Saint Sister are at a curious stage in their career trajectory. Their officially recorded output numbers seven songs (one EP and two singles), yet their popularity is such that they fill the sizeable, as well as beautiful, National Concert Hall in Dublin. How did they get there?
Gemma Doherty from Derry and Morgan MacIntyre from Belfast met in Dublin while both were singing with the Trinity College Orchestra. Gemma plays the harp and has a background in trad and classical music. Morgan was previously working as a solo singer/songwriter and is influenced by storytellers such as Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez. They started Saint Sister in November 2014. Their music has been described at atmosfolk. I find it reminds me mostly of 80's pop – in a good way: The gothic sound of the Cocteau Twins, the melodies of All About Eve and the poppiness of Strawberry Switchblade.
It is amazing how well their intricate music works live. Saint Sister have gigged mostly as a duo, with harp and keyboards. They use (but not over-use) a loop pedal at times. What will have done their popularity no harm is that they managed to appear at all the coolest of events: SXSW in Austin, the BBC Introducing stage at Glastonbury, RTE's Other Voices in Dingle and Eurosonic in Groningen (see YouTube for clips of their performances there).
I first saw Saint Sister live at Dublin's Christchurch Cathedral last November. That night felt like a carefully planned event as much as a concert, with special affects, lights and the venue itself all contributing towards the special atmosphere. They went a step further for their National Concert Hall show. Special mention first of all has to go to the support act, I Have A Tribe, a sympathetic solo artist who sings melancholic songs while accompanying himself on piano.
Saint Sister themselves pulled out all the stops for this concert. They still performed part of the show as a duo (and I hope they will continue to do this), but had two additional musicians on stage for the majority of their set. Furthermore, a three piece brass section and a six man/woman choir joined them for a number of songs. The result was amazing; it all sounded and looked beautiful. The girls have recently toured mainland Europe as support act for Lisa Hannigan, who came on as a special guest on the night. Lisa, Gemma and Morgan sang a song a cappella, followed by a cover of Leonard Cohen's 'Suzanne'.
In a perfect world the show would have been a couple of songs longer, but I guess it is always good to leave your audience wanting more. The band received a prolonged standing ovation for their efforts.
The concert was filmed, so hopefully we will be able to watch this again someday. I believe that Saint Sister have a great future ahead of them. Hope that they will release a proper album soon!
Catch them at the Lake Stage at Latitude in July or the Other Voices stage at the Electric Picnic in September.
Something of a deviation for us so intrigued and excited in equal measure about this gig. I hadn't done much research on the band beforehand so went along with a completely open mind. On record they are one of those bands that sounds like there's loads of 'em so I was a little surprised to see just four on stage.
An interesting gig on many levels. As the lights went down the stage gave an impression of a theatrical performance in the offing rather than a high-energy gig, with a couch either side of the stage. one with a lamp beside it, the other with a small table and flower arrangement The keys player was a demure Alt-J look-a-like, and as he proceeded through his classical intro he was joined by the bass player from the shadows followed by forms appearing from the settees, being sax player and drummer in mock awakening mode. After a few moments of stretching they took their places and went into the opening number,
This is an extremely tight band, most songs having a jazz foundation. Sax was front and centre throughout the set but didn't dominate. They included a good selection of songs from late 2016 release ‘IV' but alongside this there was plenty of room for each of the band members to showcase their immense talent. And herein lies the reason this outfit are so enjoyable - there was so much variety in their sounds including almost prog-rock deviations including particularly impressive bass solo.
Maintaining a level of humour throughout, at moments when they weren’t included in a particular jam they lay centre stage with a duvet over themselves. Audience participation was requested through a ‘sea of hands’ onto which was launched a blow-up dolphin that had hitherto sat on the drummers PA stack
Whilst most of the songs were instrumental, occasional vocals were provided by the drummer and as the set entered it’s final few songs they had guest appearances from two different female vocalists, the first of which gave a touching rendition of 'Love is A Losing Game’. The second guest vocal, in the encore, was a harder-edged rapper
An excellent and diverse set. West End theatre, Back street jazz club, Festival , New York rap bar, Kentish Town Forum - BBNG Took us to all these places tonight.
