Wednesday 21 February 2018

Rainy days & festivals

Oxegen may be the highlight of this year's rock music calendar, but for Declan Burke the great Irish outdoor festival will always be watching someone who is probably Christy Moore while swigging from a flagon of cider in a mud-filled field

Sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll? Try mud, stout and Stockton's Wing. The beer was warm, the burgers were cold, the rain was freezing. Sleeping bags doubled as sponges; even if you could afford the luxury of a tent, what Hiace driver, his plucky craft already jammed to the gunwales, had the space to pick up a hitch-hiker tottering under a tangled heap of canvas and poles?

Ah, the good old days: 1970s Ireland, where it was always raining, the Troubles raged up North and the Pope was virtually the only international act to come to town. Hindsight being an exact science, and with a trad/folk renaissance gathering momentum since the late 1960s, it was inevitable we would entertain ourselves. Hence Lisdoonvarna in Co Clare, the Ballyshannon Music Festival in Donegal, the Ballisodare Festival in Sligo, et al.

But it wasn't simply a case of insular fiddling, of bodhrans and craws being thumped in unison. We built it. They came. Richard and Linda Thompson, Emmylou Harris, John Martyn. They laid a runway, apparently, just to get Jackson Browne down. Would Dylan and the Stones have played Slane without their precedent? Would Prince have tottered into Pairc Ui Chaoimh on his purple stacked heels? Chuck Berry, it's rumoured, played the Ballisodare Festival in the early 1980s. I wouldn't know too much about that. I was there that day.

There's an old saw about how, if you remember the 1960s, you weren't really there; the same principle applies to the great Irish music festival. It was never a voyage into the unknown, exactly - after all, you were guaranteed, at some point, Christy Moore - but there was a spirit of adventure about the enterprise that appears to be somewhat lacking in this year's Oxegen Festival.

The Oxegen website, for example, offers advice on health matters; consent forms for over-25s accompanying under-18s; on-site parking arrangements; the information that culinary delights such as noodles and vegetarian options will be available; and security tips, such as label your mobile phone and move away promptly from an area of danger should a danger occur.

Back in the halcyon days the entire site was a hazard, a black-hole quagmire; security came with knowing that you didn't have anything worth stealing anyway; as for parking facilities, even the performers didn't own cars. And sanitation? We had portaloos back then too, affectionately - and not entirely inaccurately - referred to as "anyone else's Doc Marten boot".

Lisdoon, of course, was the Irish Woodstock. Except, if Christy is to be believed: "Woodstock, Knock nor the Feast of Cana/Could hold a match to Lisdoonvarna." First held in 1978, it was conceptualised as the Irish equivalent of the Glastonbury Festival in England: part-scout jamboree, part-Bacchanal frenzy, part-hippy-dippy roots-embracing finger-in-the-ear jig-'n'-reel extravaganza. Sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll? The grass was suitable only for herbivores, and - to the trad/folk Mafia, at least - rock 'n' roll was two four-letter words. As for sex; well, there was always Willie Daley's penchant for matchmaking.

If all those who now claim to have been at Lisdoon 1978 were actually there, Co Clare would have tipped up and slipped off the Cliffs of Moher. But enough turned up to spread the word. The Ballisodare Festival in Sligo debuted in 1979; the line-up included uber-folkies Planxty, The Bothy Band, Clannad, De Dannan and Scullion; Paul Brady, the progressive fiend, was frowned upon for hiring a piano for his set. It was there that American singer-songwriter Jim Page heard about the Anti-Nuclear Festival planned for Carnsore the following weekend. Page played his anti-war anthem, Hiroshima Nagasaki Russian Roulette; the ubiquitous Christy Moore happened to be on site; the rest is history. Anti-Bush protestors (or, indeed, anti- or pro-anything protestors) might want to take note: marching and haranguing bad, dancing and singing good.

