Fionn Regan, 229, London
Monday 08 September 2008
A haunting wail of harmonica signals the arrival of Fionn Regan. Standing in the spotlight, battered guitar draped around his neck, you could be forgiven for getting caught up in the moment.
As a venue, however, 229 resembles little more than a school hall and the drunken English lit students kissing in the shadows only add to the "band night" feel.
The opening chords of "Hey Rabbit" float off the stage, Regan's voice, at once soft and powerful, bringing a hush to the crowd. For a man with only an acoustic guitar, Regan's sound is huge, almost Spector-esque in its magnitude.
Plenty has been written about Regan's similarities to Bob Dylan but, judging by this performance, the only real parallel that can be drawn is that both have been heavily influenced by the folk star Woody Guthrie.
Early on, Regan covers the Guthrie classic "Slip Knot" to a rapturous reception. For the moment, the audience are hanging on to every word the boy from Co. Wicklow spits out. But sadly, when the words are his own, Regan descends too far into kitsch and whimsy.
If the Irish troubadour has a hit single, it would be "Penny in the Slot", which gets an airing mid-set. The chiming guitar line and lo-fi romance brings to mind early Leonard Cohen, as Regan's lilting voice crackles with emotion.
And therein lies the problem. The path Regan and his ilk walk has been so well trodden that it becomes impossible to judge any new artist on their own merit, without drawing comparisons with the past masters.
So many greats have come this way before – Guthrie, Seeger, et al – that new folkies and critics alike too often fall into retrospection. By its very nature, folk music gazes into the past for inspiration, leaving the audience fumbling for something new to hold on to.
It was a problem that threatened to destroy Regan's set towards to the end as conversation erupted at the back of the hall. In an age of smoking bans and Big Brother, expecting an audience to stand in utter silence for more than an hour as they listen to music that hasn't really changed in 50 years just goes to show how ripe folk music is for reinvention.
Sadly, Regan doesn't break enough new ground to be able to do it.
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