The Other Voices festival has been bringing big and new names to the tiny St. James church in Dingle, County Kerry for a decade. For this franchising expedition to London, Dexys, Laura Marling, John Grant, Villagers, Imelda May and Matthew E. White are amongst those playing short sets in the similarly old, intimate, lovely Wilton’s Music Hall. Subsidised by TV coverage hosted by Aidan Gillen, over three nights, rare, close-up snapshots of the varied musicians take shape.
Laura Marling, focusing on her new album Once I Was An Eagle, uses her pale beauty with still power, her strong gaze matching the songs’ arresting pile-ups of imagery. If you think the torrents of words recall Dylan, well, “It ain’t me, babe,” she chides on “Master Hunter”, and if she hardly seems the devil-marked woman of “Pray For Me”, her desire to try on characters and stories, not confess, is her most Dylanesque trait. Oxford’s Stornoway, though, offer the weekend’s most powerful renewal of the hard verities which are folk music’s currency. “November Song” recounts the fundamental comforts of home and a mother’s love. Then “The Ones We Hurt The Most” details a selfless parent’s painful death. The detail brings tears from me.
Stornoway also describe rooted journeys, a theme too of Villagers - essentially Conor O’Brien. The impish, centuries-skipping shaggy dog story “Earthly Pleasure” is the most expansive and rewarding song by this sometimes preciously sensitive, keening-voiced young Irishman. “Take your Irish stereotype,” suggests Dexys’ Wolverhampton Irish singer Kevin Rowland on “Nowhere Is Home”, “and stick it up your arse.” Daring ridicule and absurdity in reaching for truth and style, he even rejigs “Geno” as a quest for identity. John Grant would understand. Beginning with “TMF”’s lacerating character auto-assassination, he dives deep into his own unhealthy, unbalanced emotions.
Newer names range from Laura Mvula, already fast-tracked to success and capable of bluesy emoting and straight-driving Afro-funk, and 16-year-old Irish girl Bridie Monds-Watson, aka SOAK, whose pure voice and sharpness of metaphor are precocious. Virginian Matthew E. White, though, just breaking through with his debut Big Inner, is the biggest coup. The fast, funky, Jackson 5-style pop of “Steady Pace”, in which he and the bassist formation-step like Motown old-timers, and “Gone Away”’s contemplative then finally transcendent, heaven-wrestling gospel show his range. His essentially hippie sensibility is the last, happy voice we hear.