Vital Space in the City Experience

I Dreamed a Dream performing at MusicTown 2023. (Photo: James Murray).

Vital Space in the City Experience

The recent MusicTown festival featured a varied line-up of genres and artists including Izumi Kimura, ALYXIS, Crash Ensemble, Péist, Poor Creature, Paddy Keenan and more. Drew Stephens reviews two of the event's four days.

This year’s MusicTown took place from 27 to 30 July across three spaces in The Complex – a warehouse-turned-arts centre in Smithfield – with a series of afternoon and evening concerts over its four days. Under the creative direction of promotor Foggy Notions, the Dublin City Council initiative promised to host a diverse cross-section of jazz, experimental, contemporary, electronic, traditional and indie Irish acts, programmed with three invited co-curators: Improvised Music Company (IMC), Dublin Digital Radio (DDR) and Crash Ensemble.

I arrive on Saturday afternoon for the third day of the festival to attend the first official event in IMC’s new venue The Cooler. Although housed upstairs in a former refrigeration unit, the room has been converted into a jazz cellar with warm lighting, round tables and plastic candles. Izumi Kimura, a Japanese pianist living in Ireland, begins the show with improvisations on prepared piano, introducing the new grand piano which has been acquired for the space. Having placed several objects inside the instrument to change its sound, the middle octave produced woodblock-like, resonant percussive sounds. Her initial improvisations alternate between polyrhythmic and melodic phrases extending outside of the prepared notes on the piano. To make the most of the occasion, she promises to ‘play all the notes’ in a piece titled ‘Twelve Steps to the Blue Skies’ sounding the entire range of the piano’s resonances in the room.

H-Ci, a.k.a. Shane O’Donovan, performs in the bar at a relatively compact drum-kit and a table of electronics. Synthesising gestural sounds into occasional tails of digital reverb, he adds to the echo of the high-ceilinged room before proceeding on the drums with dampening mallets over synth bass motifs, switching to sticks to accompany upward melodies, synth pads and broken arpeggios.

American jazz singer Dana Masters, who lives in Northern Ireland, opens her set by informing the audience that there will be no lyrics sheet tonight, that she is ‘trying to be professional’ but the result ‘might be unprofessional’. The ensuing performance is so tight it’s hard to imagine that she might have forgotten a single word. With her band, she performs ‘Need You’, co-written with pianist Cian Boylan and ‘Autumn in New York’ with a solo from Dave Redmond on double bass, the subtler dynamics showing the range of Masters’ powerful voice and the band’s ability to tune into one another, backed up by Darren Beckett on drums. Bringing the inaugural event in The Cooler to a warm close is Max Zaska’s ensemble, the instrumental outfit combining jazz, neo-soul and indie, joined by guest vocalist Melina Malone.

Cavernous warehouse space
Saturday evening’s event is in The Depot, opened by Cork five-piece I Dreamed I Dream. Arriving to the band’s performance in the cavernous warehouse space is disorientating, their post-punk and no-wave sound seemingly on the edge of falling apart – in a good way. They share vocals joyfully and with an edge of protest. The drummer sings about poisoning an older man with potassium, harnessing both attitude and a sense of humour. Mid-set they hold a minute’s silence for Sinéad O’Connor, asking for a moment to reflect on the media’s mistreatment of the artist throughout her lifetime. Shifting in mood again, the set closes with a song based around the  humorous refrain ‘my mother played the bass, my father played the bass, my brother, he just played the X-box, and I play the bass’. The band have a strong live chemistry and energy, presenting the power of collective voice while also pushing the limits of live performance through their unpredictability.

Also playing this evening is hyperpop producer ALYXIS, performing bass-heavy and club-ready productions in a black and red sequinned mask, and Ria Rua, an electro-indie act veering occasionally into nu-metal and festival rock over electro backing tracks. Gush, a dance-pop duo from Dublin, close the Saturday night, following the recent release of their debut single ‘Skydiving’. Their lyrics, ‘been waiting so long… …here is where you wanna be’, ground the audience in the present as they perform cloaked in smoke and LED backlighting. As the tempo picks up, the crowd at the front are dancing, responding to the duo’s euphoric intentions.

