Open House Winter Weekender

Director Kieran Gilmore on the 'almost-but-not-quite' folk festival that runs in Belfast and Bangor from January 31 to February 3

Surrounded by posters from festival's past, and sitting at the boardroom table, which is covered in stacks of promotional material for the upcoming Winter Weekender, Open House director Kieran Gilmore waxes lyrical about the increasing popularity of folk music in recent years.

‘We were using the word "folk" ten years ago, but most people thought it was very uncool,’ he says, listing the likes of Mumford & Sons, Fleet Foxes and the Lumineers as three good reasons why folk has gone mainstream in a way that would have been unthinkable a decade ago.

‘In the last four or five years it’s turned around again,' adds Gilmore. 'People are quite proud to be talking about themselves as a folk artist or a folk band, or liking folk music.’

So it’s with a rising excitement that Gilmore looks forward to his organization’s upcoming Winter Weekender – an almost-but-not-quite festival that runs from the January 31 to February 3, and which serves as the grand finale of Open House’s slightly odd 2012 season.

‘We wanted to go out with a bang, so we put together a full weekend of what we’re about: American folk and Irish folk music,’ Gilmore says, before explaining why he’s been reluctant to use the word 'festival' to describe the Weekender.

‘I wanted to differentiate between our annual festival, which will be held in June 2013, and this, which is something we wanted to do after not having had our annual festival in 2012.’

Since 1999, the Open House Festival has brought the best of underground, indie and rock-tinged Irish and American folk music to Belfast each June. In 2012, however, rising costs and an inability to secure its preferred headliners forced Open House to cancel its main festival, and instead to present smaller, weekly gigs in and around the city.

What could have been a setback was, as it turned out, a blessing in disguise. Not only did the festival dodge the wettest June on record, but the weekly gigs were also a great success, and allowed Open House to expand its reach from its Cathedral Quarter home into the rest of Belfast and further afield, to the Goat's Toe venue in Bangor.

‘It’s given us a whole different perspective,’ Gilmore admits. ‘In 2013 we want to run the five-day festival, but we also want to run shows all year round and maybe the odd weekend event like this one coming up. It wasn’t meant to work out this way – we don’t always do things the way they should be done – but we’re just passionate about music.’

The Winter Weekender focuses on the kind of folk music that the staff at Open House are passionate about: edgy, contemporary, slightly dangerous folk that is very much of the alive and kicking variety, and not the kind collected by anthropologists and left to fester in dusty university archives.

‘There’s a whole new generation that have come from a punk or metal background who have come across American traditional music, loved it and wanted to play it,’ Gilmore comments. ‘They’ve come at it from a completely different perspective and they’ve brought a freshness and a bit of an attitude, and you can hear it in the music. That’s what we like.’

To that end, Gilmore is especially excited about two of the headliners coming to Belfast for the Winter Weekender: American band Old Crow Medicine Show, and Irish quartet We Banjo 3.

Old Crow Medicine Show play a twangy mix of Nashville country and Kentucky bluegrass that manages to defy the rules of both, while We Banjo 3 deftly meld Irish and American banjo styles. Both bands are at the top of their game on the national and international folk scenes, and are not-to-be-missed for the folk/trad aficionado.

While he may be most excited about those two acts, Gilmore assures audiences that there’s nothing at the Winter Weekender worth taking a pass on. Other acts included on the bill are Sara Watkins (pictured above), The Hard Chargers, Meabh O’Hare, Noriana Kennedy and Colm Ó Caoimh.

‘We don’t do filler,' Gilmore concludes, almost punching the boardroom table to emphasis his point: as passionate as ever he was. 'We don’t have to do filler and we don’t do it. Everything has been hand-picked. All our programs are curated. So I’m looking forward to it all, to be honest.’

Open House Winter Weekender takes place from January 31 to February 3 at venues in Cathedral Quarter, throughout Belfast and in Bangor. Visit the Open House website for more information.