Aiofe O’Donovan – Celtic Connections – Oran Mor – February 1, 2023

Written by on February 6, 2023


The Jack Badcock I saw at Oran Mor was a very different person from that I had previously seen with his award-winning band Dallahan. Gone was the brash straight-ahead trad band frontman, in his place was a laid-back writer and singer of gentle melodic ballads that, to be frank, showed off his voice to greater advantage than the bigger more amplified ensemble permitted. It was a real pleasure to listen to his wide-ranging but gentle tenor that clearly enunciated every word.

We were also treated to interesting little vignettes between songs to let us know where it was all coming from. My favourite was his introduction to The Ghost of Leland Birch from his 2020 Between Rivers CD. Apparently, on a home visit to his family in Ireland, he was introduced to a whole pack of relatives of whom he’d previously been unaware and taken to an extended family get-together where everyone had to “do a turn.” A distant cousin named Michael turned out to be a bit of a poet, and his party-piece was an ode to a local poitín (illicit whiskey) distiller named Leland Birch. Jack asked permission to set this to music and later recorded the song. In addition to the story, the song itself was one of the high spots of his short set.

Another high spot that not only showed off Jack’s musical talents but also demonstrated that cousin Michael isn’t the only poetic lyricist in the family was his final number. How You Raise a Child was a moving condemnation of the number of young people locked up in American penal institutions. The whole hall joined in with its powerful repeated coda “Make our world a home, raise them as your own …” I would really have loved to hear more and will keep an eye out for Jack Badcock in future.

Aoife O’Donovan was playing her 2nd headliner of the festival, this time with solid backing from a first-class band: Isa Burke (lead guitar & vocals), Ethan Jodeziewicz (bass), and Robin MacMillan (drums & percussion).

She has a new album out – Age of Apathy – and the bulk of her set showcased this. From the album, Galahad was her opening song. Melodically it recalled Joni Mitchell – whom she admits to admiring – in its swoops and falls, while the lyric, inspired in part by Tennyson’s Sir Galahad, shows O’Donovan’s poetic abilities to great advantage in its tale of a relationship that clashes the man’s idealism against the woman’s darker side: “You got a gold heart, I got a black one. Baby, I sting like a scorpion.”

A high point for me, perhaps because I felt it harked back more to the Crooked Still days wherein I first encountered her music, was her performance of Prodigal Daughter, co-written with Tim O’Brien, in which the daughter returns to her mother, after a long absence, with a fatherless child of her own. The repeated hookline, “Prodigal daughter returns like a lamb to the slaughter” underlined that this was not an easy encounter.

Another was her rendition of Phoenix which, befitting the bird of the title, had a tune that lilted and flew, recounting a failed love affair that hit heavy, but from which she was going to rise again like a phoenix from the ashes. Aoife raised a chuckle or two with her introduction, in which she told of meeting a fan at a concert who absolutely insisted that phoenices (yup, that’s the plural) were real.

What Do You Want from Yourself? had as its theme the need to keep asking oneself that question and keep looking forward as well as back. It ended on a positive note “I can be anything I want when I’m with you. It’s where I’ll spend my days until they’re done.”

The set finished with Passengers – a view of life as a journey through the universe – and, after enthusiastic applause from a very happy audience, the encore was the album’s title track Age of Apathy – the singer’s wish that love didn’t come with a package of hurt and nostalgically citing Joni Mitchell’s My Old Man as how she used to see things.

While the themes of much of her material had a thread of sadness, that thread seemed to perform a cathartic function as many of the audience danced in the hall and were obviously enjoying both the music and the banter from the stage. With regard to the music, I’d give my eyeteeth for her band. Robin MacMillan and Ethan Jodeziewicz held the rhythm together like musical glue, while Isa Burke’s vocal harmonies and sweet guitar playing sat beautifully on top. Out front, Ms O’Donovan was in splendid voice. The audience got what it came for, and who could ask for more?


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