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Singing, strings and sessions galore


The 13th Westport Folk and Bluegrass Festival takes place this weekend

Ciara Moynihan

This weekend, June 7 to 9, Westport will once again be hopping with musicians and music fans from all over the world, all of whom are making their way to the town for the annual Westport Folk and Bluegrass Festival.
The lively, feel-good event, which was first rolled out in 2007, is now highly regarded as one of the leading festivals in the bluegrass genre, in Ireland and in Europe. As in previous years, this year’s Westport Folk and Bluegrass Festival is put together by a voluntary committee, the members of which share a love of music and the will to create a high-quality festival in Westport, which will attract people from all over the world.
Over the past two years, Uri Kohen, the festival’s founder and producer, was invited to the US on two occasions to take part in prestigious programmes – one organised by The International Bluegrass Music Association, the other by South Arts, the overseeing body of the entire arts organisation in the southern region of the US.
During those trips, Kohen was able to promote the Westport Folk and Bluegrass Festival internationally, and build working relationships with captains of the industry in America. He was also able to meet some of the leading artists in the genre, and the fruits of these encounters will be there for all to see this weekend.

Friday high-jinx
The festival will kick off with a free lunchtime gig on June 7 at The Creel restuarant with a band called Alfi, a fresh new trio combining Appalachian old-time and traditional Irish music and song to produce a unique sound. Their music features an unusual line up of harp, five-string banjo, low whistle, uilleann pipes and vocals. From this fantastic opening concert onwards, there will be gigs, concerts, sessions and workshops taking place across the entire weekend.
After an afternoon session in Blouser’s pub with Bill Forster, Ger O’Donnell and Leo Hayes (Clare and Limerick), the Holy Trinity Church will be the venue for Friday’s main concert, which will pay tribute to American old-time music with two bands – The Local Honeys and The Big Barn Chimney Dance.
The Local Honeys’ Linda Jean Stokley comes from the rolling hills of the Bluegrass region in Kentucky, while her singing partner, Montana Hobbs, hails from the foothills of the Appalachians Mountains. Both women have dedicated themselves to the preservation of old music and the creation of new sounds. The pair went down a storm when they visited Westport and Castlebar last February – and now Mayo has another chance to be mesmerised.
A six-piece from Alaska, The Big Barn Chimney Dance is an old time string band made up of dear friends who love to play traditional American music. Formed in 2016, the band consists of six prominent members of Alaska’s vibrant acoustic music scene: Jason Norris on fiddle and mandolin, Danny Consenstein on fiddle, Rion Schmidt on five string banjo, Nate Williamson on guitar, Carter Bancroft on fiddle and mandolin, and Garren Volper on upright bass.
From 10pm that evening, there will be a bluegrass bar crawl with no less than five different gigs with acts playing from around the town, including Brennen Leigh and Noel McKay (US)  in the Clew Bay Hotel, Red Herring (The Netherlands) in McGing’s Bar, Bluegrass 43 (France) in The Jester, Blue Summit (US) in the Wyatt Hotel’s JW Bar, and Mayo’s own Rocky Top String Band at The Big Tree.
Saturday shenanigans
Saturday is the busiest day of the weekend, starting with Molly and The Blackbriar Band (UK), who will perform at 12.30pm in The Clew Bay hotel. The day’s line-up also includes a kids’ concert, banjo and songwriting workshops and a luthiers’ showcase at Westport Town Hall Theatre – as well as gigs, with David Hope and Eoin O’Meachair playing in The Pantry and Corkscrew restaurant at 2.30pm, and at 4pm, a ‘mystery gig’ with three surprise acts in Matt Molloy’s Yard Bar and Red Herring in The Big Tree. The festival’s Big Session also takes place on Saturday afternoon, with musicians from different bands converging to play together and with whoever wants to join in, in McGing’s Bar from 2.30pm.
Saturday night sees another of the festival’s main gigs – this one taking place in Westport Town Hall Theatre at 8pm. Featuring three US bands, Switchgrass Delta, Blue Summit and duo Brennen Leigh and Noel McKay, along with some special guests. MC for the night is country singer and  TV presenter with Keep It Country TV Kerry Fearon.
Switchgrass Delta is a youth bluegrass band from Waitsburg, Washington. Members Chris Philbrook, Emma Philbrook, Robert Walsh, Kaleb Kuykendall play both traditional and contemporary bluegrass, adding their own unique twist.
Hailing from Califorinia’s famously laid-back town, Santa Cruz, Blue Summit combine accomplished instrumental work with powerful vocals and a loose interpretation of traditional bluegrass music. Taking in elements from western swing, soul, folk, jazz, old-time and rock, this band puts their heart into their projects. And it has payed off, with the Northern California Bluegrass Society (NCBS) naming them Band of the Year last year. Impressively, NCBS has also named their lead singer, AJ Lee, Female Vocalist of the Year an incredible nine times. Now 21, she has been performing since the tender age of five.
Brennen Leigh and Noel McKay craft story songs with heart and humour, described as ‘hilarious, sentimental and profound, usually all at the same time’. The Texas-based country/folk duo were in Mayo last October, when they played three gigs around the county, including a special guest slot at the Balla Bluegrass Festival.
Later that night, festival goers can choose between two more free gigs – Bluegrass 43 in McGing’s, or The Lowly Strung (UK) in The Jester – from 10pm.

Sunday finale fun
Sunday starts with a now-familiar show that has become one of the festival’s highlight, The Gospel Hour at the Holy Trinity Church. This will be followed by a lunchtime gig by The Lowly Strung at the Clew Bay Hotel.
Local musician Tim Rogers – only one of three people who has played all festivals since 2007 – will host an old-time session in Blouser’s pub from 2pm, and at 4pm, the restaurant at the Clew Bay Hotel will transform into a dance floor for the much-loved Square Dance Session. At 6pm, Jessica Pearson & The East Wind (Canada) will perform in McGing’s Bar.
The festival will then come to a close with the last of the festival’s main gigs, when Westport’s own Clew Bay Folk Club will present award-winning folk singer Niall Hanna, who will take to the stage of Matt Molloy’s Yard Bar at 8pm. Hanna is a traditional/folk singer and songwriter from Derrytresk in Co Tyrone. In late 2018, he released his first solo album to critical acclaim, while the title track ‘Autumn Winds’ was nominated for Best Original Track at the RTÉ Folk Awards in October 2018, and the singer himself was also nominated for Best Emerging Folk Artist. His main instruments include guitar, bouzouki and bass guitar.  

All pub gigs and sessions are free. Tickets for the three main events are available via the festival’s website, Tickets for the workshops, square dance, kids concert, and the mystery gig will be available at the doors of the events. All the festival’s details are available on the website, or through programmes available in all of the festival’s venues.