Liss Ard Festival,
Liss Ard, Ireland, Aug 28 & 29 1999
The set-up at Liss Ard is a unique one; sumptuous gardens in sprawling grounds, an imposing mansion amidst it all, and every year a music festival in aid of charity. The music doesn't take place in any state-of-the-art brilliantly-lit hall, but in a big top circus tent, with a small shy stage about six feet off the ground at one end. And on this ordinary platform, you find the most extraordinary performances. Saturday night last saw the legendary John Cale and the energizing Donal Lunny take centre stage, and on Sunday, Nick Cave held us in the palm of his hand, after an excellent Therapy? acoustic session.
One of the most impressive things about Liss Ard is the relaxed nature of it all. The security is conspicuously at ease, the beer flows freely at reasonable rates, and the stars mingle with the proles in a hospitality tent open to all. Events take place all day in various parts of the grounds, including poetry readings, plays, walks, and live music but the main events are held in the circus tent in the evening. It has a primitive feel to it, and this is what attracts many of the artists, who choose to get back to the very roots of their music.
The place was serenely expectant when we arrived on the Saturday night, just in time for Donal Lunny and his band. The audience, no more than 1000 for the entire weekend, was treated to jigs, reels, and Galician hops in a lively fashion for over an hour, as people dropped in and out of the tent as they wished. Lunny was clearly enjoying it all and his enthusiasm was infectious, with the crowd becoming more and more effusive in its response. Arty McGlynn on pipes, flute and tin whistle and Nollaig Casey on fiddle served to increase the tempo wonderfully, moving those around me to re-enact their schooldays and jig about the place with gleeful abandon. All too soon, their time was up and the audience waited eagerly for John Cale.
They were not to be disappointed as he shuffled reservedly on to the stage and positioned himself in front of a grand piano. Although accompanied by a couple of guys on slide and acoustic guitar, it was Cale who commanded all the attention. For such a reluctant star, he has a magnetic quality, and he set about treating us to classics like 'Child's Christmas in Wales', 'Ship of Fools', and 'Dying on the Vine'. The intimacy of the venue became all the more apparent during Cale's set, with crowd quite literally spellbound by the power of his performance. He played for about an hour and a half, returning to play Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah' to a rapturous response.
As the crowd filtered out, the queue was already forming for the 'Parting Glass' session, where Nick Cave, Will Oldham, Glen Hansard, and Veda Hille took turns playing in a smaller still venue, for over an hour. Cave was as brilliant as usual, setting us up nicely for his main performance the following night.
He was preceded, on the Sunday, by Andy Cairns and Michael McKeegan of Therapy?, who played acoustically for an hour or so. I knew very little of Therapy?'s material but was very impressed with the range of their set. Michael's proficiency with the electric and Andy's banter with the audience contributed to a vigorous performance, culminating in a fine version of 'Going Nowhere.'
crowd was both knowledgeable and appreciative throughout the weekend but really
came to life when Nick Cave made his way onstage.
Starting on his own, he launched into 'West Country Girl', pounding the piano
before introducing his trio, which included regular Bad Seed, enigmatic
violinist Warren Ellis. Cave, combining newer material with old, continued with
'People ain't no good', and 'The Mercy Seat.' As he slowed things down, the
atmosphere became almost spiritual, someone behind me being shushed after
talking during 'Henry Lee.' We were like his congregation, completely captivated
and hanging on his every word. 'Straight to you', 'Into My Arms' and stunning
versions of 'Papa won't leave you, Henry' and 'Stagger Lee' followed, and it
became personal to the extent that Cave was taking requests from the crowd -
"I can't play that (Red Right Hand) on the piano." The forum perfectly
suited him, a mellow atmosphere in a tent, filled with a music-loving audience,
playing his music at a venue surely designed with his like in mind. He ended his
first session with 'Love Letter' and 'The Ship Song', before returning with 'Brompton
Oratory' and 'Wild World.'
The thousand or so lucky ones spilled out into the mild evening air, replenished by the brilliance of Nick Cave, and wondering why it has to be a year before this can happen again.
Brian O'Riordan (apparently he's related to Delores...)
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