Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Review: Whelan's Ones To Watch 2017

The Fontaines
The Fontaines

Maria Kelly

All photos: Remy Connolly

Info: In terms of how indoor city centre festivals are run, you won't come across better than the bi-annual Whelan's Ones To Watch event, spread over four nights for the paltry fee of €10 plus a free pint. From the perspective of the punter or musician, the standard is exceptional in terms of organisation, the event is run like clockwork, and the timetable is rigidly adhered to, meaning those attending needn't panic when relocating between main stage, the upstairs venue or the wild happenings at the front bar.

From Thursday through to Sunday night everything went smoothly, of the just over 60 acts that played I managed to catch 28, and whilst I'm happy with that innings, I would have liked to have seen many more, them all even! There were many positive comments from the people it's all about at the end of the day as well, the artists, ranging from being impressed by how smoothly sets went between time-keeping and sound engineers, to how respectful and observant audiences were, this I noticed myself, and the unfortunate trend of people talking loudly at live shows was virtually non-existent over the four nights. It was a huge success, I didn't expect it to surpass my previous Ones To Watch experiences because of how great they were, but it did, I was tired but overcome with joy by the time I slunk off to bed on Sunday night. 

Pillow Queens

Personal highlights for me off the top my head include, but are not restricted to, Maria Kelly, Pillow Queens and Brass Phantoms (third and best time seeing them) on a brief trip on Thursday. Friday was crazy, crazy ill, I'm happy to go as far as to say it was one of the best nights of live music I've witnessed in years. It was a whirlwind, and a mad mix of genres from the acts. Finally getting to see Sun.Set.Ships live was fantastic, RUTH was her effervescent alt-pop self, and Farah Elle, whom I'd heard so much about, was just incredible, an amazing vocalist. Galants then set the tone for the raucousness that was to follow with a very impressive set on the main stage, the start of what was to be my world turning upside down in a very, very good way. 

MUNKY - Bazinga!!!!!!

Down at the Front Bar, Nix Moon were in incredible form, they might as well have been on the stage at the Hollywood Bowl for all they cared, they funked us up and spat us out, and left us scratching our heads, did that just happen? It was a glorious performance from the Dundalk band. Cap doff to Brass Phantom's guitarist Greg for knowingly putting his hand on my shoulder the previous evening, like a concerned father giving his son advice, and recommending Dublin rock act MUNKY. They were amazing, I'd never heard them before and they instantly blew me away, I was brought back in time, to a time I wasn't even alive in, and a time I wish I'd been alive in. It was a full blues and rock blow-out, everything was on the table, seeing them at the smaller area of the venue seemed fitting in some way, it being Friday night you get a lot of footfall from folks just coming in for a pint or whatevs, but everyone was captivated and it was wedged as they blew us all away, memorable stuff and then some.

Nix Moon

Exasperated in a wonderful way following Nix Moon and MUNKY, there was still a lot more to come, as I spent the remainder of the night at the main stage. Another band I hadn't come across previously (and that's what it's all about really) were The Fontaines, who hit the stage at midnight. After being catapulted back to the 70's for the previous hour, I was now divided between a world of 1950's skiffle rock and 1979, to be precise, punk. Definitely moreso the former, but it was as intoxicating as it was unexpected, I hold my hand up and say I expected some alternative indie rock, purely based on the band's name, how silly of me. The front man was a complete natural, as were the rest of the band, a performance of the kind I have not witnessed previously, there was chest baring and microphone stands were thrust manically throughout, and most importantly, the songs were fabulous. The Fontaines are the type of band you want to keep to yourself, but you know (and are happy about it too) that they will be huge and now, or very soon, is the time to catch them in the smaller sized venues, it'll be Vicar Street, The Olympia and who knows where next before long. 

Finally I saw WOLFF, from Wexford, a county synonymous with Vikings in both name and our memories of primary school history, this isn't a reference to the bearded musicians, and frontman Johnny Stewart, but more their tribal and hypnotic style of blues rock, steeped not in European music, but that of the deep south delta blues, and given the mid-70's rock treatment and then some. WOLFF is an act you could go and see live 10 times and leave 100% satisfied every time, and if on the line-up, there's just no missing them.


Truth be told by the time Saturday came around I wasn't feeling the most enthusiastic, having returned to the hum drum of office life following the New Year, and possibly being slightly over enthusiastic on the Friday! the tiredness took hold a bit, and I ended up not staying out for long, missing some acts I really wanted to see such as 5th Element & Doublescreen, I was a bit dead on my feet. That said, I was delighted to see Motions at the start of the night, and had a bizarre moment to myself seeing them perform their debut single on the main stage at the start of the night which premiered on these very pages. Continuing the electro vibe upstairs immediately afterward were another relatively new to the scene act Exiles.

