Crafting a fine festival

THE 14th annual Smithwick’s Rhythm ‘n’ Roots festival kicked off with a twist on Friday evening as festival director John Cleere and performers Hans Chew and band gave an interpretation of the National Craft Gallery’s current exhibition, ‘Irish Craft Portfolio 2011’.

Speaking of the display that includes a selection of cutting-edge creations in various media, Mr Cleere said the festival and the exhibition had much in common, including being perhaps “the best kept secrets in Ireland”, but also in the earthy, natural-inspired character of their wares.

He then proposed an intriguing comparison between some of individual works and performers, a theme that could be carried through the four-day festival.

Hans Chew and band, for instance, called to mind a set of colourful paintings by Patricia Murphy, Mr Cleere suggested. And in their various gigs they showed a masterful ability to layer melodies, a sort of jam-band boogie with lively piano, guitar, bass and incredible drums.

Canada’s Little Miss Higgins was compared to the fun and feisty glass works of Catherine Keenan, and her smooth old-style sound was complemented by the laser-sharp wit of her lyrics, such as “You said you loved me – Liar.”

Also with a lifetime of stories to share was Mary Gauthier, whom Mr Cleere compared to a ceramics Skelligs portrait by Cormac Boydell. “She is a woman who’s had a really tough life but has turned her experiences into really great songs,” he said. And so as she sang of cold winds blowing, and “walking in the water till my hat floats away”, there was a soothing comfort in her voice, even if she hasn’t found it many places elsewhere.

On the opposite end of the spectrum came Drive By Truckers, whose solid and heavy yet utterly precise sound Mr Cleere compared to a massive wooden table by John Lee – both of which would be the dominate feature in any room. They certainly did in their sold-out, two-hour performance on Sunday.

Demand was equally high to hear Beth Orton’s three gigs, with a sound reminiscent of the “intricate but strong” jewellery of Eily O’Connell. Her beautiful vocals ornamenting the music, this charming performer even seems to smile as she sings, and it’s infectious to the listener too.

Also highly detailed is the music of Frontier Ruckus, who might call to mind the porous, sea-like ceramics of Frances Lambe, quirky sorts of shapes and their lyrics as precisely placed as the many pores in her forms. (The six-piece includes the musical-saw-playing Zachary Nichols, who possibly even inspired a few carpenters to try a new use for their tools.)

Individualism was also the order of the day with Wilko Johnson, whose utterly expressive, high-energy performance could bring to mind the work of silversmith Cara Murphy. Like the pieces of her multi-directional that change with each placement, with this performer you’d surely never get the same show twice.

Doug Paisley’s delicately woven tales, meanwhile, were reminiscent of the dandelion-esque work of calligrapher Denis Brown, the singer’s mostly “sad songs” uplifted by his warmth and wit.

And the “wildness” of Stacie Collins was compared to the willow rods and bog wood of Joe Hogan. Playing the Monday night gig to bring the festival to a close, she delivered her high-energy show from the stage and even from on top of the bar.

It was a fitting end to a weekend which saw bands and singer-songwriters playing to large crowds in venues throughout the city – too many acts to praise here in one sitting, really. And plenty of them were free, including performances at Rollercoaster Records by Sam Amidon and Frontier Ruckus, and a Monday afternoon gig by James Walbourne for the festival volunteers.

With such a fine selection of highly skilled master craftsmen and women performing throughout the weekend, there was much to celebrate. And so the Roots comes to a close for another year, although the National Craft Gallery exhibition continues until May 11.