Martha Wainwright | Review
Soma Festival • Friday 14 July 2017
By Emma McKinley • Photography: Tremaine Gregg
Soma Festival, now in its fifth year, is an arts festival set in various locations around Castlewellan and the Mournes over five days. It boasts a great mix of activities for all ages and tastes ranging from meditation classes, guided mountain walks and artisanal markets to street theatre, visual arts and live music including acts such as David Gray, Brian Kennedy and Ham Sandwich. Tonight it was the turn of critically acclaimed Canadian singer/songwriter Martha Wainwright supported by a few local and international acts in the transformed cosy hall of Castlewellan GAC. It’s plain to see immediately from the mixed audience waiting eagerly in the bar the draw of this indisputable songwriting talent. Wainwright is someone whose writing and unique vocal style appeals to people across all ages as she can deliver anything from soft melodic folk pop to sailor mouthed punk and execute it perfectly.
Opening the night we have ex-lead singer from Irish band Afterhours Alan Burke, playing a few acoustic numbers to warm everyone up. Although he seems a bit short of time, as he mentions on a few occasions throughout his short set, he manages to create a homely atmosphere and get the gig off to a good start with his anecdotes and dad jokes in between powerful performances of traditional covers like ‘Derry Gaol’ and ‘The Auld Triangle’.
Roars come from the back of the now filled hall as Belfast based 5-piece all girl band Wookalily take the stage. Each member is a multi-talented multi-instrumentalist contributing to this quirky bluesy country rock explosion, and as the set progresses with songs from their 2014 album All The While Waiting and tracks from their soon to be recorded second album such as Forever Folly and Touché it’s easy to see why this band have already gained local and international recognition. Singer Lindsay Crothers’ is a bit like Janis Joplin reincarnated as she and Adele Ingram in harmony take us through a toe tapping set, the highlight of which being their cover of Abba’s ‘Gimme Gimme Gimme’ which has everyone clapping and singing along. Finishing up for the interval with ‘The Devil is a Woman’ these ladies certainly make a lasting impression.We return to a complete change of pace with Toronto based electro band Bernice, led by Robin Dann. Dann’s poetic lyrics take us from a mushroom trip on the Magdalene islands (capital?) in ‘I Am The Moon’ to ‘I Don’t Want To Be European’ written from the perspective of a bear shot down from a tree outside Dann’s school. Despite providing some beautiful immersive synth soundscapes mixed with Dann’s crystal clear vocals, the band are unfortunately not a great fit for the crowd and can’t match the runaway energy of Wookalily just before the interval. They often struggle to capture the attention of the already restless crowd with their soft ambient style and are drowned out by the hustle and bustle coming from the back of the hall.
After hours of waiting the moment finally arrives. Martha Wainwright takes the stage in a grey blue jumpsuit and gets straight into her set opening with ‘I am a Diamond’ and ‘Around the Bend’ from her 2016 album Goodnight City. Everything about Wainwright is incredibly captivating. From the outset she sways around confidently, smiles awkwardly and slowly reveals herself through her emotionally raw and powerful vocal style and deeply personal lyrics. This is perfectly showcased in “Traveller’; a song about a late friend who had lost his battle with cancer as she was writing the album. The intimacy of the venue matched with insights into her lyrics results in the full unwavering attention of everyone in the room.
It’s not all serious talk though; she shares tales of her younger days taking MDMA and ketamine at Glastonbury before performing with her late mother, talks openly about smoking pot and talking too much and mid-way through the set orders a tequila up to the stage. Martha, daughter of singer Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, has admittedly struggled with her own identity as an artist having always felt to be in the “shadow of another’s fame” which she highlights tonight as she explains contributions from her brother Rufus Wainwright and aunt Anna McGarrigle on her most recent album. “F*ck that, let’s use these people. Nepatism. It’s a thing,” she says before playing McGarrigles ‘Look into my eyes’. Accompanied by Bernice at various points throughout the set, Wainwright revisits “I Know You’re Married But I Have Feelings Too” and most notably the haunting ‘Ball and Chain’ from her self-titled first album. She exits and returns with a cover of Leonard Cohens’ ‘Chelsea Hotel #2’ and although she stumbles across some of the lyrics (probably due to the onstage tequila) when she exits again the whole crowd stands and cheers for her.T why is there a T here?
This may not have been the most glamorous venue and there were a few issues with sound over the course of the evening. The Soma crew however did well to create an intimate evening with a diverse group of extremely talented artists throughout to support Wainwright. Definitely a great addition to the festival scene in this country and one to watch over the next few years as it grows.