Sligo Live is Ireland’s most westerly musical gathering, with a line-up ranging from indie to trad, and headliners including Joan Armatrading, Scottish trio Lau, and accordion queen Sharon Shannon.
But the highlights are really to be found at the long, late-night sessions in McHugh’s, Foley’s, Hargadon Bros, Kennedy’s, the Snug and innumerable other Sligo bars, where fiddlers, pipers, singers, box players, veterans and new blood all vie for supremacy, poetry and whiskey, and the kind of spirit that inspired Sligo resident W B Yeats to write “The Fiddler of Dooney”.
It was Yeats’s poetry that festival headliner Van Morrison was billed to perform at the Knocknarea Arena, a sports hall in the Technological Institute 20 minutes’ walk from the centre, baseball hoops high up on the rear wall and a full house on hard chairs awaiting a special performance from the Man and his eight-piece band, with whom he cut acclaimed new album, Born to Sing: No Plan B.
Instead of recitations, the emphasis was on the words playing out through some of his most gorgeous tunes, notably from 1986’s No Guru, No Method, No Teacher, an album he drew deeply from. Opener “A Town Called Paradise”, “ Foreign Window”, “Oh the Warm Feeling”, “Tir Na Nog”, “Got to Go Back”, and the half-sung, halfspoken “In the Garden” all featured in a generous, 17-song set.
Around them came songs from the new album, from 1989’s Avalon Sunset – the richly evocative autobiographical narrative, “Coney Island”, one of several musical poems, rather than songs, that studded the set.
Common One’s “ Haunts of Ancient Peace” was drawn from the work of Edwardian Poet Laureate Alfred Austin, and after delivering “Crazy Love” and a spot-on version of “Moondance” – it was a full moon out there, after all – he played out with a mesmerising, house-raising performance of “In the Days Before Rock ’n’ Roll”, feasting on his own vocal dexterities and wordless, ecstatic riffing – a kind of Northern Irish Qawali.
Conducting his band with abrupt strokes, waves, and pokes, as if he were wired to a lightning rod, his delivery throughout was dramatic, committed, and more potent and impassioned than you’d have any reason to expect. The poetry was in the performance, and the words rang true. “I’ve been to 40 of his concerts,” one veteran shouted up to pianist Paul Moran at the end, after Morrison had left the stage, still singing. “And that was the best I’ve ever seen.” Still the Man, then.