Live Review: Alela Diane & Captain Kennedy at Open House Festival

by Katherine

alelaTonight’s concert takes place in Custom House Square, Belfast, as part of the wonderful Open House Festival – this year’s line-up boasts Laura Marling, Steve Earle, Foy Vance and tonight’s act, Nevada-born folkie Alela Diane.

The venue itself is perfect for Alela’s brand of lush, prolix folk music; the concert takes place in a small marquee strewn with strings of fairy lights. The overall atmosphere is tranquil; people meander into the tent slowly, and sit cross-legged on the floor or at bar tables.

The first act are local band Captain Kennedy, whose blues-tinged folk music has made them somewhat prominent on the local folk scene. They trip casually onto the stage, each member brandishing an instrument and grinning sheepishly out into the crowd. The lead singer, Ciaran Lavery, sports a jaunty trilby, and ominously begins the set by apologising profusely. ‘Sorry, we won’t be long…’

They needn’t have; Captain Kennedy provided a rollicking start to the evening; their grimy brand of Americana – seamlessly combining indie-rock leanings with rootsy, traditional flourishes – is deceptively intelligent, and above all, immense good fun.

The band’s greatest weapon is Ciaran’s remarkable voice – Lavery is blessed with a throaty, bluesy howl, reminiscent of such folk troubadours as Marcus Mumford or The Tallest Man on Earth. The band tore through a foot-stompingly good set, each song intensifying to a strings-topped, rip-roaring crescendo. The bravado onstage sweetly clashed with the band’s between-song banter; they shyly thanked the crowd, and promised brevity (much to the crowd’s dismay).

The band trooped offstage (to scattered ‘awws’) and was quickly replaced by main act, the newly-cropped Alela Diane, who wandered onto stage so casually that her presence is barely felt by the crowd. As she launches into the first song, a traditional cover called ‘On The Bowling Green’, it’s apparent that the audience are in for a treat – the performance is flawless; the gently plucked guitar let’s Alela’s remarkable voice dive and soar effortlessly, and friend Alina provides some swooning harmonies; the glacial purity of the performance is enough to silence the crowd.

It only got better from there – Alela was joined by her Father, Tom Menig, and a wonderfully behatted bassist and drummer – and launched into a stunning rendition of ‘Dry Grass & Shadows’. Her band faithfully recreate the shimmering, country-ish bass-line and pattered drums of the original, but it’s Alela’s voice that really shines – any doubts about Alela holding her own against a band are dashed; her voice has a unique quality that simply cannot be captured adequately on record – her voice has a treacly warmth and a bell-like purity, and her gently shifting cadences of ‘Strong spines of valley hills/ overgrown in gold’ are simply mesmerising.

The range of acoustic instruments Alela’s band incorporated – including a mandolin, courtesy of Alela’s dad – meant that there was a lot of tuning involved. Luckily, Alela had combated any boredom by bringing along her own in-house comedy act. The minute Alela & Father started tuning, impressively-bearded bassist Tom stepped up to the microphone, informing us in a heavy-accented drawl that it was ‘my time to shine’, and proceeded to ramble nonsensically to the bemused crowd about history (‘We’ve had a history lesson. We’re sorry to hear about the titanic.’) and perform a faintly-mocking monologue about the festival’s sponsor, coors light (‘If you just lower your inhibitions, and just drink it… you reach another level, man.’) Although Alela seems slightly embarrassed by her bassist’s ramblings;  she smiles bravely, but her internal wincing is tangible. ‘It inspires us to tune quickly!’ Alela’s dad quips, but the crowd absolutely adores him.

Overall, it was a magical evening, and I highly recommend Alela, as well as The Open House Festival. It’s a great festival, run by some fantastic people. A thoroughly enjoyable event.