When Other Voices founder Philip King began his festival-come-television-show almost two decades ago, he did so because he wanted to capture a photo of the musical life of Ireland at the time. Whilst the breadth of the event’s offering now extends beyond the Irish border, what a remarkable picture it captures all the same.
Set in the idyllic port town of Dingle, it would be easy to play up the incongruity of such a place holding any festival at all; in truth, the town’s bohemian air and multitude of pubs makes it a charming host, as you hop from venue to venue, soaking up one act after the other with a Guinness or hot toddy to hand.
Having put on the likes of Amy Winehouse, Florence + The Machine and The xx before many of them were household names, Other Voices has become a musical pilgrimage, unfazed by the need to be flashy or marketable with their curation.
Instead it places talent of all musical persuasions at the front-and-centre, becoming something of the artist’s festival – as demonstrated by Fontaines D.C.’s appearance this year to catch fellow Irish outfit Just Mustard.
Despite inevitable rumours of a secret set, they had indeed simply rocked up to enjoy their current counterparts in a fairly lengthy detour between their own shows in Dublin (the night before) and Limerick (the night after).
There were of course big names who did play, with Loyle Carner, Paolo Nutini and increasingly promising rockers Inhaler – who’d also played Dublin themselves the night prior – all on the bill this year.
The allure for them is as much about getting to play in the celestial St. James’ Church, on terms they wish their album could be heard.
None of this was more true than for Loyle Carner on Saturday night, who reeled off tracks from his recent, deeply personal album hugo, which tackles the London rapper’s mixed-race heritage and strained familial relations in even greater intimate clarity than we’ve heard from him before.
Starting with album opener ‘Hate’ and concluding with an acapella rendition of ‘HGU’, Loyle was intentional with his bars and grateful in his demeanour.
At one stage he even welled up explaining the origins of the speech about knife crime from teenage activist Athian Akec in ‘Blood On My Nikes’.
Ethereal songwriter and producer Gemma Dunleavy had also used her platform the night prior to deliver a potent political message, calling out police inaction over the death of Terrence Wheelock some 17 years ago.
Emotions were high too in Paolo Nutini’s set, which led with ‘Abigail’ and finished with ‘Writer’; both tracks derived from a compelling 2022 record of the Paisley-born singer’s own, Last Night In The Bittersweet, Nutini’s first release in eight years.
The spirit-rousing ‘Everywhere’, with its lyrical reflection on love’s omnipresence, was suitably divine in the church setting.
Whilst these two high-profile performances set the bar, the highlight among the church performances was Just Mustard’s Sunday set. There was evidently a reason for Fontaines’ being there.
Few current bands take on existential anguish quite like the Dundalk outfit; their otherworldly Heart Under album, another from this year, combines frontwoman Katie Ball’s eerie vocals with a whirring wall of textured noise rock.
Moments such as ‘Early’ and their 2019 single ‘Frank’ felt like a summoning ritual, made all the more profound by the nature of the setting. Much like the rolling hills that enclose Dingle harbour, it conjured an antiquated, folkloric world.
Not every act proved quite so befitting of the church, among the three nights of music played there. A technically heavy set from Gilla Band – arguably one of the progenitors of a recent resurgence in Irish post-punk – proved too loud for the church to bear at times. Indie rockers The Big Moon, meanwhile, although affable, were occasionally anodyne, not making full use of the subtlety that could be afforded by playing such an intimate set.
What’s more, a notable difficulty with such a festival is in many ways a backhanded compliment, with Other Voices falling victim to its own success. The small church seats less than 80 (at a squeeze), and are divvied out in a lottery style.
One woman told me she couldn’t believe it when she won her church seats in a charity raffle; another, unaware where she was standing, scowled when she realised I was queuing to go in.
Luckily, as in everyday life, there was plenty of fun to be had beyond the confines of the church. True to their name, THUMPER closed Saturday night at Geaney’s Yard with a clamour of drums and guitars.
The Dublin band in fact have two drummers and four guitarists, and the outburst of noise created, though often hard to decipher, created a continually high-energy atmosphere. They saw off their set by parting the crowd in two – a wall of death, as it’s colloquially named.
Gurriers, also from Dublin, were more musically discerning, but no less rabble-rousing. The magic of their Sunday night gig in The Dingle Pub was impressive enough by the fact nothing was seriously damaged, as they played with only their instruments in-between them and the densely-packed, Guinness-fuelled crowd (if ‘crowd’ is a suitable term for a bunch of people squashed together in a small pub).
Of course it wasn’t all a boisterous punk’s retreat. The wispy vocals of Amy Michelle was a soothing, sorrowful affair in the stone chapel, An Diseart. Henry Earnest, yet another Dubliner, wasn’t so much rowdy as he was warbling. Hidden behind layers of thick smoke, his experimental synth-pop oscillated between Sigur Rós, Mogwai and elements of Frank Ocean.
Cormac Begley, a local West Kerry lad and one of the world’s foremost concertina players, rounded-off the church shows on Sunday. His dexterous playing made his instruments breathe, as he weaved his song between fetching tales that spoke to Irish tradition.
Begley had helped commence the weekend, by soundtracking the traditional Irish dancing of cultural activist Edwina Guckie following the inaugural discussion at Other Voices’ accompanying talk series, Ireland’s Edge.
Other speakers this year included Shon Faye, author of The Transgender Issue: An Argument for Justice; Ireland’s Minister for Finance, Paschal Donohoe; and Pulitzer-nominated journalist Carole Cadwalladr.
Indeed, this is a festival designed to make you think, as much as dance. Even if that dancing is merely toe-tapping and head-shaking inside a small church – provided, of course, you’re lucky enough to get a ticket. Either way, you’ll come away from Other Voices having witnessed an extraordinary snapshot of musical life in these lands.