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Birmingham Tradfest - 21-24 November 2019

Alex Monaghan sampled one of the most exciting Irish festivals in the UK

Six years ago, three or four lads at college in Birmingham had the idea of putting on a festival so they could book some of their favourite Irish bands. How hard could it be? And thus, Birmingham Tradfest was born. The lads are still running it, but their team has grown, and they now know just how hard it is to organise a world class festival! Tradfest has been hugely successful and has established an enviable reputation since the first event in 2014. The line-up for 2019 included some of the biggest names in Irish music for the last 50 years, as well as recent stars and total newcomers, all crammed into a November weekend to rival the finest Irish festivals on the planet.

Lúnasa, probably the best Irish band of this century, was headlining the opening night in Tradfest's trademark triple bill concert programme. The music had started well before, with a Thursday launch gig in the iconic Spotted Dog pub, centrally located among the various venues in Birmingham's Irish quarter; Eimear McGeown, James Carty and Sinéad Egan had played a storming set to a packed bar before the first of the late-night sessions for which Birmingham is justly famous. Friday dawned unnoticed by the scores of musicians who had dragged themselves to bed in the dark of early morning, but by evening it was standing room only in the music pubs until everyone headed to Birmingham's South & City College for the first big concert. The Canny Band, based around the button box of Sam Mabbett with some of the best backing musicians north of Dublin, was first on stage in a hall full of youngsters keen to listen, dance, and maybe have a drink or two. Next up was a rare treat, duetting banjos from folk rocker Damien O'Kane and bluegrass phenomenon Ron Block; this pair recently released a stunning album, and they played a great range of new tunes spanning Irish and oldtime with a pumping rock'n'roll vibe from Duncan Lyall on bass and Stevie Byrnes on guitar. Banjo virtuosity was front and centre, phenomenal playing on both tenor and 5-string, with a couple of songs thrown in for good measure. As the clock moved past 10pm, Lunasa finally stepped up to rapturous applause: Kevin Crawford, Cillian Vallely, Sean Smyth on fiddle, Ed Boyd on guitar and anchorman Trevor Hutchinson, a dream team of Celtic music. Reels and jigs, polkas and slides, Breton and Galician tunes were dazzlingly arranged and performed as the youngsters danced their hardest and the older punters stood open-mouthed. Old favourites, new sets of tunes, classic triple whistle showpieces and even some tragicomic singing filled a full concert programme, bringing us close to midnight before the last notes of the final encore.

For most people that would have been the end of a great evening, home for a cup of cocoa and a warm bed, but the Tradfest crowd was not so easily satisfied - or perhaps, as several performers suggested over the course of the weekend, they just had no homes to go to. Whatever the reason, hundreds of mostly young and mildly intoxicated fans filled the floor of the Festival Club for more of the same. Proceedings kicked off with a ceilidh set from the augmented Canny Band with Eryn Rae on fiddle and Scott Turnbull on guitar joining keys ace Michael Biggins and drummer Kevin Convoy with the impressive Sam leading a set that saw step-dancing, threesome reels, tumbling and slip-sliding dance moves from the more energetic audience members. Paddy Callaghan's famous Trad Disco filled the changeover while Paddy himself took over accordion duties, to be joined by champion Dublin boxer Peter Browne for some seriously flash late-night tunes. I made my excuses and left shortly after 2am, footsore but with a head full of great music.

My feet were still sore in the morning, but my head was mercifully clear as I headed for one of the early sessions. Things were a little more muted, but by the time the afternoon concerts were starting there was a real buzz. Album launches by the Queally Sisters, Michael Walsh, and Dublin duo Doireann Glackin & Sarah Flynn sadly clashed with the annual Molloy Award competition for new talent, so I opted for the latter; five young acts selected for the final, every one a potential winner. The Border, a very young six-piece band (Molly Walls, Dearbhla Scallon, Sadhnh McCabe, Tara Gilsenan, Shane Maguire and Fergal Donohoe) with a distinctive Ulster sound, was followed by Séamus Ó Baoighill and Paddy Mckeown from Skye and Belfast respectively on fiddle and guitar. The extremely impressive 3 On The Bund - actually a quartet of Aisling Lyons, Rebecca McCarthy Kent, Sean Kelliher and piper Simon Pfisterer - were formed at the University of Limerick but battle-hardened on tour, and their set was very popular with the audience. Another Limerick band, the slightly younger 302, combined songs and instrumentals with a contemporary edge from Megan Nic Fhionnghaile, Orla O'Brien, Edel McGrory, Paddy Doyle and Kevin Rooney. After difficult deliberations, the judges declared the duo of Breanna Wilson and Sophie Joint the winners of the 2019 award, which means this Glasgow fiddle and keyboard pairing will be on the main stage in 2020! Look out for future gigs from 3 On The Bund too, and the compelling flute and voice of Dearbhla Scallon.

