Entertainment Music

Sunday 17 December 2017

Kilkenny's roots a-growin'

It's a badly kept secret that one of the best Americana festivals in the world is held each year in Kilkenny. Every May bank holiday weekend, the Marble City is transformed into a Mardi Gras of folk, blues, bluegrass, country, Cajun, Tex-Mex, rockabilly, country-rock, swamp rock -- and any number of genres that haven't been invented yet.

This year sees the likes of John Grant, Drive-By Truckers, Beth Orton and Lambchop's Kurt Wagner and Cortney Tidwell sharing the bill alongside such exquisitely named roots combos as Elvis Fontenot & The Sugar Bees and TV Jones & The Tomahawks.

The Smithwicks Rhythm'n'Roots weekend -- aka The Little Festival That Could -- is the brainchild of local publican and promoter John Cleere, who got the ball rolling back in 1998 with the help of Tom Stapleton (who booked the gigs for the first nine years of the festival) and Kirsty Fitzsimons (who lured many a rockabilly band to the shindig).

Back then, Kilkenny was a relatively sleepy town, and had yet to become the favourite destination for marauding Dublin stag parties and hen nights that threatened to overwhelm it. Post-recession, things have thankfully calmed down on that front.

The charm of the festival lies in its compact nature and laid-back vibe. All the venues are in walking distance of each other, so you can lazily stroll from pub to theatre and back again. There are mellow mid-day sets and rabble-rousing midnight roof-lifters -- and if one stays up late enough one tends to happen upon impromptu jam sessions between East Virginian bluegrass boffins and West London nu-folk scenesters or some such unlikely combination.

The local record store Rollercoaster has also been known to host in-store shows.

Some of the greatest gigs I've ever seen have happened at the Kilkenny Rhythm'n'Roots festival -- one thinks back to Marah's midnight show in the Ormonde Hotel a decade or so ago, or Calexico's tumultuous brass-filled hoedown in the back room of John Cleere's pub, or last year's life-affirming sets by The Duke & The King ... My first ever sighting of Richmond Fontaine, who were the perfect fit for the festival, was also at Rhythm'n'Roots.

"I have a wish-list of bands every year," explains John Cleere, whose own bar is one of the hubs of the festival, with framed posters of past gigs, signed by the acts, hanging proudly on the wall. "If I get even a quarter of them, I'm doing well. One band I was interested in demanded €100,000 to play. I said sayonara.

"We look after the acts as soon as they land. We provide all the backline, all the PAs, security, hotels ... Every band has a different requirement -- they won't use this particular amp or that particular amp. When a band reaches a certain level, they can afford to be more demanding. So they give you a list of what they want in their rider.

"There was one band who insisted on a rare make of amp. It turned out it was only available in London. I paid a lot of money to have it shipped over especially for the gig. When I told this to one of our soundmen, he said: 'I have one of those amps in my garage in Dublin.' What a waste!"

John says the musical emphasis of the event has changed over the years. In its inaugural year it was known as the Country'n'Roots festival, but was changed to Rhythm'n'Roots in 1999.

"I'm bringing people over I'd never have expected to have done back in 1998," says John. "People like John Grant are a long way from the kind of acts I booked when I started."

John travels to the UK, the US and Canada in search of new talent every year, budgets allowing.

"I try to get away once a year to see bands. I've been to Edmonton in Canada for three years now. That's a terrific festival -- as it turned out, the guy running it is from Dublin. He gave me access to everything -- backstage etc. I also have sourced great acts in Austin and Leicester."

One new aspect to this year's festival is the participation of painter Catherine Barron.

"She is going to spend the weekend sketching soundchecks, sketching fans, sketching bands. The plan is to put on an exhibition for the Kilkenny Arts Festival of her experience of the Rhythm'n'Roots Festival. It's something different."

Although Kilkenny has been bringing it all back home for the past 14 years, in the last five years or so there has been an explosion in interest in Americana in the wider music world, partly fuelled by the likes of Uncut magazine, who love to champion the latest gang of long-haired, bearded backwoodsmen in check shirts.

Even better if they've recorded their new album in a remote wooden cabin in the mountains, and bonus points for featuring a guest appearance by a member of The Band / Will Oldham / Emmylou Harris.

Given the volumes of facial hair usually on show, it's fair to say it's the festival that Gillette fears most.

But forget the face fuzz, and come on feel the music.

The festival takes place from April 29 to May 2. Tickets are available at www.kilkennyroots.com


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