Now in its seventh year, Castlepalooza returns once again to the tree bordered grounds of Charleville Castle in Tullamore. With campsites dotted in and around the castle like little colourful satellite villages it’s immediately easy to see where the event gets its reputation as one the best small festivals around. Human traffic flows easily and good-humouredly around the central axis of the castle itself from the tented Deezer Stage to the tree-canopied Main Stage, and around, down and into the stone-walled and turreted Courtyard Stage. With the picturesque setting and the picturesque people in place, all that’s needed is for the weather to hold up its side of the bargain.
The Deezer Stage is the only place open for business on the Friday night, with Lights Camera Sundown the first act of the weekend Goldenplec manages to catch. Fresh and fortified from their Knockanstockan performance the previous week, the personable Dublin band play a well received set to a small crowd, with songs shifting from folk and blues into full on rockers. Brad Pitt Light Orchestra follow and by the ska-rockabilly beat of Grace Jones, with the trombone player shouting into a loudspeaker, the tent is pulled along with the band. Gold is dedicated to Katie Taylor and sung with conviction, while Soon! follows with another of their big choruses. There is a touch of The Jayhawks to the four-way harmonies, and the horns and violin impress throughout. During All I Want it’s a wonder that folk don’t spontaneously grab their neighbours and dance close, while the band end the set in a frenzy of cowbell. It’s all smile-inducing stuff from BPLO, and a completely enjoyable and rousing set.
Up next are brother and sister band Cars Love Girls who let loose their blend of soul, funk and dance music on a near-full tent. Things often take on a Republic Of Loose tinge and it comes as no surprise to later discover that both are members of the Dublin funksters. It’s a great set all in where a Springsteen-esque segment can segue into QFX-type (really!) 90’s dance and disco beats before the band bow out in a wah-guitar solo workout. It’s a nice joint-loosener for tonight’s surprise act Scroobius Pip, who minus long-time collaborator Dan Le Sac takes to the stage framed by a drummer and guitarist.
Try Dying Is the first of the set’s many raucous moments, a shout-along punk song by a punk band. The Bad Brains/Sage Francis style onslaught continues before Sabbath’s Iron Man riff kicks in and the crowd sings along with Pip rapping on top. A hip-hop beat follows, “cos it’s getting a bit rowdy!” He’s not kidding, and when that massive fuzz guitar descends over the beat and the percussion takes on a jungle rhythm it only escalates. Natasha Fox joins him for a chillout Broken Promise to give us a breather, a brief respite before a heavy Astronaut gets the crowd singing in unison once more. This is an unstoppable performance from Scroobius Pip, and an incendiary primer for the weekend ahead.
Róisín O is first up to entertain the bleary-eyed on Saturday morning, and in fine voice too as the sun struggles for supremacy over the rain. An unnecessary cover of Florence’s Dog Days is rolled out between her own numbers, with the lively afro-beat flirtation of How Long a set highlight. Cry Monster Cry follow with some laid back acoustic driven numbers from the brothers Martin. The tempo increases and things liven up as the set progresses, and feet begin to move while the band tries to pull everyone’s attention away from the JCB that has commandeered the stage area to fix some overhead cable. They largely succeed in fairness, and by the last couple of tunes folk are leaping around jig-style. Cork band – “Up Cork!” – KB Violet & Letter To The Echo are doling out country tunes and humorous banter to the crowd in the Deezer Stage by now, and an attempt to get a “waltz in wellies” on the go during Patsy Cline never materialises despite the lovely lilt of the song. These guys are fairly enjoyable – people drift in, people stay – and it’s just one of those easy performances amidst easy company.
The insistent rain drives the crowd into the tent for Limerick man and one-time Vesta Varro member dREA who, with a set of songs sounding not unlike The Walkmen, makes sure they stay put while he has them. It’s time to brave the weather though, where Alphastates frontwoman Cat Dowling has no such luxury of comprehensive overhead cover over on the Main Stage. She plays a fine set regardless, with Invisible providing some nice and bassy relief from the damp. Dublin’s Viking Project deliver one of the more enjoyable moments of the weekend, serving up big dirty slabs of Delta blues and alt-country of a Neil Young strain. They are the first band of the day to really lift the spirits, and at one point they even swap beards. Or instruments…probably instruments.
More liveliness ensues with Grand Pocket Orchestra and their idiosyncratic new wave pop exuberance on the Main Stage, while Dublin’s Kenny Bogan is full of beans and craic, tossing in a cover of All Along The Watchtower amidst the shenanigans. Cork’s John Blek & The Rats bring things back to the alt-country arena with a spirited enough set, getting the audience involved on final number Lord Don’t Leave Me. A kick-yourself moment for this reviewer comes in the shape of only catching the last two songs from The Violet Roadkills as the Deezer tent reverberates with psychedelic post-rock sounds reminiscent of Flaming Lips at their spaciest. It’s the briefest of introductions to their fantastic repetitive and trancey music, and a band to check out again.
Cork’s Trumpets Of Jericho follow, kicking off with a percussion driven instrumental and knocking out a set of Richard Hell style folk punk. Paddy’s Revolt is a louche number clattered along by the rhythm section, as is follower Nothing To Get Up For, the band gathering a slow but steady crowd as the set progresses. A celebratory Pure Love, Like rounds off a fine late-evening collection of sleazy, easy garage rock from the Cork collective.
