5:02 PM GMT 17/05/2013
Dead men may not wear plaid, but for one weekend a year the streets of Kilkenny are full of people who do. A genteel-looking town with streets full of gentlemen's outfitters and bridal wear shops, where even the butcher looks like one of the pubs that make up seemingly every other doorway and boy racers cruise the High Street in Subarus with exhausts you could insert a clenched fist into, playing not Tinchy Stryder but Gram Parsons.
Come the night, however, Jekyll becomes Hyde. Having inherited Dublin's mantle as Ireland's stag and hen mecca ever since the capital loftily decided the birthplace of Swift, Shaw, Wilde and Joyce was above such debauch, the barroom revelry along Kilkenny's darkened and ancient streets and alleyways would make Soho blush.
Which might seem an unlikely setting for the relative calm of the Kilkenny Roots Festival. Now in its 15th year, it was once based around the John Cleere pub, named not for the '90s Ballykissangel child actor but the man who founded and still runs the Roots festival, John Cleere. Like many of the venues used for the festival, Cleere's gives the impression of being far too snug to host anything like a band in the corner, let alone one as loud as Israel Nash Gripka (more of whom later).
Kilkenny, however, has many secret rooms hidden through the door behind the curtain across the back wall and down the corridor past the toilets. Here all manner of country-fied delights await the packs of plaid-clad men and women of a certain age stepping over the prostrate twentysomethings who have found their mate's pending nuptials just too exciting.
Like all good festivals, however, it's not all about the night. In the middle of a humid Saturday afternoon, the requisite back room of The Clubhouse Hotel - actually a mid-sized ballroom with a garage roller door in one wall and a mirror presumably smashed as an actual wedding reception got out of hand - is about to be turned into the set of a bruising psychodrama.
Looking and talking for all the world like a Native American Reginald D Hunter, pigtailed Richard Buckner weaves a spell around the audience as he rants, curses and grieves over lost love. Sampling and delaying his own guitar lines, then playing new melodies over top, his songs tumble out in a never-ending stream of self-analysis, occasionally interrupted by comical asides - "I love your city. Should I call her dad or something?" - on the few moments he remembers to pause between tracks.
No less intense are the duo sharing his bill, Richmond Fontaine's Willy Vlautin and Dan Eccles. Like Buckner, Vlautin lightens the mood with comedy - in his case a running anecdote about his stoner friend and an "acid speed death road trip gone wrong" - and it's needed to get the audience through one brutal blue collar disappointment after another, the characters in his songs searching in vain for love, freedom, security and peace. After Buckner and Vlautin, it's a shock to emerge to daylight on the street, the mere fact the sky hasn't turned black in the intervening hours a welcome affirmation of life.
If one group of men could be deemed the anti-Buckner, it's former Georgia Satellite Dan Baird & Homemade Sin, a group of drinking buddies including one-time Scorcher, the great Warner E Hodges. Their chicken wire choogle may be more suited to the back of a flatbed truck than the medieval banquet hall vibe of Kyteler's, a 13th century pub first owned by a supposed Norman witch, but that doesn't stop them blasting out 12-bar southern country rock boogie for so long on Sunday afternoon that the festival was in danger of being over before their closing 'American Classics' medley, which started with American Girl and finished on You Keep A Knockin' via Sweet Jane. But play on they did, including not one but two bass solos during I Dunno.
Texan Amanda Shires cites Buckner as one of her primary influences, but thankfully not over her dress sense. With fiddle, ukulele, whistling and her startling vibrato, there's a core of steel to the surface whimsy of her songs, where forgiveness means shooting your man in the eyes and her own first twinkle of life is envisaged as a daiquiri still on the shelf. Sounding like Dolly Parton's twisted niece with relationship issues, she claims not to believe in love "but I can't stop writing love songs", the danger in her songs is as enticing as her butter-wouldn't-melt persona.
By contrast, there doesn't seem too much hidden from view when you watch Israel Nash Gripka. He was originally booked for a couple of acoustic shows, but the tiny back room at Cleere's shakes and shudders as his full band - including sometime-Midlake guitarist Joey McClellan - screams through their stadium-sized, snakeskin-booted country-rock experience. A bear of a man with his heart on his sleeve, Gripka roars like a cross between James Carr and The Soundtrack Of Our Lives' Ebbot Lundberg, while his guitar wails like Neil Young's Old Black. Four-part harmonies and three guitars: what's not to like?
By far the biggest show of the festival is from band of the moment Alabama Shakes, but how long they can sustain the level of frenzy around them remains to be seen. Augmented for their tour by keyboard player Ben Tanner, the Shakes have an undeniably charismatic superstar in waiting in singer Brittany Howard, but that doesn't stop them from looking like five members of five different bands brought together by some shady Svengali determined to cover all bases (the soul singer, the hipster guitarist, the rock drummer, the chipmunk bassist). As they brusquely zip through a short set - it draws from their debut album and nothing else - the performance from all but Howard is professional yet listless, sounding like Vampire Weekend grudgingly plodding through Kings Of Leon's first album. Many in the audience - far more mainstream and younger than for any other show during the entire festival - call, squeal and mewl along to Howard's every vocal nuance, their eyes only for the geeky girl with glasses and an arena-sized halo of charisma. Go it alone love, you're better than this.
At its heart, though, Kilkenny Roots Festival isn't about the big moment. It's about stumbling around town between deep drafts of local brew Smithwicks, hearing a bluegrass or rockabilly or folk or jug band seeping through the doorways of minuscule bars. It's about discovery of bands like John Blek & The Rats or Joe Fury & The Hayride and the satisfaction of seeing music at its, well, roots, without the industry or scenesters pushing out the fans. And on that level alone - but also on many others - Kilkenny Roots might just be the best pound for pound festival of its kind anywhere.
Special thanks to Tourism Ireland discoverireland.com
Posted by Ross_Bennett at 12:22 PM GMT 21/05/2012