Roses at Slane Castle" jokes Aoife O’Donovan midway through her ninety-minute set at Whelan’s, a welcomed return to the Dublin venue for the Irish-American artist. 

Having grandparents residing in Ireland resulted in the Massachusetts born singer songwriter spending many childhood vacations in Co. Cork, with memories that inspired much of the material on her last studio album The Magic Hour. Fortunately, visits from her are still a regular occurrence dating back to her earlier career days as a member of Crooked Still and with Sarah Jarosz and Sara Watkins as part of the trio I’m With Her. She has also toured Ireland solo on occasions and opened the tour for her last album at The Button Factory in January 2016 accompanied by Anthony da Costa and Steve Nister on that occasion.

Tonight’s appearance, the final night of a two-week tour of Europe, features O’Donovan on stage with only her guitar, beaming smile, infectious personality and captivating collection of songs. Starting her set with three songs in quick succession, Hornets and Magic Hour from her current studio album and Red & White & Blue & Gold from her debut album Fossils, her ability to confidently work the room is impressive from the word go with eye contact and banter going a long way to create a ‘house concert’ type atmosphere. Her setlist includes material from her solo work, a snippet of Crooked Still and a number very well selected cover versions which all combine for an intoxicating evenings entertainment.

"Two weeks on tour and I arrive in Dublin on the only rainy day you’ve had in weeks’ she despairs adding that she is reminded of rainy summer days in Lahinch and crushes on the local lifeguards in a former life.

With quite a number of her relations from both Cork and Dublin in the audience she fittingly dedicates Stanley Park to her cousin who is emigrating to Vancouver, whose city park is the inspiration for the song. Suggesting she goes further south to Louisiana for her next song she follows by performing the Paul Brady associated song (which has origins rooted in the 19th century) Lakes of Pontchartrain, a ballad very often included in her shows.

Crooked Still, though primarily notable for their progressive bluegrass leanings, were more than capable of getting dark and spooky with O’Donovan’s vocal well suited to the occasional murder ballad. The inclusion of the folk standard Pretty Polly in the set is more than a reminder of this.

Steve Winwood/Blind Faith’s Can’t Find My Way Home is described as one of her favourite songs and works exceptionally well, a pleasant surprise and a song immediately recognised by members of the crowd of a certain age. Joanna Newsome’s Good Intentions, written some forty years after the Winwood song, also gets a beautiful makeover and fits seamlessly well in the set. Detour, the title track of her recent live album comes next with obvious crowd favourites Lay My Burden Down and Oh Mama concluding her set. 

Her encore, which she names her ‘before The Whelan’s disco song’ is her take on the Bob Dylan written Soon After Midnight, a fitting birthday tribute to the great man.

O’ Donovan never fails to put her heart and soul in to her performances whether solo, with a band or part of another musical diversion. Tonight was no exception and as always she is at the front of the stage in jig time meeting, greeting, signing and chatting with punters and relatives.

A well-deserved mention must also go to Ciaran Lavery who opened the evening in style with a set that included material from his current album Let Bad In. Lavery has been making quite an impression in the past eighteen months both at home but particularly in the States where his was invited by Willie Nelson to play at his BBQ at Luck Ranch in Texas. He has also recently been asked to perform this September at the prestigious Americana Music Association Festival in Nashville, an indication in itself of the potential for the young singer songwriter from Aghagallon Co. Armagh.

Review and photograph by Declan Culliton