The Belfast Summer School of Traditional Music began in 2017 and offers a diverse range of classes, talks, workshops and concerts, taking in the whole gamut of traditional music. We’re right in the middle of this year’s summer school and tonight’s Songs of the People concert in the American Bar features four of the finest traditional voices around, namely Seamie O’Dowd, Ríoghnach Connolly, Niall Hanna and Siobhán O’Donnell.
Siobhán O’Donnell opens the evening and provides a nice introduction with a range of songs, accompanying herself on guitar. It gets really interesting when O’Donnell puts the guitar away and takes up the bodhrán, giving us two tunes where she uses lilting instead of singing before finishing with a lovely version of “John O’ Dreams”
Niall Hanna is up next, a singer-songwriter and guitarist who has recently toured Australia as part of Ulaid with John McSherry and Donal O’Connor. Hanna is pitch perfect on guitar and his touch is wonderful. We get to hear his warm and expressive voice on “Autumn Winds” and also get an example of his own writing on “Sweet Lough Neagh”, written for his home in Derrytresk. Hanna ends his set with “The Mountains of Pomeroy”, pointing out that there are, in fact, no mountains in Pomeroy, and that the title may have been due to some artistic license on the part of the original author.
Ríoghnach Connolly is a native of Armagh, who I had heard on-line but never had had the chance to see play live. What a performer she is; her musical ability speaks for itself, but I just wasn’t prepared for the sheer joy, fun, and downright dirty craic that she brought to the proceedings. Two bars into her first song (“Ballyhigh”, her grandfather’s favourite) she quits and tells someone in the audience to turn their phone off. She jokes constantly with the audience, jokes at her own expense, and frankly makes fun of anyone.
Her voice is incredible – she has to be one of the most original voices in Irish music at the moment; she brings a real authenticity to her songs with a very distinct and unique phrasing. Connolly points out that she is used to doing 45 minute sets with maybe 7 songs; tonight she has been asked to perform 4 songs, so she informs us that she had chosen the longest ones she can think of. She plays eleven verses of what she describes as “the original Roddy McCorley” with flute, but not before telling us how slow-cooking potatoes were responsible for McCorley’s capture. She plays this as a march, tapping the time with her foot.
After giving us her own peculiar take on Armagh/Tyrone rivalries, Connolly tunes up her shruti, and after a bit of fiddling to find the right key, she sings in Gaeilge a song of Donegal; a melancholic tale of a miserable marriage and homesickness. Connolly invites Hanna up to accompany her on a beautiful cover of Dick Gaughan’s “Now Westlin Winds” that immediately transports me to heather-covered hillsides on a warm summer’s day.
Seamie O’Dowd brings the curtain down with a set of more traditional songs; some old, some new. O’Dowd is a magical guitarist and each song is punctuated by intricate runs and rhythms. “Crooked Jack” by Dominic Behan is beautifully done as is “Hard Hat”, a punchy and more modern song. “John Taylor’s Month Away” from King Creosote and John Hopkins’ seminal album Diamond Mine is a revelation; I love the original, but O’Dowd performs it in a way that adds to the feel, and he links it’s Scottish sea-faring theme to the maritime histories of Belfast and Sligo. O’Dowd’s vocals are deeper, have a rougher edge, and his guitar solo works well.
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O’Dowd plays “Sanctuary” (recorded by Mary McPartland) and covers “Rocket to the Moon” by Runrig. His version of “The Lag Song” by Ewan McCall and most famously sung by Luke Kelly was dark, and lacking in redemption of any sort backed by slightly Spanish-tinged guitar. O’Dowd rounds out his set with two songs by Sligo’s Tom Moore, with “Cedars of Lebanon” standing out.
This was a varied and interesting evening of traditional music; whilst all the musicians brought something to the concert, it was Connolly who stood out for me because of her sheer originality, energy and unique approach; I wished she had longer to play. Keep your eyes peeled for next year’s Belfast Traditional Music Summer School – they never fail to bring some of the best and brightest traditional music talents together, if even for only a short time.