There are several elements which need to come together to make a great and memorable gig; the quality of the musicians, the set list they select , the venue and the audience all contribute . Last October at the Derby Folk Festival in the cathedral, this Folk Award winning duo were the stand out performance of the weekend, so I was intrigued to see if their own brand of “....lugubrious bastards out in full lilting lachrymosity” (to quote from their own social media) would translate to a different venue . The Musician is located at the end of a street in one of the less glamorous parts of Leicester, the venue regularly puts on a great selection of live music in a single room with a low ceiling and couldn't provide a greater contrast to Derby Cathedral. Any doubts I had that Clarke & Walker wouldn't work as well here were quickly trashed.
After taking their allotted stage places, Ben seated and Josienne standing, Josienne starts with a perfect antidote to the often used “Let's Rock!”opening of some bands and a reminder of their “misery wagon ... spreading the melancholy” (see above), “Let's get miserable”. Opening with the bluesy 'The Birds' from her first album, followed by “.. and now another banging, dance floor filler” which is the beautiful 'Something Familiar' from most recent album 'Overnight', as is Gillian Welch's 'Dark Turn of Mind', which Josienne feels describes her and jokingly that on the writing of the song “..Gillian wrote it first, well I feel I would eventually have ...”.
“So we just lost a folk award”... referring to their best duo Folk Award nomination (winners 2015, nominees 2016) they play their cover of the traditional “The Banks of Sweet Primroses” as performed at the 2015 awards show.
There are a few new songs tonight, 'Seedlings All' is written about humans being the most overproduced organism on the planet and has a lovely waltz-time guitar part, another track possibly called 'Chicago' is the occasion on a US tour when they arrived at a show in that city to an audience of zero, as a reminder not to become a diva. Then in a shock move that may “.....put the final nail into our folk coffin...” they have two tracks featuring a drum machine (please no fainting now), one of which is a cover of Dolly Parton's 'Little Sparrow'... after which Josienne says “maybe we've had a couple of walk-outs, it's too dark to tell”.
The Musician is in its 'Folk club' set up tonight, chairs grouped around small round tables with a candle on each one, familiar to those who have seen the Coen Brothers 'Inside Llewyn Davis' based in 1960's Greenwich Village folk clubs, recalling this period they play covers of 'Reynardine' and 'Fotheringay' both well know from the 1960's version of Fairport Convention.
Josienne's self-deprecating sense of dark humour continues with her review of their version of Nick Drakes' 'Time Has Told Me', “...beautiful but rather pointless, much like the band playing as the Titanic sank.”. And of her own songwriting style “ I keep trying to write a euphoric, anthemic number but they eventually descend into melancholy” before playing 'Silverline' which features the line “And somehow my view is always imbued with melancholy hues” just to prove the point.
Those of you who are already aware of this duo will know that Josienne's stunning, melancholic (yes, that word again) vocals and Ben's beautiful guitar playing, which is subtle and supportive of Josienne's vocals when it needs to be and is also strong enough to drive the tracks in a variety of different styles when required, together make a perfect combination. Maybe you cannot dance to these “lugubrious bastards”, but you cannot fail to be totally engrossed by their beautiful, mesmerising performance.
There is a pub halfway up the Rathmines Road that has changed name many times over the years. It has now become a live music venue. I first became aware of this when I noticed that none other than Lee Scratch Perry was due to play a stone's throw from my flat. The Upsetter proved to be too popular and his show was moved to a bigger venue, but on Thursday I got to check the venue out.
On the bill were Liam O Maonlaí, musical genius best known as the singer of the Hothouse Flowers, and Rónán Ó Snodaigh, founder member of Kíla. These descriptions do not at all do them full justice. Both men also work as solo artists and collaborators in numerous musical projects. Rónán teaches the bodhran and has recently started a Tuesday night trad session with Eoin Dillon at Whelans (see 'Call The Dancers'). I first became aware of Liam when the wonderful video for 'Don't Go' was shown at the 1988 Eurovision, and I have recently seen him play churches, either solo on a church organ or with his other band Ré.
Both men were active in the Grafton Street busking scene in the 80's alongside Glen Hansard and Mic Christopher amongst others. They are Gaeilgeoirs (Irish speakers) and the advert for the show described them as musical shamans, druids even! I did not know what to expect of the collaboration but was sure it would be fascinating.
The show took place on Holy Thursday and the venue was packed and lively. On Good Friday the pubs would stay closed, so folks seemed bent on living it up. Support came from David Keenan, a young singer/songwriter from Dundalk. I was struck by his confidence. David has a strong voice, not unlike Liam, sometimes sounding like Damien Dempsey. The songs he sang were all his own and I particularly liked one about James Dean. Though he was unknown to me he had a fan base in attendance that was seated near me.
