Ireland Swings – The Kinsale Fringe Jazz Festival
Blues brother Elbow River Slim and I are in Ireland to participate in the annual Kinsale Jazz Weekend, a three- day civic blow-out, featuring live jazz or blues in virtually every local bar, pub and restaurant, all day long and completely free of charge.
Flying in to Cork International Airport (ORK) on Ireland’s national carrier Aer Lingus, the first thing you notice is the smell of fresh manure – a funky reminder of the Celtic Tiger’s ancient agrarian roots. A 20 minute drive through the lush green countryside takes us to the postcard-perfect fishing village of Kinsale, where our timely arrival, heralded by a magnificent full-arched Irish rainbow, is met with celebratory pints of Guinness at the Trident Hotel’s Wharf Tavern. The Kinsale Jazz Festival, a free-wheeling community jazz event was conceived by Kinsale boosters some 20 years ago as an alternative side-show to the prestigious (and pricey) Guinness Jazz Festival, held in the nearby city of Cork.
It’s interesting to note that the Cork festival itself had modest beginnings ten years earlier, in 1978, when owners of the dowager Metropole Hotel were forced to improvise following the last minute cancellation of an international bridge tournament hosted by film-star Omar Sharif. Instead, a hastily assembled line-up of local and visiting jazz bands was contracted to play throughout the day, and in every possible space: the lobby, the restaurant/lounge, and the several ballroom-sized meeting rooms. Cork Jazz has since become one of the world’s elite events, featuring major headliners, from living legends to rising stars, in large theatrical venues, playing for enormous fees. “Festival Club” at the Met, however, remains an enduring ritual. Corkfest burghers initially took a dim view of Kinsale’s attempted encroachment. “We thought we could perhaps snatch a few crumbs off the rich man’s table,” says Kinsale pianoman Billy Crosbie. “But they saw it as us going after their their business.” Consternation persisted for several seasons, but the twin events eventually developed a comfortable symbiosis, and according to Crosbie, “Present relations could not be better.”
Hotels and B&Bs in the heart of Kinsale (ie: within walking distance of the entertainment district) shrewdly raise their rates during the October long weekend, but are filled nevertheless. I’ve visited Kinsale several times before, once staying at a lovely, centrally located B&B. It wasn’t cheap (100E), but the scrambled eggs and smoked salmon for breakfast were insane. On another occasion, I shared a 2-bdrm, self-catered apartment with my eldest son Beau. It was a bit spartan, sort of like camping “in,” but much cheaper, and well within crawling distance of the various live-music venues.
This time, Slim and I have chosen to stay slightly out of town, in a cluster of cottages on blustery Oysterhaven Bay. Cheaper still, but a rental car is required. Ours is a Kia Getz, naturally nick-named Stan.
There was no meal on our flight down from Glasgow, so we’re getting hungry. The local Super Valu is well-stocked and reasonably priced (if you ignore the exchange rate). Packing our supplies into compulsorily purchased hemp shopping bags (Ireland banned disposable plastic bags several years ago), we head for our accomodations, rented on-line, sight unseen (except for a few enticing photos). We have a map, but it’s not very helpful, so we ask for directions. “There’s a turn-off on the road back to Cork,” says one fellow, with full-on leprechaun lilt, “Just follow the signs, and you’ll be fine. Ten minutes tops. Have a lovely day.” Whoever said, “You can’t get there from here,” must have been talking about Ireland. Roadsigns seemingly point in every direction except the right one, and the “village” to which they refer is often little more than a pair of intersecting country lanes with a rustic old house converted into an upscale restaurant/ B&B, usually closed for the season this late in the year.
We pull into Oysterhaven, finally, and are pleasantly surprised to find the cottages indeed “as advertised.” Clean and comfortable, with washer and dryer, television, two bathrooms, and plenty of privacy for both of us.
