When it was first announced towards the end of 2016 that Aiken Promotions planned to host a massive outdoor country music festival in August of this year, my immediate reaction, like that of thousands more around Ireland I’m sure, was one of sheer joy and pure excitement. After all, the promise of an occasion which was going to bring together some of the biggest names in American country music, as well as many of the finest talents from the U.K, and with no shortage of homegrown entertainers also involved, was definitely a thought to warm the winter months and warrant the ritual of ticking-off days on the calendar. The Harvest Fest countdown was on right from the very first moment this celebration of country was revealed!
As the actual scale of what was planned became apparent, however, that initial burst of joy and excitement turned quickly to a form of awe and indeed no little curiosity. This was to be no ordinary festival, you see, not by a long shot. Two days, with forty acts involved, spread across four different stages….that’s a lot of music! And that much music needs a lot of organisation. But it can be done. And no-one better to be at the wheel than Aiken Promotions. But then came the real, ‘Wait now….run that by me again…’ moment! It was all going to happen in TWO different locations! Now THAT is what you call upping the ante on anything that’s gone before.
Westport House in Mayo and Enniskillen Airport in Fermanagh were chosen as the two sites for pilgrimage, with everyone who performed in Westport on the Saturday making tracks for Enniskillen for the Sunday show, and Saturday’s Enniskillen line-up making the journey in the opposite direction. When Nathan Carter and American country superstar Miranda Lambert were named as the Harvest Fest headliners, the bar was certainly set high. As the rest of the performers were revealed, that standard was maintained, as fans were treated to the news that the legendary Charley Pride would be a special guest, and the festival bill would also include American country stars like Kip Moore, Dan and Shay, Maddie and Tae, and Mo Pitney (not to mention songwriting greats Victoria Shaw and Earl Bud Lee, who have both scored massive hits with Garth Brooks, in ‘The River’ and ‘Friends In Low Places’, respectively). From the U.K, Ward Thomas, Catherine McGrath, and Frankie Davies would be taking part, while Ireland was more than ably represented by artists like Pete Kennedy, Cliona Hagan, Hurricane Highway, Una Healy, Barry Kirwan, and Niamh Lynn to name but a few.
This long-awaited weekend finally rolled around just a couple of weeks back, and I boarded a west-bound train to make the beautiful town of Westport my home for what turned out to be two magical days and nights of country music.
With so many of the festival’s line-up sure to do the business on stage, there were a few other important factors which were going to come into play in determining whether or not the weekend would be looked back upon as a success or otherwise. Location and organisation were two such factors. To my shame, I’d never been to Westport before, but my word, what a gorgeous town it is. I’ll certainly be back. As I already mentioned, an event of this magnitude requires a level of organisation and planning that proves pivotal in how things turn out. In this regard, Aiken Promotions, Westport House, and everybody else involved can hold their heads up high, because they all did a magnificent, and quite possibly close to faultless, job. The atmosphere on site was fantastic on both days. Stewards, officials, and security (and there were plenty of all) were helpful, friendly, and good-humored from early ’til late, with the sound of laughter, like music, coming from all directions.
Perhaps the best thing about a festival like this, though, is the new artists you discover, or the ones that take you by surprise. Riah Butler and Megan O’ Neill are two Irish singer/songwriters who have been slowly but surely making names for themselves over in Nashville. I’d heard of both prior to Harvest, but I’d never actually had the pleasure of hearing either perform. Well, let me tell you that hearing them both play in the Harvest Cafe as part of the Songwriters-in-the-Round style show was a true pleasure. Both ladies also performed on two of the bigger stages as well, with Megan captivating her audience in the Vicar Street tent, while Riah, backed by a full band, turned in a powerhouse performance on the Roadhouse Cafe stage. And it’s worth noting that many of the fans who first heard Riah and Megan play in the Harvest Cafe actually followed them to the Roadhouse Cafe and Vicar Street tent respectively to hear them again. You really can’t get too much of a good thing when you’re talking about ladies with such mesmerising voices and wonderful songs.
Of the American artists taking part, I’d never heard of Logan Brill before. But as the saying goes, there’s seldom a cloud without a silver lining. And so it proved for Logan, and the Westport audience, for when U.K. duo The Shires had to withdraw due to illness, Brogan was moved to a higher profile slot on the main stage. And she grasped it with both hands. Both hands and all of her heart, in fact. Thanks to an amazing voice, great songs, and a stage presence that I’m sure combines a natural gift for performing with an appreciation of the importance of stage-craft for any artist, Logan quickly developed a rapport with the audience. And as far as I’m aware, she was the only artist over the whole weekend who took the time and the trouble to actually make her way to the merch tent after her set to meet many of those fans and sign autographs. Watch out for this lady, I’ll be very surprised if we don’t hear a whole lot more about her in the future.
It was also my first time to actually hear Catherine McGrath play ‘live’, and I can tell you that I’d take another train to anywhere to hear her again. Not only is she a fabulous songwriter, but her storytelling and sense of fun between songs is just as much a part of why she’s developing such a strong reputation. Also worth a mention is Frankie Davies from the U.K, who undoubtedly has one of the tightest bands I’ve ever seen! Those guys, man….they rocked!
