Ireland’s Other Voices festival originated in Dingle, with Spiritualized and Amy Winehouse among acts playing in a room for 95 people in its various early editions. This year it has expanded into a three-centre event, with a February leg in Derry featuring Savages and The Divine Comedy, and a London leg, with the support of the Barbican, at the world’s oldest music hall, Wilton’s.
With performances being filmed and live streamed, many more people than would fit in to the intimate venue – full of competition winners, invited guests and dangly plastic hearts – could see not only the quality of performance from some of the year’s most lauded acts, but also the unique space in which they played. And the literal free-for-all continued down the road at the Zeppelin Shelter, with talks, acoustic gigs and much else during the weekend’s afternoons.
At times the event felt like a TV recording; video and still cameras were much in evidence, and Irish actor Aiden Gillen recorded live links in front of the stage, sometimes finding a few words to say about the festival’s history to boot.
Laura Marling headlined the first night which, as Stornoway’s singer-guitarist Brian Briggs pointed out later, saw his band in a “Laura sandwich” – the evening being opened by newcomer Laura Mvula. Marling is gearing up to the release of her fourth album, Once I Was An Eagle, while the other Laura, longlisted in the BBC Sound Of 2013 poll, already has her debut out. Mvula – who along with Marling finds herself part of the BBC Proms 2013 programme – shone brightly in a white coat and pink toenails, her legs and feet otherwise bare and her striking face looking delighted to be singing. Beginning by playing a keyboard, she then stood to sing. She and her band powerfully deliver, even if the tunes don’t obviously stick around much beyond the short set’s end.
Briggs, a slimly built, tucked-in geography teacher lookalike with a yelpy tenor voice and witty repartee, caused giggles about subjects as everyday as the building, the weather, and the band’s next-morning journey to Folkestone. There’s much to occupy the eye, too; Stornoway’s percussionist at one point saws a piece of wood. Six people and innumerable instruments litter the stage, and it’s all a bit too much for the 40 minute slot available, during which they play their new single Knock Me On The Head, from their latest 4AD-released album Tales From Terra Firma.
Marling, inexplicably, appears for less than half an hour; requests from the audience batted away with “we’re doing one more song and it’s a new one, soz”. The two-time Mercury nominee has long blonde hair now, and seems even more mature than she did on her debut; it’s as if her physique is – slowly – catching up with her voice and themes. Unlike Stornoway’s kitchen sink approach, Marling has just herself, a microphone, two guitars and a cello player with which to express her work. The blink-and-miss-it set proves to be nowhere near long enough, especially given how rare her appearances are.
The second day brought us Irish acts Dexys and Villagers, and the not Irish at all John Grant. Curiously for a band who’ve been around for so long, albeit with the Midnight Runners suffix, Dexys take to the stage first and give edited highlights of the show they’ve been touring since their reappearance with the well received album One Day I’m Going To Soar. Colourful to say the least, Kevin Rowland looked like a cross between a circus ringmaster and a cabaret star, his grey hat and outsize clown-style pantalons augmented by a flecked pink, purple and white shirt, and the rest of the band’s attire was scarcely less eyecatching. Arguments and conversations ensued in the lyrics of songs; this was less gig, more musical theatre. Rowland’s voice is unmistakable, and his delivery is part rant, part soliloquay. Even when stood to the side of the stage, his commanding stare dominates.
Villagers are, in contrast, stark. Conor O’Brien’s intricate guitar playing and equally intricate lyrics are accompanied only by a seated keyboard player. O’Brien’s voice alone fills the room, the audience in thrall to a storyteller whose mode of expression is melody. All too quickly his set is over, but as it turned out it wouldn’t be the last we’d see of him.
Much has been made of John Grant being a ‘wounded bear of a man’, but here was our headliner with combed hair and shirtsleeves, fronting his Icelandic band just as if he’d been fronting bands for years – which of course he has, not least with The Czars and then with his Queen Of Denmark enablers Midlake. O’Brien pops up on Glacier, singing tenor harmony over Grant’s honeyed baritone; it’s the first time any of the event’s line-up have taken up the collaborative opportunities Other Voices surely presents. Like the rest of Grant’s set, which serves almost as a ‘greatest hits’ EP of his latest album Pale Green Ghosts in the main, with space found for the sublime It Doesn’t Matter To Him and the hardly less striking GMF, it works beautifully, if not always entirely as planned. At one point, Grant moves from his bank of four keyboards to his mic stand at the front of the stage and forgets to bring his mic with him; some well chosen explanatory words about the moment sit well with Grant’s material, music that’s lyrically as deep as songs get while also finding space for light amongst the dark. The wounded bear will have found new fans this evening.
The final day, headlined by Matthew E White, featured four acts rather than three and started earlier, with poor Imelda May wheeled on at 6:15pm. With Irish acts SOAK and the well-received Little Bear following, Wilton’s was noticeably quieter than it had been on the stellar night that’d gone before. White, whose debut album was released in January to much hoo-ha, spent 40 minutes mumbling into his beard while an extended drum solo obliterated every possible nuance the music on record holds. He wasn’t the first act of the festival to suffer from drummer obliteration – Rowland’s words of the night before were in places all but inaudible for the same reason – but even when White spoke between songs about how grateful he was, most of his words got as far as his considerable face fur before turning back. Less mumbling next time please, Matthew.
If one word could describe this edition of Other Voices, it is ‘showcase’. With such short sets there wasn’t ever time for the 10 featured artists to completely connect and give the best account of themselves, even if those who fared best – Grant and Marling – created unique moments worthy of note. What’s more, the needs of television/streaming got in the way of trifling matters such as encores or requests, and uneven programming meant some nights worked better than others. But by streaming to four east end pubs and across the internet, showcase some fine talents is what Other Voices London 2013 did. Highlighting the stunningly beautiful Wilton’s Music Hall was a happy additional by-product.