Liam O Maonlaí is a multi-instrumentalist, but for this show he concentrated on the piano, besides a short stint on the bodhran and some frantic African-style dancing (impressive for a man the far side of 50). Rónán stuck to the bodhran, of which he is a master, plus one song on a tiny guitar. The varied set included some Hothouse Flowers songs ('Movies', 'Feel Like Living') and some Kíla ones ('Dúisigí' and 'Cathain'). Both men have recorded 'Cathain' and they sang this together in breakneck speed Irish, which sounds very exotic to my ears.
An early highlight was a highly original cover version of Talking Heads' 'Once In A Lifetime'. Many of the songs turned into long jams, with tribal percussion and improvised singing. There were some traditionals too – 'Carrickfergus' and 'Bean Pháidín'. Rónán sang a song in English for a fallen friend. I very much like his unique voice, but I do somehow think he sounds better singing in Irish, perhaps because I am more used to hearing him sing that way.
The atmosphere in the packed pub was fantastic, as the beer kept flowing and the crowd kept calling for more. The show ended with Liam leading the crowd; something he is so good at and which I have seen him do on a number of very different occasions (at the Festival of World Cultures, at Glen Hansard's traditional Christmas Eve busk in Grafton Street). He manages to get everyone on board, not just the trad cognoscenti. And it was not an easy song we sang either. He got the entire pub to sing several verses of the 'Lakes Of Pontchartrain'. It was a truly magical moment.
If you ever get the chance to see these druids collaborate, do not miss it!
The projection screen above the stage glowing with images similar to the opening shots from an episode of Twin Peaks illuminates tonight's audience: check shirts = plenty; beards= of course; audience members under the age of 30 years = not many ; bald/ balding heads some covered by baseball caps = inevitably. After a hiatus of 10 years Ladies and Gentleman welcome back, Grandaddy.
The past seventeen years vanish during the intro to the first track tonight which is 'Hewlett's Daughter' from their breakthrough album 'The Sophtware Slump', frontman Jason Lytle's characteristic vocals and the tinkling piano riff wiping the years away. The projection screen changes to shots of huge expanses of deserts a perfect fit for the epic opening, power chords of ' “Yeah” Is What We Had' from 'Sumday', the chorus of “In this life, will I ever see you again?” being a question many of the audience had presumably asked of the band.
At the end of the song Jason proves that he's done some research into the local dialect “ Ay Up Mi Ducks, is that how it goes?”, (I can provide a satisfactory translation of “Hello Everyone” for those of you not from the East Midlands).
A sound similar to a fanfare from a child's trumpet and Aaron Burtch's (supporting fine Billy Gibbons style facial hair) metronomic drumming start the first track from this year's superb new album ' Last Place', with it's lovely melody over the lyric “Damned if we do. Dumb if we don't”. Single 'Evermore' pulls a very similar trick and proves that this new set of songs is as strong as anything from their back catalogue.
The projection screen of vast Mid-Western American landscapes of deserts, railroads and trucks which rolls along throughout the set is so bright we mostly see the band in shadow and silhouette so that it almost feels as if we are listening to the soundtrack to a road movie. Jason breaks out of the soundtrack mood during 'Lost on Yer Merry Way' by laughing at himself as he stumbles over the words.
One of the most instantly recognisable song intros of the past 20 years has to be the wonky keyboard of 'A.M. 180', so it deservedly gets the warm reaction of instant recognition when it kicks in, as does 'The Crystal Lake' a single from 2000.
The main set finishes with an extended version of ' He's Simple, He's Dumb, He's the Pilot' which is a perfect choice , it's simple harpsichord /vocals start which then builds with layers of swelling keyboards through “Are you giving in 2000 man? ( Did you love this world and did this world not love you ?)” for an appropriate finish to tonight's show.
A two track encore follows “ We got one new one, and one old one”; the new one being 'The Boat Is In Barn', which is the best track from the new album and the old one is a complete mood change with the guitar- heavy dash through 'Summer Here Kids', with an added “ Thank you for coming, Good Night” as the final chords fade away.
A tremendous evening highlighting the best moments of their career; Grandaddy welcome back, a worthwhile return.