Time for another session, this time with the Kane Sisters from Letterfrack, before a damp downhill trudge to the college concert hall for another triple bill of Tradfest brilliance. The contemporary quartet, Strung, set the ball rolling with a range of tradition-inspired arrangements on two fiddles, cello and keyboard; playing everything from Phil Cunningham's Hut On Staffin Island to the distinctive Dum Dee Dum Dee Song which, for me, recalled Edward II's Smoothing Iron classic. Dublin button box beast Peter Browne and his hugely talented band brought things back to more familiar territory, albeit with the inclusion of trad jazz, flamenco, and a bit of rock'n'roll alchemy to turn Irish dance music into a feverish and intoxicating assault on the senses. Saturday's main act was the perfect answer to this - John Carty and Matt Molloy with Brian McGrath, three absolute gentlemen of the tradition, hugely respected and reasonably respectable as they took to the stage in smart suits with nothing more than water to sustain them. This was soon rectified in the shape of a few pints, and the music flowed unfettered; mostly in the Sligo style, but venturing further afield for variety. Fiddle and flute duets and solos, with McGrath's sure touch on the keyboard, and an hour flew past unnoticed. These three are rightly viewed as icons of the tradition, and it was a great treat to see them in such a sympathetic setting. When the more sensible audience members had gone to bed, the Festival Club featured several of the day's performers including Molloy Award contestants who were certainly ready for this new opportunity.

Sunday allowed a bit of a lie-in - the sessions didn't start until noon - so there was already a good crowd in the Old Crown Hotel when the tunes got going and many musicians stayed on all afternoon. Birmingham Tradfest stages its final concert relatively early in the day, which means folk can get away in time for work on Monday, so by 2pm seats were filling up in the Castle & Falcon for one more three-way performance. Alfi, a trio of piper Fiachra Meek, Alannah Thornburgh and Ryan McAuley, were last year's Molloy Award winners and have been carving quite a groove with their blend of American oldtime and Irish trad. While Ryan retuned his bluegrass banjo, Fiachra and harpist Alannah introduced slides and polkas, songs and clog dances, some of their own tunes and several old standards from Aboyne to Appalachia. Liz and Yvonne Kane changed the style, but not the atmosphere; both acts were crowd-pleasers, and the Kane Sisters were cracking jokes with the audience in between their smooth and seamless performances of East Galway music. The recent loss of legendary composer Paddy Fahey inspired even more emotion than usual in his sinuous reels and jigs, but there was joy in the playing and in the listening as this pair delivered a fiddle masterclass with accompaniment from the multi-talented John Blake.

The tone was severely lowered after the break. In spite of the best efforts of Oisín Mac Diarmada and Samantha Harvey, iconic Kerry singer and box player Seamus Begley headed straight for the crudities as surely as a vegan at a barbecue. Shameless stories of country life, enough to destroy the Kerry Tourist Board, were punctuated by rousing Munster music. His co-stars weren't safe either; despite his obvious regard for their fiddle and keyboard skills, Begley didn't spare their blushes in his tales of life on the road with this young couple. The craic was mighty, but when Seamus sang you could have heard a Kerryman's wallet open. Cill Mhuire, The Mountains Of Pomeroy, Bruach na Carraige Báine, Anach Cuaine and more poured out in a rich tide. For one Japanese lady, Seamus sang a song in her own language and she ran him close on that one! A solo or two from Oisín and Samantha, reels and jigs from all three, and a couple of foot-stomping encores completed an exceptional concert. Then there was nothing for it but to repair to the bar for tea and sandwiches and a huge session with Molloy contestants past and present, Kanes and Cullens and Callaghans, and several youngsters who will no doubt pop up at future Birmingham Tradfests. Fierce music, a full pub, food and drink aplenty, rain outside: why would you leave?

birminghamtradfest.co.uk