The area in front of the castle is packed out in advance of Jape’s Main Stage headliner, and it’s a triumph. Too many People opens the set followed by Graveyard, and by this stage the entire crowd is a jostling force. New song Movement is well-received as, inevitably, is I Was A Man, after which main man Richie Egan informs us he has a chest infection. Who would have guessed? Floating is a memorable sing-along along with The Oldest Mind, while the new songs drift alongside the older material with ambient ease. It’s the second storming headlining performance of the weekend, but Le Galaxie also have some tricks up their sleeve in the Deezer Tent after midnight.
Things kick off in all-conquering style after a long wait for the band to start, with hundreds of multi-coloured glowsticks hurled into a crowd that is wound up and waiting for the release. Le Galaxie don’t disappoint. Rolling beats and shiny synths ride over the rising and dipping heads of the crowd, banishing for a time the gloom that is the abiding memory of the generally sparsely-lit Deezer Stage.
Slow Skies play soft, folky tunes through a haze of drizzle to the few souls huddled under the canopy in front of the Main Stage on Sunday afternoon. Frontwoman Karen Sheridan coos in a Joanna Newsom style, with a gentle violin providing atmospheric backing throughout. Despite the cold and wet, those who remain for the set are gradually won over and well-rewarded by this subtle selection. Ocho are one of the mid-afternoon offerings in the Deezer tent, where the three female vocalists harmonise over discordant guitar and programmed beats. Its atmospheric stuff throughout, with the echoing squall of electric guitar cutting like a serrated blade through the organic vocals and ambient beats. The Ronettes Be My Baby is transformed into a dark and sullied trip, where “With every kiss you give me I’ll give you three” becomes more of a stalker-ish threat than anything else. This is a set perfectly suited to the dark surroundings of the tent, daylight proving only an unwelcome intrusion from the side.
Deaf Joe follows them with, in his own words, some mellow shit for a Sunday afternoon. He opens with a Katie Kim number followed by his own Over And Under as the festival workers get busy bailing out the water from the massive puddle that has formed in the tent. He polishes off a relaxed set with a cover of God Only Knows, and how could it be anything less than lovely? The duelling guitars of Windings on the Main Stage are the first of the day’s full-on rockers to be watched. There is a fine line between cheesy retro guitar wielding and honest-to-goodness good-time rock’n’roll – Windings are on the right side of that line, and the Dinosaur Jr style solos and infectious keys are always a welcome live experience.
Four-piece synth and guitar heads Dogs move some bodies in the Deezer tent with formulaic success, while over on the Main Stage J Roots is delivering a dub-influenced reggae set of a more organic nature, with great energy between frontman Johnny Quinn, his fine female vocalists and the audience out in front. Patrick Kelleher & His Cold Dead Hands play a largely hypnotic, electro-laden set, that it transpires is a swan song for his bass player. Kelleher has undeniable stage presence and the performance is a dark and pleasing one. An unexpected festival highlight comes in the form of King Charles, rocking the main stage with a massive, full sound and fine vocal harmonising. Polar Bear is a tom-driven stormer, as is Lovelust, the atmosphere becoming more electric as dusk begins to fall. They finish an upbeat, fun-filled set with an updating of Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start The Fire. The song stops, and the crowd immediately and without prompting take up the chorus with gusto before the band come back in with a guitar solo-fest finale.
A loose and enjoyable set is delivered by Solar Bears, and as the spotlights move around the tent it seems like there is no other place to be at that moment. Bodies may be feeling the fatigue at this point of the weekend but it’s near-impossible not to move to the beats. Dublin’s HAL offer up a satisfying selection of their own particular take on Americana on the Main Stage. An extended cover of John Lennons’ Mind Games provides a unifying highlight, while some crowd participation in the chorus lifts a disco-inflected Why Do You Come Here. There is a mild yet palpable sense of expectation in the lead up to Sunday’s headline act The Charlatans. While the crowd has thinned somewhat due to the mini-exodus of punters beaten into submission by the rain on Sunday morning, those in attendance fly the flag as Burgess and Co. lash into North Country Boy. A selection from their ‘Tellin Stories’ album follows, and whether Burgess is throwing shapes or playing harmonica the crowd in front of the castle are backing him up on vocal duties. The title track is a classic moment, as are the inevitable favourites of One To Another and The Only One I Know. Sproston Green rounds of the set in stretched out, improvisational style, and while the performance doesn’t hit the heights of the previous two night’s headliners, it’s a memorable closer.
Castlepalooza certainly has a lot going for it – the size and layout makes it impossible to lose people, and queues were largely manageable throughout. The Courtyard Stage turned out to be a gem of a party refuge enclosed from the festival at large, while at times the atmosphere at the two main stages failed to ignite between being either sparsely populated or having punters scattered disparately around their environs. The weather was admittedly awful and the campsite and parking areas became a mud bath, a factor which scared off a chunk of the crowd on Sunday morning. Still though, Irish festivals and erratic weather go hand in hand, so maybe the organisers should think about upping the consignment of hay in advance of next year’s quagmire. With a friendly crowd and eclectic selection of acts and activities, it would seem that Castlepalooza is in no danger of losing its appeal to those who seek out the small-scale and intimate experience. Just bring dry socks.