Moore, incidentally, has lamented the passing of the folk festival, blaming organisers who chased profits by booking inappropriate rock 'n' roll bands at the expense of more traditional acts. It's ironic, therefore, that one of the longest-running festivals in Irish music history is the Ballyshannon Music Festival, birthplace to one Rory Gallagher, the blue-collar godfather of Irish rock 'n' roll; indeed, Gallagher graced - or, more accurately, blistered - Ballyshannon with his own brand of stripped-down rhythm and blues.

More pertinent, perhaps, is the fact that the Ballyshannon Festival is an ongoing concern; that might well be because Donegal folk are hardier than their cousins elsewhere, or because they're more resistant to ephemeral trends; it might also be that they're more tuned in to their trad and folk. The fact that the Ballyshannon Festival is a non-profit organisation might also be a factor; while the festival undoubtedly generates business for the town and its hinterland, a genuine love of music in all its forms persists from the days when Rory, Planxty and - naturally - Christy took to the stage. The times were no more innocent back then, but the emphasis was on music rather than marketing; sponsorship only came into play when you finally stumbled home and rang Alcoholics Anonymous; branding occurred only if you were unlucky enough to fall into a camp-fire.

Lord Henry Mountcharles, as they say, likes his tunes. But even if he didn't, the natural amphitheatre at Slane Castle would bring the love on his behalf. Inaugurated in 1983, when Thin Lizzy headlined with a nifty four-piece calling themselves U2 in support, Slane today is the kind of internationally-recognised venue that can claim even Madonna's attention; although, if you think ?88 is a little on the pricey side to pay for variations on a drum-machine riff, you won't find me calling you outside to argue the point.

But in attracting The Rolling Stones to Slane in 1982, Mountcharles pulled off a major coup, even if by then the band were well past their best; had the Trades Description Act been implemented to the letter, The Stones should really have been advertised as 'the hardest working cabaret act in the world'. Not the point. The Stones at Slane had repercussions that went beyond establishing the success of the venue itself; that gig let it be known that it was OK - safe, even - for major acts to play Ireland. Dylan followed in 1984; the global juggernaut that was Bruce Springsteen in 1985; Queen in 1986; Bowie in 1987; Neil Young and REM in the mid-1990s.

While not forgetting for a moment the tragic drownings in 1995, Slane came to represent an Irish music phenomenon; its ability to attract international artists mirrored the inexorable rise of U2 from that of a Slane support act to the most successful international live act of contemporary times. U2 even recorded their breakthrough album, The Unforgettable Fire, at Slane; and the confidence U2 imparted to an Irish generation reared in the economic wastelands of the 1970s and 1980s should never be underestimated.

Meanwhile, back in Thurles. The three-day 'Trip to Tipp' Feile kicked off in 1990; the last great Irish music festival, in that it encouraged indie-pop kids young enough to know no better to trek off into the wild midwest clutching only a flagon of cider for sustenance. By then the trad/folk blueprint had been torched on the altar of profit and ephemeral trends; and if anyone wants to argue the point, your correspondent cites the fact that Ned's Atomic Dustbin were regarded as something of a draw back then. More evidence? Simply Red headlined in 1992. The final nail in the coffin was the 'Spank the Monkey' Lisdoonvarna Festival 2003, which - perversely - took place in a hall in Dublin. Headlining? Yep, your friend and mine, Christy Moore.

The good news, of course, is that the decline of the great Irish music festival means we will never again have to bear witness to the likes of Chris de Burgh singing Patricia the Stripper whilst a young woman - or worse, Chris - coyly disrobes on stage; never again will we have to hear, as Oasis launch into a scabrous cover of I Am The Walrus, a disgruntled youth claiming "their new stuff isn't up to much"; never again will we contract botulism at 50 yards from a chip van that seems to be glowing dimly green in the dusk; nor will we have to watch Shane MacGowan sit on a stool and mumble his shopping list while shoes, keys and small children are sucked into mud specially imported from the trenches of the First World War. No, we have been those soldiers; and old gig-goers never die, they just f-f-fade away.

Now, if only someone can confirm Chuck Berry actually played Ballisodare, I'll die a happy man.

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