Freakwater @ Whelans (Upstairs) Dublin 16 October 2016.

From keeping on the sunny side to invoking generals gathered like witches at black masses Freakwater covered a lot of lyrical ground at their first Dublin gig (and first Irish tour). Although Irwin did informed us of her time spent in Northern Ireland growing up and how she used to sit on the floor in a bar in Cookstown, finding all sorts of interesting things while drinking beer froth. The venue witnessed a small turnout which must have carried a sense of disappointment, however it did not affect the band’s performance or overall attitude. 

Bean told us that we were obviously smart, attractive and intelligent people for showing up. There was a lot of such humour and banter in the between-song talk which made the show that bit more intimate and memorable. Bean also commented on the fact that she had not played a venue with an open fire grate before and that she could watch the flames rather than the exit sign she would normally focus on at a gig.

Freakwater tonight were Catherine Irwin (acoustic guitar and banjo) and Janet Bean (four and six string acoustic guitar) with Moregan Geer on Telecaster electric guitar and Anna Krippenstapel on violin.  It was a slightly stripped down version of the band which had also included bass and drums for the earlier part of the European tour. This rhythm section-less version of the band  however well able to give the songs an interesting perspective that worked well in this particular setting.

Geer plays under the name Drunken Prayer as well as performing as a guitarists with other acts and is soon to be touring with The Handsome Family. He played a solo set before joing the band that included his version of Missionfield, a song also on the new Freakwater album.

The band opened with an impressive acapella start, before bringing the instruments in on version of The Carter Family staple Keep On The Sunny Side and they encored with a full on cover of Black Sabbath’s War Pigs. Between those two points the songs were largely taken from their own back catalogue with a natural emphasis on the current album Scheherazade. They played the opening song from that album What People Want after Irwin had spoken about being asked “why can’t you write a song that people like.” She explained how she had set about trying to remedy this by listening to songs that were hits and deciding that she had cracked the code. To which Bean responded “yeah, but you’re playing a banjo and the song is about rape and being thrown down a well.” A catchy song none-the-less.

Number One With A Bullet, Bolshevik And Bollweevil and other songs from the current album followed along with a number of songs from the back catalogue like Waitress Song - from the album Old Paint (and an anecdote about how bad a waitress Irwin was and how she felt that getting tips was degrading) and Binding Twine - from the Springwater album, which was one of the set highlights with a telling violin solo part. Geer’s slide guitar was also an effective foil that added an additional tone to some of the songs. The sit list for which had been written on both of Bean's hands which at one point had her wondering what "forge" was until she realised it was short-hand for Forgetable Song from the Feels Like The Third Time album.

In terms of the music, the harmonies and vocals were central to the live show and when joined by Geer and Krippenstapel, were entirely forceful and full on. Both players added much to the overall sound with violin and guitar textures bringing great tonal colour to the acoustic basis of this live performance. There was an understanding and ease between the players that comes from being together for such a lengthy tour; as well as noting how easy it was to get on each other’s nerves in confined spaces, such as a tour car. That side of the touring process didn’t show however. But there were stories of trying to fix the fifth string on the banjo with a “dirty Dutch plumbing wrench.” Something that hadn’t turned out quite as planned.

They dubbed the tour as ‘The American Apology Tour’. The apology being for Donald Trump and such politicians in general. Irwin commented with tongue in cheek that she has something in common with the Donald in that he has said nice things about Putin, because Putin had made similar remarks about him. “if people say nice things about me I’ll say nice things about them.” Towards the set, a stage light suddenly begins to flicker which distracts the band, until Krippenstapel unplugged it, to much applause.

They played two encores after the official set, the first was a song from the Freekons, an occasional collaboration between themselves and the Mekons. They closed with War Pigs which they had previously released as a single back in 1990. Bean noted that she had played bongos on that version which brought an audience comment that essentially bongos were the worst. Bean said she didn’t quite know how to take that but she’s moved on to congas anyway. It was a powerful finish to an equally strong set. One that will hopefully see the band return on these shore in time. Those present were the winners when the girls (and boy) from Loserville came to town.

Review by Stephen Rapid  Photographs by Kaethe Burt O'Dea and Stephen Rapid