This show is an unusual one, a rarity in more than one sense. Queen’s University’s Elmwood Hall has been opened for the evening, seats laid out for the civilised event that will take place. Canadian singer Feist has never played Belfast solo before but has flown over from Toronto specifically to take part in the Lughnasa International Friel Festival, in which capacity we’re not quite sure. It’s something of a hidden gig, word of it whispered from fan to fan, shared on the occasional Facebook post.
The reason it has remained hidden is most people assuming that a festival dedicated to playwright Brian Friel will not have much in the way of music events. If it does, they will likely be heavily tied to the context of one of Friel’s plays and more than likely any music will simply be incidental during one of the plays. And the festival is indeed play-heavy. But it contains a hidden gem: the Amongst Women section. One of the curators introduces the events about to unfold and tells us they fought for this section to be included, as if some director somewhere also thought that it was surplus to requirements. In the end, the programme tells us, one of the most famous Friel plays and the signature plays of this festival, Dancing At Lughnasa, has five women as its main characters so the Amongst Women section explores how far women have come and how much freedom they have – or don’t have – when compared with the characters in the 1930s-set play.
We feel almost as if we’re seated in the audience of a talk show as Leslie Feist and the curator of this event and her ‘interviewer’ for the evening, the actress Lisa Dwan appear with hand held mics and sit in comfortable chairs. The audience view them with quizzical expressions and it’s clear our two conversationalists are expecting this, as Leslie Feist welcomes us by joking, “Thanks for coming out to what is a mystery to us as well as to you!” Dwan is, if anything, playing the part of the bad cop in this situation, asking the questions, setting the parameters and not-so-gently steering Feist back on track when she becomes distracted by a shiny new conversational angle and backs herself into knowledge vacuums. The parameters, as Dwan introduces them, are the lack of representation of women in history and in that context, how Feist found muses. They make it clear that phone conversations have preceded this evening and that homework has been done, but we still get nicely personal with almost a dual narrative, Feist describing her time touring with a punk band at 17 and nearly losing her singing voice for life which led to her turning towards instrumental music. Quieter music. Separately she describes the backstory of the Lomax Collection which was funded by the American Library Of Congress: a series of field recordings in which the Lomaxes travelled the South and sought out locals in many towns, locals who were willing to be recorded singing the folk songs passed down to them from friends and relatives. Her recounting these stories in the Elmwood Hall is peppered with the enthusiasm of someone who has just learned new facts about a favourite subject, but the personal history is that she discovered these recordings in her quiet period, and they brought her what she was looking for: not only re-tellings of some of the earliest recorded American folk songs, but pure, untrained voices with no real knowledge of fame or self-consciousness. This, Feist says, helped her to realise the power of the song and not the singer, to appreciate that the influence of the stage is heavily skewed, sometimes without real reason.
Dwan and Feist take us through some of these songs, the voices of Texas Gladden and the Shipp Sisters lingering in our memories long after the crackling recordings have died away. The Shipp Sisters’ version of the playground song “Sea Lion Woman” (or “C Line Woman“, a mutation born of oral translation) later recorded by Feist herself; the ever-decreasing circles of the Lomax story and Feist’s own life meet here and for once we’re grateful to Dwan when she utters the magic words “I wanna talk about how you write.” Not that Feist seems overly prepared to talk about this, dodging direct avenues with perhaps the most telling line she utters being “Melody comes first”. Feist eventually gives in, mentioning that she sees Dwan eyeing the guitar and the audience breathe a sigh of relief, as doubt had begun to creep in that any singing would occur this evening. It’s late though, and there’s only time for two songs, with a brief Q&A with the audience sandwiched in-between, which was mainly valuable for discovering how she became involved with The Muppets Movie – short answer, she was asked to write songs for it and they were turned down, so she was offered a cameo as a consolation prize. The first – and second last – song is a Nina Simone cover which some may think is a waste of good time, but “Where Can I Go Without You?” is a worthwhile chance to take, the perfectly clear handheld mic Feist has had all night taken away and a new one given to her for singing, which makes her sound as crackly and distant as the people from the 1930s we’ve heard tonight, making us shiver again. Although she apologises during “Mushaboom” for her hoarseness, it’s just her, a whispery hoarseness, a gravelly smoothness as if her voice is a maypole of ribbons, each doing their own thing but eventually becoming intertwined.
Do we feel cheated? We may have only received two songs but we’ve been given the gift of a library of folk song field recordings to explore at our leisure. We heard more than most people hear at a full gig. Did it leave us wanting more? Certainly, yes. Elizabeth McGeown, GiggingNI.com
Photographs by Paul Woods.