ALYXIS (Photo: James Murray).

Ambient sounds and sean-nós samples
Sunday begins in the afternoon with an event curated by DDR. E the Artist is first to perform physically in the space to a pre-mixed DJ set, intermittently rubbing face-paint into the floor to gradually tag an ‘E’ in front of the stage. Ian Nyquist follows with an atmospheric ambient electronic set of string sounds and sub bass, alone at a laptop with most of the crowd now sitting on the floor. Distorted synths blend with ambient sounds and interjections of sean-nós samples and spoken Irish processed almost beyond recognition. A recording of Donegal singer Cití Ní Ghallchóir’s keening is worked into the mix. Sounds of rain and cows frame what could be a film score within a rural setting, and when the set ends and the seagulls can be heard outside the building, we’re transported back to Dublin city.

Limerick’s Péist are the final act for the DDR-curated event, opening with a manifesto stating that ‘In our wriggly masses we find purpose’. There are four performers on stage with electronics, synthesisers, bass guitar and bowed electric guitar. In front of the stage, there is a performer in a sleeping bag-turned-worm costume. The band perform a long set of industrial noise and drone, an occasional saxophone or violin added to the mix. The performer in front of the stage eventually breaks out of the worm costume and dances to what at times veers into slow-paced industrial techno, four alternating spotlights at the back of the stage adding to the hypnotic effect of the performance.

An Irish premiere
Later in the Complex Gallery, Crash Ensemble perform
 Philip Glass’ Glassworks as a seven-piece ensemble, with four keyboards, saxophone, clarinet, flute and vocals. This is the Irish premiere of the acclaimed work and Crash’s third and final performance of it during the festival. It’s a virtuosic and moving performance, the difficult keyboard parts delivered at speed and precision and many tender moments of woodwind and vocal duos and keyboard solos.

Having left the Crash Ensemble show, I arrive only to catch the last few songs of Iona Zajac’s set as she switches from electro-acoustic guitar to hollow-body electric, singing and hand-strumming dulcet bass tones. Poor Creature, featuring Cormac MacDiarmada of Lankum on guitar, viola, fiddle and vocals and Ruth Clinton of Landless on synthesiser and vocals are next to perform their interpretations of Irish and American folk songs, forming a trio tonight with added drums. They play a ‘Begley suite’ of instrumentals, followed by Kitty Well’s version of ‘Cold Cold Heart’, with a synth bass riff and a distorted viola lead line disrupting the second half.

To close the evening and festival is former Bothy Band piper Paddy Keenan, accompanied by John Francis Flynn on flute and Alan Burke on guitar. They start with a set of reels including ‘The Morning Star’. Both Keenan and Flynn play at an astonishing speed, remarkably in sync for what is apparently their first live performance together. While pints are being delivered on-stage, Burke sings a few songs with minimal accompaniment. Keenan plays the slow air ‘Johnny’s tune’ with the disclaimer – ‘if it doesn’t work here, it works on the CD’, beginning on low whistle before returning to uilleann pipes. The trio play together again to full effect – spontaneous Irish dancing breaking out at the back of the room – and the group finishes with a set of reels, keeping the spirits high while bringing this year’s festival to a close.

John Francis Flynn, Paddy Keenan and Alan Burke (Photo: James Murray). 

Over two of the four days, the festival hosted many artists from around the country. Without a festival pass, and with condensed and occasionally parallel programming and stylistically varied lineups, it may have challenged audiences who intended to catch many of the performances. At the same time, it was a showcase of the diverse talent in this country and proof that, while this talent must be nurtured, venues too are an essential part of the infrastructure adding vibrancy to the experience of city life.

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Published on 8 August 2023

Drew Stephens is a musician and writer from Connemara.

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