The stages have been dismantled and the sound equipment packed away after another exciting music festival in the Ulster American Folk Park, outside Omagh in N Ireland (31/08 - 02/09/18). Once again we were treated to a world class lineup of not just bluegrass acts but also old time, folk and cajun bands from the US, Europe and Ireland.
Lonesome Highway sent their two intrepid reporters along - myself and photographer/broadcaster Ronnie Norton as always, to report back on proceedings. We certainly were not disappointed.
Worthy headliners were the Darin & Brooke Aldridge Band from N Carolina, who were on their first visit to the country. Both are multiple IBMA & SPGBMA nominated - Darin for his guitar flat picking and Brooke for her vocals, and they showed us exactly why! They are interpreters of both bluegrass and country standards and more modern songs from other genres - all of which are given their own twist while remaining true to their bluegrass roots. Among the stellar musicians in their band was the impressive 21 year old fiddle player Carley Arrowood, also IBMA awarded.
Despite their youth, the band are quite obviously road veterans and they tear into their sets with no time wasted. Songs like Neil Young’s Powderfinger and pop covers are interspersed with old country classics and a yodelling song which the punters were encouraged to join in on, with varying degrees of success. Carley Arrowood showed that she’s not just a phenomenal fiddle player by taking the lead vocals on one of her own compositions. There are many gospel songs included in the sets, one of the highlights being Darin’s rendition of their friend Vince Gill’s Go Rest High. Darin and Brooke demonstrated their gorgeous vocals on several country duets, including the moving Corn, and the Everlys’ Let It Be Me. Darin’s long guitar intro into WayfaringStranger is truly psychedelic (a nod to his former life with Acoustic Syndicate, perhaps) and their rendition of this oft covered classic is one of the best versions I’ve ever heard. The whole band were quite clearly delighted to be here and endeared themselves to the large audiences at each of their three sets throughout the weekend.
Mike Compton & Joe Newberry entertained, moved and educated their eager audiences in equal measure throughout all their many sets during the festival. Those who are particularly interested in the roots of the music had the opportunity to attend the informal McInterview, hosted by the indefatigable festival MC Frank Galligan, where we enjoyed anecdotes from the legendary duo’s early lives in Mississippi and Missouri, and their subsequent musical journeys. Mike (mandolin) has played with Bill Monroe, John Hartford and later the Nashville Bluegrass Band. They treated us to songs from Gaither Carlton, Doc Watson, Big Mon and the Mississippi Sheiks.
Such is their vast repertoire that very few of their songs and stories were repeated over the course of their performances.
Midnight Skyracer are an exciting new band made up of five young women from N Ireland, England and Scotland. They have just been nominated for two IBMA Momentum Awards and after this, their first Irish appearance, they will be hot footing it to Raleigh in NC for the awards ceremony. Impressively, apart from their instrumental prowess across the board, most of their set is comprised of original songs, written by all five members. And they can all sing, to boot!
Natural band leader is Leanne Thorose, with her lightning fast mandolin playing and powerful gutsy voice. Eleanor Wilkie is impressive on bass, and when she takes the lead vocals on her own composition High and Dry.Our own Armagh banjo player Tabitha Agnew needed no introduction to the home crowd, but her banjo playing has amazingly continued to go from strength to strength. Then there are the twin Carrivick sisters: Laura is equally at home both on fiddle and dobro, while Charlotte wowed us on guitar. Their set is dynamic and fun, and their multiple harmonies are close and sweet. Carrie Hassler’s I’m Going On The Next Train was one of the highlights of their sets for this reviewer.
The Allen Family Reunion were a revelation on their first and hopefully not last trip to N Ireland, home to some of their ancestors. Comprised of two generations of this Ontario family, they entertained and amused their audiences with their musical chops, their warmth and their humour. Mandolinist/fiddle player John P Allen is well known in their native Canada and further afield as a member of the country band Prairie Oyster, although he doesn’t make a deal about it.