Possibly one of the coolest moments of the whole weekend, though, at least for me as an Offalyman (Offaly is a county in the Irish midlands) was seeing two fellow Offalymen play central roles in different areas of the festival. Pete Kennedy, from Clareen, was the man at the helm for the Harvest Cafe where he also performed, while Chris Martin from Tullamore was the man behind the drums for Hurricane Highway as the ever popular Mayo band wowed fans from the main stage.
As far as the big names went, they all showed why they’re regarded as just that. Nathan we know about, and the more we see him on stages this big, the more it’s clear that he thrives on it. Kip Moore was simply electric. Expect his new album, ‘Slowheart’, to end up in a lot of Irish hands when it’s released soon. Dan and Shay are going to be stars on the American country scene for a long time to come, and they’re heading back to Ireland (for their third trip here this year!) in December. The on-stage energy they bring to their performances is infectious. Maddie and Tae seemed a little unsure what to expect at first, but as it quickly became apparent how excited Westport was to see them, they relaxed and looked like they enjoyed their set. Mo Pitney showed exactly why he’s so highly thought of by so many, as he turned a jam-packed Vicar Street tent into its own little world despite the fact that he was scheduled to play at the same time as Charley Pride was also on the main stage, only a short distance away.
And Miranda? Even though word had it that she may have been a little unwell (bronchitis, it seems), she oozed charisma and had the audience wrapped around her little finger. Early in her set she remarked, ‘Look, I know it’s Sunday. I’m tired. You guys are tired. But when I go home, I want you to remember me as a badass. And I want to remember you guys as badasses, too!’ Miranda certainly did her bit, and I’d like to think we did ours, too!
To top off a weekend of a million memories, I had the supreme good fortune to share a train journey halfway across Ireland on the Monday morning with none other than the ‘American Poet’, himself, Earl Bud Lee, the man who gave Garth Brooks the chance to tell us all about his many ‘Friends In Low Places.’ Earl, for those of you who may not know, also penned ‘One Night At A Time’ for George Strait and ‘Who Are You When I’m Not Looking’ for Blake Shelton. For someone like me, who’s a country music fan first and foremost, but who also writes a song or two from time to time, the opportunity to be in Earl’s company for so long was the equivalent of a huge lottery win! And I’m delighted to say that we’ll be interviewing Earl Bud about his life and songwriting career in the not too far-off future!
So, looking back on it all, the only downside to Harvest Fest was trying to take in so many acts, with so much happening all the time. But hey, that’s a challenge I’d live with anytime. So for me at least, it’s a definite hats off to Harvest 2017. And I’m already counting down the days until I can catch the train to Harvest Fest 2018!
His contribution to the Irish music scene has been recognised by his inclusion in the entertainment industry directory, the Hot Press Yearbook 2017, which is the essential music and media who's-who in Ireland. Anthony was also asked to present John Farry (Nathan Carter's manager) with his award for Best Original Album at the 2017 Hot Country Awards and in 2015 presented Lisa McHugh with her Female Entertainer of the Year award.
In his role with HEM Country, Anthony has interviewed many artists who are well known names on the international stage, among them Clare Bowen, Imelda May, and Una Healy, as well as rising stars like Courtney Marie Andrews. Anthony's features for HEM Country have also helped to shine a spotlight on many of the best Irish country acts like Robert Mizzell, Cliona Hagan, Barry Kirwan, Bernie Heaney, and Hurricane Highway, bringing their talent and achievements to an even wider audience.
During his time writing 'On The Right TRAX', Anthony has interviewed most of the biggest stars on the Irish country scene, including Mike Denver, Nathan Carter, Lisa McHugh, Philomena Begley, Sandy Kelly, and Derek Ryan. He has also chatted with international artists such as Sunny Sweeney, Jim Rooney, Max T. Barnes, the late George Hamilton IV, and Tony Christie.
Anthony's sphere of influence extends well past the boundaries of country music, however, with time spent in conversation with international popstar Kiesza also to his credit. He has also shared time with several other artists from the Emerald Isle whose fame reaches beyond those shores, including Mundy, The Fureys, Frances Black, Pete Kennedy, Rackhouse Pilfer, The 4 of Us, Roisin O, Ham Sandwich and Mick Flannery.
As a writer, lyricist, and poet himself, however, songwriters have a very special place in Anthony's heart and some of his favourite interviews (together with the songwriters already mentioned) include those with Jimmy McCarthy, Johnny McEvoy, Charlie McGettigan, Kieran Goss, and Niall Toner.
Other household names whom Anthony has interviewed for 'On The Right TRAX' are the famous comedians Tommy Tiernan, Des Bishop, Neil Delamere, Jason Byrne, Andrew Maxwell, and Brendan Grace, as well as celebrity chef Rachel Allen, and television presenter Kathryn Thomas.
Anthony also does some artist representation and PR work, and has successfully secured national television and radio appearances for Irish and American artists.
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