The Big Story: Other Voices is back
Another year, another stellar line-up -- Other Voices is back. Shilpa Ganatra was one of the chosen few to join the likes of Fight Like Apes and Glen Hansard as they took over Dingle one winter's weekend...
Explaining Other Voices to a foreigner would sound like a flu-induced dream: I was in a pub in this tiny fishing village in the west of Ireland, where Ryan Adams was being filmed playing in front of 80 people in a tiny church. He was in the pub afterwards, and so was Paul Noonan from Bell X1 and Sinead O'Connor, and Fight Like Apes were telling us about the most sordid website in existence. The annual event is as surreal as it sounds (especially the website). Yet all aspects of its randomness -- from its remote location to the acts that it hosts -- make it unique.
A ticket to the series of gigs makes Willy Wonka's golden ticket seem like a bookmark. The set-up was conceived by RTE's Phillip King, who wanted a Jools Holland-style show with a difference. And it couldn't be more special if David Bowie was doling out champagne cocktails on entry.
Over the course of a small number of days -- for this series, two weekends in a row -- Dingle, Co Kerry, plays host to an eclectic range of acts. Past series have seen the likes of Amy Winehouse, Rufus Wainwright and The Rapture rub shoulders with prominent domestic acts such as The Thrills, Director and Fionn Regan, as well as bemused locals who are curious to see what all the fuss is about.
Over its six years on air, Other Voices has become an event unto itself -- the RTE shows are merely the fruits of a fantastical experience in its own right.
It's fast gaining a reputation abroad. 2006's stunning performance of Hallelujah by Rufus Wainwright, for example, has scored over one million impressions on YouTube. And for the first time this year, it's due to be shown in the States on Rave HD -- a high definition music channel that also broadcasts Dave Fanning interviews. The deal means that the programme's viewership is set to increase by two to three million in the territory -- a remarkable gateway for Irish acts.
Its legendary status in its homeland is propelled by man's intrinsic nature of wanting what we can't have. Very, very few people are lucky enough to witness the proceedings in person. The physical space means that there's no guest list of Ireland's great and good, and even the bands who stay a day extra can't take a peek at their competitors.
Only 80 tickets go on sale for each of its six evenings and, controversially but understandably, these are offered to locals first. This year, only 20 tickets went on general sale, and they didn't even need a hint of who was on the line-up to sell out instantly.
Thankfully, the constellation of stars playing rivals that of previous years. Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, Super Furry Animals, The Charlatans, Paddy Casey and Ray Davies are among the bill, though D&N are here to witness the very first day of proceedings, featuring Ryan Adams, Foy Vance, Sinead O'Connor and Cathy Davey.
Here's a fallacy: Dingle is not, as it turns out, taken over by a wade of tourists when the Other Voices circus rolls into town. Not that it would be out of the ordinary if it were. Dingle bears all the hallmarks of its summer tourist trade, even in November. Aside from its rural charm (there's a bike shop which doubles as a pub) and local attractions (Fungi the dolphin), there's a dead giveaway in the cartoon-like loop of pub-restaurant-souvenir-shop-guesthouse. But the small number of tickets means there's no major influx from domestic visitors -- and no sane person is about to drive hours down dark, precarious roads in the weekend's torrential rain to chance their arm of entry.
Moreover, the activity of the town is concentrated between St James' Church and Brenners, the hotel bar directly opposite. The audience is batted between the two venues for the changeovers. It's strangely like walking from a stage to the bar at Electric Picnic, with familiar couples holding intra-group discussions of the artists playing.
Yet a few paces away from this hub of activity, the deserted streets, still glistening with the early evening's rain, wouldn't give away the intrusion.
It's a different matter during the daytime, when the visitors and bands truly take over, despite the locals' efforts to carry on as normal (on one day last year bands became utterly confused when they arrived at St James' Church to find a christening in progress).
Past years have seen the performing bands give RTE an impromptu performance at different locations that show off what the town has to offer, possibly the most memorable instance being Asian Dub Foundation's rapping on the beach. For the first time this series, these shows have developed into their own segment. The daytime bands aren't the same as the church bands, and while the main host John Kelly gets his hotel breakfast in him, their interview is conducted by 2FM's Jenny Huston.
The show's music producer, Aoife Woodlock, says it's a testament to the quality of homegrown talent that they've branched out in this way.
As expected, given Other Voices' fabulous disregard of genre, among the acts playing this year is Dave Geraghty, Adrian Crowley -- both of whom have been nominated for the Choice Music Prize -- Mick Flannery, Jenny Lindfors, Halfset andalt-electro Dubliners Dry County, who do a Tardis-esque job in squeezing all their equipment onto the stage of a tiny nearby pub. When it's broadcast, the songs will act as cutaways, breaking up the church performances.
And let's not forget, amid the side shows, coastal views and general buzz of excitement, the church is the focal point.
As the guests wait patiently in Brenners, over a port and under a quiet hum of chatter, so do the artists. Sinead O'Connor wanders about looking for someone, before disappearing again. Her band sit in the lounge, watch her, then turn back to their conversation. Wearing a braless black top, jeans and a hoodie tied around her waist, she could be mistaken for an underdressed punter were it not for her unmistakable doe eyes and cropped hair.
Yet she's left well alone -- a testament to the informal nature of the proceedings. Ryan Adams, on the other hand, is accosted by many an excited fan, perhaps because he's a guest in these parts.
On the makeshift stage in the church, in front of the audience seated on pews and fed on the now-traditional tin of Roses, he gives away his perplexity of the event.
Sat with his acoustic guitar, he pauses before asking, "Do you have this every week in your town?" But before he's strummed a note to remind us why it's fitting that he's holding court in a church, he texts onstage like a schoolboy sneaking in a quick message before class starts.
Shame, because otherwise he'd have been the highlight -- not that Foy Vance couldn't give him a run for his money, with live looping that has to be seen to be believed (thankfully there's enough cameras on site to ensure this).
How could he possibly top that? How about being joined by Ms O'Connor for an under-rehearsed but moving rendition of the ubiquitous Fairytale Of New York?
Her own performance, meanwhile, is stunning. Rid of her shyness so prevalent in her recent theatre and arena shows, she proves it to be the venue she was born for -- not merely because her last album, Theology, is themed around Ireland's religious history.
The venue is putty in her hands the second she takes to the stage with a cover of Curtis Mayfield's We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue. It's with the first note of the voice that many consider to be the finest that Ireland has ever produced, that she penetrates every last inch of the church.
She plays for more than an hour, by which time the pews might well be made of jagged rock, but all remain grateful for their seat in front of her.
The emotional journey she's taken us on is a million miles away from Cathy Davey, who delves into the kooky side of life. Her superband comprises of Conor O'Brien -- ex of The Immediate -- Paul Noonan, the singer of Bell X1 (though sticksman tonight), Mundy's bassist and The Frank & Walters' keyboard player.
They're such a pro crew that they even delve into a song they've never rehearsed before. Which only means that when they undertake a wholly serious, slowed down version of Inchworm, no one's quite sure how to take it. The titters in the crowd are soon replaced by bemusement, and it's on this strange note that she ends the set.
But that's keeping within the spirit of Other Voices: wonders never cease. n
Other Voices begins Wednesday February 13, 11.15pm on RTE Two