Something very exciting is happening in Dundalk. We aren’t referring to the comeback of The Corrs either. They may be the town’s biggest musical export to date, but they’re by no means definitive of the Dundalk music scene.
Over the last few years a wealth of exciting young acts have emerged, spanning the genre spectrum from indie rock to funk, and from metal to hip-hop. The likes of Third Smoke, Beached Whales, David Keenan and Elephant have gone from playing in local pubs to gracing national stages, and garnered plenty of critical acclaim in the process, and seem to have a bright future ahead of them.
But it wasn’t always thus. Louise Tangney of local festival Vantastival recalls that, as a border town during the Troubles, Dundalk was a pretty grim place, both musically and otherwise. “During the ‘70s and '80s,” she explains, Dundalk was very much considered “beyond the pale.” There was no major venue, and the town’s rough reputation ensured few touring bands ever paid a visit. Although there was a rich history of traditional music (from which The Corrs emerged, along with plenty of other notable acts), for most other musical genres, it was something of a wasteland.
It wasn’t really until the ‘90s that things started to change. “Although there had been local venues in operation throughout the decades,” says Tangney, “it was with the opening of The Spirit Store and the national and international acts that it began to attract, that the whole scene seemed to really establish." The Spirit Store - a small pub on the quayside that feels more like somebody's house - established a distinct music scene in the town. “The best talent was now on display in this gem of a venue, which I think inspired the local youth to seriously up their game.”
Right from it's early days, The Store managed to attract top musical acts. As Derek Turner – music booker for The Spirit Store and founder of Tumbleweed Recording Studios explains – “We started on a diet of solo artists like Glen Hansard, Josh Ritter, Christy Moore and Mic Christopher… and that developed into guitar bands like Director, the Blizzards and Delorentos.” With a dose of musical life injected into the town, a stream of local talent began to emerge.
One such act was Jinx Lennon, a singer-songwriter with a thick Dundalk accent, penning irreverent tunes about the most mundane aspects of life. Seeing “A local lad performing in the vernacular,” says Tangney, “gave a lot of confidence to aspiring musicians, and also gave them an anti-champion at a time when The Corrs were Dundalk's only musical reference point.” His songs embraced a local humour that was at times grim and self-deprecating, and melded having the craic through music with some serious social commentary.
With The Store maintaining a focus keeping fresh local acts alongside the bigger names on its bill, bands like The Flaws, The Trampz, I'd Fight Ghandi and The Curtain Thieves found a proving ground, paving the way for bigger things. The Flaws went on to earn a Choice Prize nomination for the debut LP in 2007. For Turner, this involvement with local talent is crucial. “I see it as a duty to encourage art and expression. A healthy scene means you are part of local creativity and you are essentially plugged in to what’s happening. It’s so hard for new acts to get noticed and we need to help where we can…” And of course there’s always the hope that “someday the band will be big enough to come back here and sell the place out.”
As David Noonan (Beached Whales, Nix_Moon) explains, “Every band coming out of Dundalk, for years, has formed and moulded their live show and sound playing in The Spirit Store.”
Having a venue like The Store was one thing, but recent years have seen the rise of the small festival as a key part of an emerging band’s story. Just look at how many bands owe Knockanstockan a debt of gratitude. Dundalk is no different. In 2010 the Dundalk area got its own festival in the form of Vantastival, at this has been key to so many of the current crop of bands’ success.
From the very beginning Vantastival aimed to highlight local flavour. “In the early years,” says Tangney, “there would be a small number of local bands that would be allocated slots on the main stages (often early slots) and we always had a satellite stage dedicated entirely to local acts who wouldn't necessarily make the main line up. However, in more recent years the standard of music in Dundalk has become so good that many of the acts that are making it through the open submission process on their own merit are bands from Dundalk, and they are getting good slots well up the running order.”
This current crop of acts include the Beached Whales (Funky reggae soul jams), Nix_Moon (wobbly Eastern Psychedelic Folk for the mains with a hint of Prog for the fill), We, The Oceanographers (DIY bedroom art-rock), Richard Richard (“Dance music played with guitars”) and Elephant (alt-acoustic avant-garde folk). The diversity of sounds at play among this motley crew is emblematic of the huge range that the Dundalk music has spread out to encompass. “All we're missing really is a techno/acid house act,” says Francis Waters (Richard Richard, Francis Watters & The Future West). “We should really get one.”
Having a Vantastival set on the CV has seen Beached Whales and Richard Richard move up to Electric Picnic, and Elephant make his way down to Dingle for Other Voices. The actual experience for playing a festival is one thing, but equally invaluable is connecting with a larger audience. “I've seen bands play Vantastival before that had no real online presence” says Waters, “then the next day I see them on websites like GoldenPlec.”
“We have been told by local musicians that now Vantastival is something for Dundalk bands to aspire to,” explains Tangney. “The standard has improved because musicians are working harder, hoping to get a slot at the festival.” The relationship is far from one sided though, and Tangney is quick to point out that, “Vantastival would not have survived this long without the support of local musicians and they are as important to us as we are to them.”
The extent to which local musicians are willing to support each other is “inspirational,” says Tangney.
Looking at the scene from the outside, it's remarkable how friendly it appears. Turner describes how refreshing is to see “an attitude of co-operation and encouragement among [local] artists that strengthens their ability to write/record and put on good live shows. Artists borrow each other for sessions here and show up at each other’s shows.”
Look at the lineup of any of the acts listed above and you’ll see recurring names in the roster – and there’s plenty more musicians willing to turn up and lend a hand with recording and producing that go uncredited too. "That’s a rare mind set in a potentially backbiting scene," says Turner.
Things have come a long way in recent years, and it looks like there’s no stopping the town now. The Spirit Store has become recognised as one of the best small music venues in the country, and Vantastival continues to grow year on year. David Keenan become a YouTube sensation when the video of him playing a wee tune in Maxi’s Taxi went viral. Elephant’s debut album, Hypergiant, has been among the best Irish albums released this year. After taking a break to focus on writing, Third Smoke made something of a comeback this year, including a series of support slots for HamsandwicH. Their debut album is expected next year.
New arrivals to the scene this year include TPM (Dundalk’s answer to the Rubberbandits) Just Mustard (dream-pop shoegaze), Æ MAK (jungle indie pop), Martin’s Party (Rockabilly swing) and Francis Watters & The Future West (‘80s spaghetti western psychedelia); all of which promise to make an already eclectic musical mix even more diverse. Add the that the opening of a Classified Records, a vinyl store with a commitment to stocking local acts, whatever format their music is in, and it seems like Dundalk will remain a place to watch closely for music fans for the foreseeable future.