Other Voices

Derry~Londonderry again plays host to the acclaimed music series featuring Foy Vance and more

For the second consecutive year, the world-renowned Other Voices live music television programme relocates from its traditional home of Dingle, County Kerry to Derry~Londonderry, featuring a galaxy of national and international musicians arriving to strut their stuff in Music City 2014.

In the intimate Glassworks for the first of three nights, producer cum compere Phil King seems sprightly, clearly rejuvenated by the fact that Derry has established itself as a 'second home' for Other Voices.

First on the bill is Public Service Broadcasting, the rather abstract combination of London-based J Willgoose, Esq and drumming partner Wrigglesworth. Like Woody Allen by way of the Coen Brothers, Willgoose’s bow-tied and bespectacled appearance complements his amusingly witty material.

It is the pseudonymous duo’s 'mission' to gather information from old public information films, archive footage and propaganda material and present it in a modern musical fashion. In other words, they aim to 'inform, educate and entertain' in the best possible Reithian tradition.

Four old-fashioned black-and-white television sets sit either side of the Glassworks stage, relaying some of the band’s videos. Every colour of lighting imaginable cuts through the darkness, and Willgoose marks himself out as a rather awkward frontman. But is it entertaining?

Undoubtedly it is, though the extreme archness of the band’s approach and music ensures slight detachment. It’s not every day you see a band merge such skilled beats and new wave influences with sources as diverse as WH Auden and Edward R Murrow.

Amusingly, neither Willgoose nor Wrigglesworth interact with the audience in the traditional sense, their in-between song interludes instead consisting of pre-prepared samplings. Perhaps in trying to cover so many bases, PSB overwhelm a little, though they are the sort that stay with you.

Following this information overload, the audience are in need of something a little more palatable, and that is exactly what Foy Vance provides. The contrast between PSB and Vance – who played Other Voices back in 2007 – could not be greater, the latter arriving on stage dressed in white and his trademark flat cap.

Described by Phil King as 'a singer, songwriter and an awful lot more', Vance surprisingly struggles to keep calm as he performs the steadily gloomy opener, 'Joy Of Nothing'. His legs shake heavily, perhaps indicating that the occasion has gotten to him, but by the time of second number 'Janey' he is evidently more settled. 

Vance looks and sounds as if he hails from the Deep South, his voice reeking of passion, his acoustic guitar playing and backing band full of bluesy of life. But it is his calm amusement, his homely 'one of us' persona and a steady but unspectacular sound that recommends this set to both the listener and viewer.

Uncomfortable shades of Gray – David Gray, that is – are present at times, but Vance's sound is undeniably more resonant. The singable chorus of 'Guiding Light' features full audience involvement, ending the set on a relaxing high. It’s a moving reminder that Other Voices is as much about the voice of the community as the artist.

The 'tradition, translation and transmission' we are promised from Colm Mac Con Iomaire come to fruition in the Frames violinist’s frankly beautiful opening number, 'Emer’s Dream'. On his own at the mic, with only his guitar and recording equipment to accompany him, he records and loops four different layers of sound.

Mac Con Iomaire is then joined by pianist Catherine Fitzgerald and cellist Ben Castell for 'The Finish Line', another richly rewarding piece that echoes the best of last year’s Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann. The intricacy of the instrumental harmonies successfully overlap to create a solemn yet strangely uplifting melody that one doesn’t want to hear end.

'A Study In Scarlet' – which brings in the services of guitarist Colm Quearney and Frank Tate on bazouki – is not as mesmerising, but gives more room for each instrument to breathe. And for the remainder of the set, it's all about concentrated, classic trad instrumentals and reels with an occasional bluesy bent, particularly in 'Though Shalt Not Carry Timber'. If the wow factor wears off after Mac Con Iomaire’s first two numbers, one is at least left admiring the skill of him and his fellow musicians immensely.

The Elbow-esque 'Starlings Over Brighton Pier', which opens Bell X1’s set, gives the clearest sign of what’s to come from the final act of the night, who also previously performed at Other Voices. Moody, atmospheric and laced with regret, there is a fragmented temperament in the piano playing and drum beats, which indicates that this a time for reflection and rumination, a theme of the band’s 2013 album Chop Chop.

What makes Bell X1 distinctive here is the messages in their songs – 'Trying to be all things to all men, you end up being none'. But even though the inventive lyrics are somewhat morbid, it’s hard not to appreciate the band’s efforts; when Noonan unexpectedly jumps from the piano to the drums to sing the refrain of 'A Thousand Little Downers', it's impressive indeed.

Noonan's strong, clear voice helps to carry Bell X1’s performance over the rough patches. There’s even room for humour when Noonan prepares to set the woodblock in place for 'I Will Follow You', only to remember that tonight, he’s being both recorded and streamed live and thus has nowhere to hide. Cue mirth from a fully appreciative audience.

It is left for the band to conclude with 'The End Is Nigh', but we know that the end is far from nigh for any of our performers tonight, or indeed the influence of Other Voices in Derry~Londonderry and beyond.

Watch several of this year's Other Voices Derry performances on the Guardian website.

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