I last saw the Olllam in Janaury 2014 when they played in the basement of St Kevin’s Hall in Belfast. They were good, but I thought a little unpolished – a great sound but with the sense of a project that was slightly unfinished. Their connection to Castlewellan’s Soma Festival runs deep – the festival itself was born out of a urgent need in 2012 to get The Olllam a booking or their first ever tour wouldn’t happen.
The personnel who made up The Olllam were significant in shaping their sound – Tyler Duncan and John McSherry on various pipes and whistles being the most obvious. With McSherry, Duncan and Michael Shimmin (percussion) playing as a trio, and rehearsing via Skype they released their first recordings in late 2012. The Olllam have a knack of drawing on Irish traditional music but with added jazzy funk, producing a sound that is complex, melodic, and unique. It’s a bigger line-up on the current Irish tour, with Joe Dart (of Vulfpeck) on bass, Joe Hettinga (keyboards) and Sean O’Meara (guitar).
The first support act of the evening features a very short performance from Brighde Chaimbeul on a set of Hamish Moore pipes accompanied by local guitarist Jamie Murphy. A former winner of the BBC Young Folk Award, Chaimbeul doesn’t get much time but she treats us to some lovely Scottish and Irish tunes and is clearly a very accomplished player.
Chaimbeul is followed by Síomha Brock, a Co. Clare singer–songwriter who has recently supported Paul Brady on tour. The room is noisy and unsettled when she starts to play but within a few bars, she has the audience hooked.
Early on, ‘Fly’ sets out her style – a soulful voice with great range and power backed by jazz and manouche-style guitar. ‘Cover Me’ features a cheeky little sidestep into Donna Summer’s ‘Love To Love You Baby’ and she follows this with a really well thought-out cover of ‘A Day In The Life’. Síomha finishes on an Irish language version of her song ‘July Red Sky’ and it leaves me with the feeling that she is one to watch out for.
It’s getting late by the time The Olllam take to the stage. Hettinga gently eases us in with a slow and delicate keyboard intro. The two pipers sit facing each other across the front of the stage; Duncan sits still and impassive, McSherry is fidgety and restless.
The drums and bass kick in and immediately the sound takes on a funk/groove feel. McSherry and Duncan play the low whistles in perfect harmony and swap between these and sets of uilleann pipes a number of times during the first number. In a sense, that is the template for The Olllam’s sound. Shimmin and Dart are the backbone –the foundations on which everything else is constructed. Soul, funk, groove – it just makes you want to dance. The times signatures constantly shift and I give up even trying to understand what they’re doing around two songs into the set.
Shimmin takes a small drum kit (bass, snare and high hat) and makes it sound massive. Dart is all cool shades, constant movement and bobbing head. Hettinga and O’Meara may be relatively new additions to the band but they’ve obviously worked hard to get up to speed and provide some sterling work on keys and guitar.
Duncan and McSherry are a joy to watch and to listen to – effortlessly in sync – at times playing recognizably traditional melodies and then veering off into more unstructured and jazz-influenced snippets. ‘The Follly of Wisdom’ crops up around four songs in and this laid back, uplifting and upbeat groove really gets the crowd going. As the evening progresses, there are chances for Shimmin and Dart to solo, and either of these were worth the price of a ticket alone.
The evening flies in – the crowd give the band a standing ovation before they have even had the opportunity to play their last song. There’s a three-song encore, with Síomha returning to sing her own composition ‘Branches’. The band take time to announce a “surprise” gig in Belfast’s Black Box on the 5th of August before polling the crowd as to whether they’d like to hear ‘The Belll’ or ‘Bridge of Glllass’ as the final tune – ‘Bridge of Glllass’ wins out and it’s a fitting tune with which to bring the curtain down.
This is what I had hoped for – a more complete and polished show from a band that seem to be improving exponentially. Great musicianship, a fantastic set of tunes, and a truly original sound. Yet another top concert from the Soma Festival and roll on The Black Box in August – it’s going to be a good one!