Right Here Right Now festival was becoming a festival to really keep an eye on in the pre-Covid circumstances, built on collaboration between the Cork Opera House and some of the denizens of the city’s musical grassroots, including gigs that have involved the help of the venue’s Concert Orchestra, taking songs from local artists and expanding their scope to fit the ambitions of the event.
This year, with the live music scene in Cork still recovering from the events of the last nigh-on two years, the festival is reaching deeper into the city centre, maintaining a working relationship with Coughlan’s Live on Douglas Street by way of the recently-reopened Cyprus Avenue on Caroline Street, and while connections to Cork’s folk scene, past and present, are touched upon, a wider spread of names, like Mary Coughlan, Wallis Bird, LOAH and Junior Brother, also tread the boards on a packed weekend.
The festival opens tomorrow with a special gig at the Opera House, kicking off at 7pm, and featuring an all-female lineup that spans generations and profound changes in Irish folk and alternative music.
Mary Coughlan’s body of work and reputation speaks for itself, as does the earnest effort of Wallis Bird in moving with the times and demonstrating her longevity as a singer and songwriter. They’re joined by Sierra Leonean-Irish singer LOAH, a singular, genre-defying artist, and by Galway singer-songwriter Niamh Regan.
Regan’s debut album, ‘Hemet’, has been a huge success, to say the least. Released via her home city’s Black Gate Records in September of 2020, it quickly garnered critical attention across the board, including nominations for Album of the Year at the RTÉ Choice Music Prize and the RTÉ Folk Awards - ranking among the year’s best in two sometimes-separate worlds.
“To be honest, I was kind of in disbelief. I didn't expect it to be noticed that much at all. I suppose it's a bit mad that I'm preparing for a tour to play these songs live in audiences with a full band. It's a bit surreal, only kind-of sinking in now.
“It's just been a wonderful experience to kind-of get acknowledged and given a nod, y'know, for my first step out with the debut album, it's been very encouraging.”
With that relief and anticipation for this and a groundswell of gigs around the country to come, Regan is enthused to share the Opera House stage with peers in front of an audience, following an appearance at a live-streamed gig at the venue in 2020.
“We were all saying, 'wouldn't it be mad to be here with an audience', y'know, 'what a beautiful venue'. So when I got the call to do this, I was so honoured. Like, I grew up listening to Mary Coughlan and being in total awe of Wallis Bird and LOAH, to be on this line-up is just a real treat. I feel very privileged to be even asked.”
Saturday sees the festival journey into town in the afternoon for a gig at Coughlan’s boasting a double-header of singer-songwriters Míde Houlihan and Lorraine Nash, both of whom have made headway on the Irish scene in recent times (see panel).
That evening sees a convergence of two very unique and singular voices in Irish folk on the Opera House stage, as John Spillane, Cork’s folk singer laureate and a prolific songwriter who learned from no end of Leeside legends, shares a line-up with Junior Brother, the wonky yet classically-informed folk outlet of Kerry songwriter Ronan Kealy and collaborators.
The latter has just released a new single - a non-album 7”, no less - in ‘Life’s New Haircut’, giving life to a long-held song ahead of the recording and release of his next body of music - and though its themes of change and resilience resonate and take on new meaning in the post-Covid environment, they predate the crisis.
“Yeah, well, the song itself is actually old enough, and I've been playing it live for a while, but it didn't really fit on the last record. I recorded it for this next album that I'm working on at the moment, and it was all done before the lockdown started. It took on a different life after that, found its voice later, I suppose.
“During the first few months of the lockdown, everyone was still trying to figure out what was going on, so with the video, we tried to put across the idea of one way of life, maybe passing you by, and diving into a new stage of life with a bit of hope.”
It seems to be a recurring theme, the idea of renewed hope at a time of change and further reflection, and it serves Kealy well as he relays his thoughts on Saturday night’s gig.
“I'm very excited. John's stuff is great, his body of work is just brilliant. He's got some of the best songs that have been written over the last ten years or so, longer out of Ireland. He's one of our best songwriters, and yeah, it'll be an honor to share a stage with him.
“And, of course, with the orchestra, it's just going to be very special all around. I've played there two or three times before, but this will be really, really special.”
Aside from the small matter of a return performance of the songs of Fergus O’Farrell by his former collaborators in Interference along with special guests on Sunday night at Cyprus Avenue, Sunday sees another sign that the urban ecology of Cork music is healing from the trauma of the past few months - at 4pm, Caoilian Sherlock finally, after two years of waiting, is ready to release his Big Child EP, with the help of his full band for the first time at Coughlan’s.
“I'm pretty excited, because the last time we did a live show, as a full band, was Right Here Right Now, 2020, which was February of 2020. Things were really going well, in terms of getting our stuff together as a band, and the songs getting arranged properly - we were just about to finish off our full album, actually. Unfortunately, the recording process had to end as the year went on, as we all knew it would. It kept going on and it wasn't sure.
With that sense of coming full circle, then, Sherlock is enthused for the weekend ahead, heading back into Coughlan’s to finally bring live life to songs he and his collaborators have been living with for a while now.
“It's the first show (Sherlock and collaborators like singer Leah Hearne have done at the venue) with bass and drums, and it's more of a rock and roll vibe. And yeah, I'm excited to do that.
“It encapsulates what songs are actually about, and all the ideas we've been putting down on the record for the last... we've been recording them for three years, which is a bit mad, actually.”
On the note of heading back to events, Sherlock’s record speaks for itself as an events runner, including mucking in on events post-Covid. It must be a strange headspace to occupy.
“Yeah, look, it's hard. The landscape is constantly changing. So it's hard to say even what what the similarity between next week is and, say, two months ago. You have to deal with different issues as they come along, and regulations change as they do. And if you just have to take everything in your stride.
“I think our industry, like, the events industry, music industry, performance, is totally equipped for that, because we are constantly dealing with that anyway, that's the nature of the beast. As a musician, it's a little bit more... there's a little bit more tension there, because you want to perform to the best of your ability and with the changing landscape, It's a little difficult, but you just have to take it in your stride.”
Right Here Right Now festival happens all weekend at the Opera House, Coughlan’s and Cyprus Avenue. For remaining tickets and more info, check twitter.com/rhrnfest.