Body & Soul Festival at Ballinlough Castle, Co. Westmeath on June 17th – 19th 2016
There’s a certain kind of person who probably feels that something beautiful died the moment Body & Soul agreed to screen the Ireland v Belgium soccer match in the Midnight Circus tent at 2pm on Saturday this year. The sun shone until the early afternoon. The 15,000 or so people on site were having a mighty time. On the bill today was a quality mix of both well-known and obscure from Ireland and abroad. In spite of the rain which came down and foreshadowed the washout which was to come on Sunday, it was undoubtedly a solid middle third to a festival which people have come to expect much from.
Séamus Begley, Catríona McKay and Chris Stout
One of the great things about festivals in general, but something which Body & Soul excels at, is the ability to confront you with experiences you never thought you craved. Midday on Saturday, heads weary across the site, Kerry accordionist and singer Séamus Begley provides one of the weekend’s simpler pleasures. Begley, with McKay on harp and Stout playing guitar, delivers a set of the kind of trad which feels like a warm, familiar embrace. Breezing through a list of Irish and Scottish folk tunes, unencumbered by either the drums bleeding in from another stage, or the chatter which blighted The Gloaming the night before, it is a quiet beauty. Stopping briefly to drink from a hip-flask someone throws on stage, it could well be taking place in a corner of an out-of-the-way pub, and that is meant in the best possible way.
Another delightfully eclectic addition to the lineup, the main stage sees South Korean act Jambinai perform for the first time in Ireland. With any luck they’ll be back. Starting their performance with an assault of atonal saxophone, following up with passages of drop-tuned metal chugging, people might think they are a different band to who they are. Ultimately, Jambinai’s music proves itself to be a hushed, atmospheric, utterly contemporary take on their own folk tradition. They utilise instruments not often seen in Irish fields to wonderful effect. The overall package, both heavier sections and passages more keenly in tune with atmospheric reverie, simmer away with a dark, foreboding energy it’s often hard to pinpoint. Somebody at the back of the crowd has draped a South Korean flag over a pram, and there can’t have been many in attendance expecting such a compelling surprise from the stage.
With an album in ‘Deserter’s Songs’ which is often placed somewhere in the lengthier ‘Best Ever’ lists, Mercury Rev occupy an odd position in the canon, respected but never essential. The crowd on the main stage is still fairly sparse on Saturday afternoon, but Jonathan Donohue and his band of merry men just manage to bring them around. Donohue’s performance style isn’t for everyone, and is in some sense downright distracting. Opener Queen of Swans sees the front man flap his arms about in the manner of that bird, but the flappy-arm swan shtick isn’t limited to the one song, and the theatrics are a dominant feature of the set. Seemingly placing himself between an orchestral conductor and a sorcerer of some kind, making splashing gestures when the big notes hit and literally trying to draw the music out of his bandmates, it can be a little perplexing. With a fair number of tracks from recent album ‘The Light in You’, the music itself can fall flat at times, but overall they acquit themselves with the grace Donahue seems determined to embody. A set with few peaks, but equally not too many troughs.
The weather takes a turn for the soggier but Mongoose and the crowd they’ve brought to the Wonderlust stage in Ballinlough’s walled gardens don’t appear to mind. The foursome are in tight, harmonised unison, their folky sound blending well with both their slightly experimental touches and their more Mumford-y flights of fancy. The set is peppered with new material, along with tracks from last year’s debut album. The whole thing tips away with the confidence of a band who know exactly what they’re about. New track Doing Things Wrong in particular, all harmonised energy and heavily-strummed passion, seems like it’s their best work yet.
Two band members in wheelchairs at the front of stage, a full band and an MC, with barely a word of English between the lot of them, Mbongwana Star provide one of the moments of the festival. From the Democratic Republic of Congo, the group mix high-energy guitar rock with traditional elements and something approaching rap. The whole bundle feels entirely natural. The musicians, despite the language barrier, seem overcome by the scale of the reaction. The experience, sheltering in the Midnight Circus tent away from what has become a sopping evening outside, is an almost life-affirming musical expression of joie de vivre.
The ground underfoot has begun its traditional journey from grass to mud to sludge. The Altered Hours seem cramped and out of place slightly in the Wonderlust tent, and their gritty, expansive sound deserves a larger space to work. As it is the Hours’ performance doesn’t stand out in any real way. Their album ‘In Heat Not Sorry’ is a fine effort, and has some great tracks, but this evening it can’t help but seem as if we’ve seen and heard much of it before.
Possibly the most internationally well-known performer at Body & Soul this weekend, Scotsman Hudson Mohawke has lent his skills to some of the year’s most essential sounds, producing on Kanye West’s Famous, and on ANOHNI’s ‘Hopelessness’ album. As a techno producer he’s not anywhere near alone this weekend, but he does have a distinctive sound, and the main arena is busy. He passes through most of his best solo work, but the gig never particularly takes off. Some of his tracks, like Chimes, are in possession of the banger certificate, but on the whole his own work doesn’t live up to the quality he can draw from others. A fine closing set though, and nothing in the world to prevent a good bop.