Exiles released their debut EP last year, Red Lights, and the title track was a Top 5 earworm of the year for me, all three musicians were on top form, never have drum pads sounded so rock n' roll, lead singer Jack Flaherty has a set of pipes on him that would make many blush, and guitarist / keyboardist Darragh O'Connor multi-tasked ably between both, plus vocals and some very luverly guitar solos. Although I'd seen them at last years festival, I was not, not, going to see Belfast's Hot Cops, to miss them would be to deliberately engage in regret. Needless to say they were in fine fettle, their mastery of the slow build from nonchalance to all encompassing distortion was executed without thinking, and in drummer Conor Ellison they have a show in itself, the man is an enigma, who needs to be seen to be believed, easily one of the finest on this floating piece of rock.

The final piece of the jigsaw on Saturday came from a band very close to my heart, Galway's The Clockworks, who are currently churning out highly addictive 80's-laced indie-swagger singles, making song-writing look as easy as brushing your teeth. If their songs were very good and highly enjoyable, they'd still get a mention here, but they are far beyond that. The Clockworks are in a zone at the moment that most bands fantasise about when they start out, they're seriously enjoying themselves, they're touring the UK, and they're writing beyond ridiculous singles, all in the space of 12 months. Needless to say, anyone who walked through the main door of the front bar stopped, stayed, and listened. Then there was 'Mazda' performed live, and their latest single, which is yet to be released.....

Hot Cops
Hot Cops' Conor Ellison

Sunday came, and it was incredible. Temptation at this stage of a four night festival would make you think about turning up a bit later than usual, but I couldn't miss Niamh Crowther, who had impressed me so much almost 12 months earlier, and who was opening at 8.15 on the main stage. An artist with an incredible voice, who performed a stunning version of a song she had recently written...that morning (below). From there was a quick boot upstairs to see Pine The Pilcrow, another Dublin act whose string and keys-induced charm and wonder make such a big impact, they were food for a weary soul, and probably played a big part in making me feel emotionally raw ahead of what was to come.

Niamh Crowther

Sonnets and Sisters, a (yeah, you guessed it, Dundalk) band whose debut single 'Silence' gripped me after only 20 seconds of my first listen, then took to the main stage, the masters of harmonies see-sawed between heartfelt bone fide country-folk and full-blown folk-rock hoe-downs. A massively enjoyable moment came when they did a Beyoncé cover, taking a good pop song and making it new, as if their own, the audience were completely down with it and it resulted in one of the biggest reactions of the night from the punters. Again, like The Fontaines, I feel Sonnets and Sisters have a massive year ahead of them, one that may take even them by surprise, it's more a case of will happen than I want it to happen.

From there I was back at the front bar to see Kerry solo act Junior Brother, a man quietly writing brilliant tales of woe and joy, ones that will mostly make you smile and laugh, but sometimes bring a strange sadness to your soul, a unique, original, and enchanting mix. For someone who is so in tune with human behaviour and our unorthodox nuances, Junior Brother is an incredibly comfortable performer, there's a story to be told, with heart, and he's there to tell it. On top of the delightful lyricism is a truly wonderful sound that drags you toward it, a one man band who even the most casual listener or music fan is naturally drawn toward. 

Junior Brother

Sunday turned out to be a very enjoyable night for me, and easily challenged Friday night for impact, but in a very different way. I caught Emma Lou & The Agenda on the main stage, as someone who was never really a fan of contemporary soul-jazz, thinking it was too much imitation and not enough innovation of one of my favourite types of music, again, I was humbled with regards to my preconceptions. Yes there was an undoubted Amy Winehouse strain, but even moreso, there was a powerful and smokey soul sound to Emma Lou, one that wrapped itself around the venue while she was on stage, I could even hear her bellowing out perfect notes from the door of the front bar. 

And yet, there was one more particularly lasting moment for the weekend, and it was the best one. Dundalk's David Keenan took to the main stage, in front of a pretty full house for his opening song, to an audience eating out of the palm of his hand by the time hed gotten half-way through his set, to the most rapturous applause I'd seen over 4 nights before he'd even finished playing. Keenan was nothing short of immense, he poured his lyrics into our hearts and souls, and we didn't even know it until it was far too late. Whilst the delivery of his story-telling was passive, it's impact was aggressive, yet with absolute consent, it grabbed you and shook you, a highly charged emotional experience, that could only be delivered by an artist who resides in a sphere way beyond the norm. In my own opinion he is the most gifted musical artist in Ireland at the moment, usually I'd preface such a statement with a benign apology of some sorts, but I won't on this occasion. 

Last but not least, a huge thanks to Whelan's for organising and selecting such great acts, the bar staff, door staff and everyone else for making Whelan's One's To Watch 2017 such an enjoyable experience XX.

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