Demolition String Band have been here before and are quite familiar to Irish audiences. This time North Carolina based Elena and Boo were joined by Galwegian upright bass player Sammy Rohan, who did a stalwart job of keeping up! The band specialise in breakneck speed versions of songs as diverse as Madonna’s Like A Prayer (I kid you not) and John Prine’s Paradise (Mr Peabody’s Coal Train). Olabelle Reed and Jim & Jesse covers are introduced to the audience, some of whom may not be familiar with the broad range of country, folk and bluegrass artists that the duo love to evangelise about. They are so well admired that Woody Guthrie’s sister Nora asked them to write music for some of the treasure trove of Woody’s lyrics recently uncovered and they treated us to two of these.
Belgian/US Americana/folk band Old Salt were also making their first appearance at Omagh and it quickly became apparent why they won a European World of Bluegrass award in 2017. Led by American Daniel Wall (clawhammer banjo), they are a whirlwind of bluegrass, folk, jazz and old time influences, all delivered with a dynamism and a respect for the tradition. Ghent musicians Lotte Remmen on fiddle, Lara Rossellini on upright bass and Johannes Wannyn on guitar were able partners in crime in the current collective’s line up - their sets were broad ranging and their musicianship was tight. They performed many traditional songs and tunes, but made them their own and they explained the provenance of most of their choices. Both Lara and Lotte have built on their classical training to produce a lush string sound and the band’s harmonies were flawless. About to release their second album, we hope they will be back soon.
Whiskey Deaf, the old timey duo from Portland, Oregon were welcomed back with open arms after their first visit here in 2015. John Kael (guitar/banjo) and Annie Staninec (fiddle) have a huge repertoire of old time and bluegrass tunes and songs and their quiet enthusiasm for the history of the music was infectious.
Fellow Pynins (US) performed their delicate blend of folky old timey songs which reflect their deep interest in nature and the land. Perhaps their repertoire just wasn’t big enough to handle the five sets spread over the weekend, but their songs and stories didn’t stand up to repeated listens.
Northern Ireland was well represented with sets from the ever popular Northern Exposure (who have expanded their repertoire with the addition of fiddle player Brendan Henry), Broken String Band, Geordie McAdam and the recently expanded Henry Family Band. While Janet Henry was promoting her well received new album Going Home, she and her dobro playing husband Colin were in danger of being upstaged by their children - James, who is fast becoming a banjo player of note, and Olivia who is possessed of a most wonderful pure voice just made for folk singing!
Athy’s Godfather of Bluegrass Tony O’Brien with his legendary Woodbine and local Omagh hot shot superstars the “CoolHand String Band” graced the stage and braved all the elements in the Log Cabin Field to give us a full spectrum coverage of Bluegrass to suit all ages and tastes. Woodbine as expected were a little more rooted in tradition, and much loved for it, while the Cool Hand String Band on their first visit to the Folk Park brought a vibrant and young approach and a clear indication that our choosen music is safe in the hands of the next generation. They even, “Lord Save Us” brought the open air crowd screaming to their feet with a blistering version of
As photographer to the festival for the past "not so few" years I’ve managed to meet most of my Bluegrass heroes in what has to be the most relaxed and crowd friendly athmosphere possible for musical visitors. With seven stages and venues available I certainly got my cardio workout done over the weekend strolling the length and breadth of my favourite venue world wide for a musical festival. I’ve listed all the bands that appeared and are included in these above two collages more or less in the order that I encountered them. My heartfelt thanks goes to all the performers for their tolerance of the lurker with the long lens and all, and I really mean all of the staff at the Ulster American Folk Park for taking me into the family and creating the highlight of each Bluegrass year for me.
The Bands as I met them were Mike Compton and Joe Newberry, Whiskey Deaf, The Demolition String Band, Old Salt, Old Baby Mackerel, Broken String Band, Allen Family Reunion, Northern Exposure, The Henry Family Band, Fellow Pynins, Geordie McAdam, Midnight Skyracer, Eilidh Patterson, The Cool Hand String Band, Darin and Brooke Aldridge, Two Time Polka and Darin and Broke Aldridge, who once again were back for their spine tingling Gospel Concert in the Meeting House to wind up a really memorable weekend.
Roll ON 2019
Photography by Ronnie Norton