We’ve arrived a day early, so our first evening in Ireland sees Stan driving us into Cork to check-out the local blues society’s weekly jam session, held every Thursday at The Corner House Pub in Cobourg Street.1 Tonight it’s The Dizzy Blues Band, led by guitar-man Pat Horgan, with tunes very much in the style of both Stevie Ray Vaughn, and fellow Corkster Rory Gallagher. But we’re with Stan, so mustn’t drink too much, and can’t stay late. Plus, their blues is a bit heavy-handed for my taste, and I’m getting a monster headache. So, with inter-continental blues pleasantries dutifully exchanged, we warmly take our leave, returning to Oysterhaven in the dark, eventually. The next morning offers a breathtaking ocean view of the “Old Head of Kinsale,” a fortified promontory off which, in May 1915, the American liner Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-boat and sank in just 18 minutes, killing 1,198 of the 1,959 people aboard. But that was then.
The live-music in Kinsale doesn’t start till later today, so this morning we’re off to County Cork’s most popular tourist attraction – Blarney Castle, less than 30 mins away via motorway. But the clouds roll in and the rain begins to fall. Choosing to forego the soggy vertical climb up the ruined ramparts to osculate the fabled Blarney Stone, we instead find ourselves hunkered around a peat-burning fireplace at the Muskerry Arms on Blarney Square, enjoying a hearty pub lunch of roast lamb, mashed-potatoes and cabbage.
Back in Kinsale, despite the inclement conditions, the party is getting underway – without us. The printed program shows New York saxman Ron Gozzo starting the day early (12:00 noon) at Muddy Maher’s Bar, followed by Crazy Chester from Austin (TX), and The Bad News Blues Band from Tucson (AZ). Dalton’s Bar around the corner presents the Chili Knights from Boston (MA), and Urban Stew from Stoke City (UK) are across the harbour at The Bulman. We get back to town late afternoon. The joint is jumping, with live music emanating from every direction. Loose Change (a local Committments-type R&B outfit) is rocking out at Hamlet’s, and The Blue Haven Hotel lounge next door has Kinsale jazz maven Sharon Crosbie. Over at Muddy Maher’s Bar, Gentleman Tim and the Contenders, a blues band from London (UK), are getting set to boogie well into the wee hours. But Slim and I are instead off to the Trident Hotel, where fellow Vancouver musicians Doc Fingers, Kim Nishikawara and Tom Keenlyside are performing nightly with UK bluesman Ian Briggs and his band The Supervampers. Kim and Tom’s saxophone pyrotechnics set the well-lubricated Irish punters on fire, and Slim and I just barely manage to escape the riotous after party, or “craigh” (pronounced “crack”) in responsible condition for tomorrow’s activities.
“What does the word craigh actually mean,” I ask Corkster pal Hannah, one of those mischevious, razor-tongued, black-haired, blue- eyed Celtic princesses – thoroughly irresistable, and just as deadly. “Oh,” she pouts, feigning innocence. “It just means . . . fun.”
Today I have an afternoon gig at The Whitehouse with piano-man Doc, and Slim is graciously sitting in on “gob-iron” (blues harmonica). Vancouver’s very-own “duelling saxes” haved dropped by to chip in, and the band is kicking serious butt. The place is literally jammed, with customers overflowing through the wide-open front doors, out onto the narrow sidewalk and into the busy intersection. It’s sunny out today, unlike the previous few, atmosphere is getting warmer and warmer. Then abruptly, to everyones’ surprise, a funeral procession turns the corner – an antique hearse, followed by eight pall-bearers holding the coffin on high, in turn followed by several dozen black-clad mourners in slow-march down centre of the street leading to the Methodist church. Talk about the juxtaposition of contrasting aesthetics! Whitehouse barman Steve, himself a Kinsale native, doubtless seeking to preserve both the solemnity outside and the revelry inside, instinctively leaps forward to close the windows, pull the drapes, and bar the door - not reopening until the sad parade is fully well past.
“Play that blues song Doc,” he chirps, nonchalantly resuming his duties behind the bar. “You know, the fast one.” Doc, sitting at the piano, and surveying the audience with bug-eyed intensity (obviously giving the invitation serious consideration), turns to the microphone and, in the great Canadian key of “eh,” sings . . .
Hey everybody [boom], let’s have some fun [boom]. You only live once, and when you’re dead you’re done So let the good times roll …
by L Mitchell
Planning a trip to Dublin? Try O’Callaghan Stephens Green Hotel. Temple Bar and the quayside literary pub crawl.
EMAIL UPDATE FROM DOC FINGERS AT KINSALE 2011