The fourth chapter of All Together Now returned to Curraghmore House in Co Waterford with a weather warning threatening to ruin the fun. But it felt good to be back even as the clouds darkened the sky.
Sinéad O’Connor was due to headline last year’s festival, but withdrew after cancelling all her performances. This year, days after her death, her memory was in the air and in the art. The main stage was flanked by two black and white billboards, one on the left remembering O’Connor and one the right remembering Christy Dignam, who died in June.
Artists paid homage to O’Connor throughout the weekend, celebrating her life and legacy. Folk singer Lisa O’Neill covered Black Boys on Mopeds, while Saint Sister did a slowed-down version of Mandinka. Villagers covered Nothing Compares 2 U, while Sing Along Social also led hundreds of festival-goers in a cathartic singalong to the Prince-penned hit.
Having arrived early in the day to set up, Friday can best be described as a sideways-rain-drenched blur. We kicked things off with a dance to Winnie Ama’s excellent DJ set before skipping over to Ailbhe Reddy (who released her second album this year) for some gorgeous songwriting. This teed things up perfectly for Sorcha Richardson’s well-deserved first turn on the ATN main stage.
As the day turned to night the rain began bucketing down just in time for the headliners. Ireland hasn’t had a gig from Jessie Ware since 2015, so it was about time for the Londoner who brought her joyful disco to the main stage, before rapper Loyle Carner closed things out on with his signature vulnerability and blistering lines. After Ain’t Nothing Changed from his debut album, he led thousands in a few rounds of the crowd-pleasing olé, olé, olé, something he regularly does at his Irish gigs. (This writer’s spirits absolutely can be dampened by rain, so I counted myself lucky that I had seen Carner before.)
Friday performances I wish I hadn’t missed:
Annie Mac’s DJ set
Saturday morning revealed the aftermath of the night before, with collapsed tents and mud everywhere (unbelievably, there was more mud to come, but we didn’t know it then). By the end of the day the mud was so bad it was hard to understand why the organisers hadn’t planned for it better.
The first stop of the day was at the All Curious Minds tent for a panel discussion on allyship, hosted by Louise McSharry and featuring disability rights activist and playwright Louise Bruton, Shoutout Ireland’s Ruadhán Ó Críodáin and artist and LGBTQ+ activist Pradeep Mahadeshwar, wrapped up nicely with a couple of tracks from Pillow Queens (No Good Woman and Hearts and Minds, if you’re wondering.) Allyship and intersectionality are sometimes difficult ideas to talk about, but the nuances here were captured with humour, love and respect.
On the subject of All Curious Minds, this was the first year to only feature one such stage and the schedule felt seriously pared down with just six talks on Saturday and five on Sunday. This was a duo of tents that previously delivered intimate, truly special gigs with Patti Smith and Jessie Buckley & Bernard Butler, gorgeous performances from smaller acts like Clare Sands and Emma Langford, as well as chats between John Grant and Panti Bliss.
As with last year, the schedule feels so busy it gives me FOMO every time I make a decision that rules out another act. Following on from the allyship talk, we headed on to see Culchie Goth, fiddle and guitar-playing siblings from Offaly, fusing trad with pulsating beats and techno (do not miss them if you get a chance). This was followed by a brief stint with Sing Along Social at the bandstand (a stage that seems plagued by sound issues every year) and then a smaller set with Sorcha Richardson and her bandmate Kev after her main stage debut on Friday.
Continuing my personal trend of not going to the one gig everyone went to (it was Nick Cave last year), I skipped Sugababes to see Susan O’Neill, but didn’t regret a single second. O’Neill closed out her set with Our Mother, a raw, moving plea to protect the earth and stop cutting down trees 'for stupid s**t’.
Villagers took to the main stage in the last of the evening light, led by Conor O’Brien. In a musical one-two punch to the gut, O’Brien delivered a delicate rendition of Nothing Compares 2 U - ‘for Sinéad’ - followed by Courage, something which she knew a lot about. Nothing Arrived, a song he has been playing for over a decade now, was received with an audible sigh of approval from the crowd and kept fresh by an alternative arrangement.
In a run of catching a bit of a few different things, we then headed to Liam Ó Maonlaí, followed by some Ezra Collective, followed by an absolutely rammed Pillow Queens performance in a space much too small to hold the crowd that wanted to see them. It was mobbed. The night ended with a powerhouse performance from Fight Like Apes, who are ‘back for a minute’ in 2023 cause they’re ‘scared of life’. It was a mad, fun, perfect gig.
Saturday performances I wish I hadn’t missed:
Glasshouse performing Joni Mitchell ‘Blue’
Black Country, New Road
By Sunday the sun appeared, the mud was drying, the paths had been cleared and barriers erected around the particularly treacherous areas (a little too late, arguably). Toshín delivereda gorgeous performance of Aretha Franklin songs on the bandstand, which she finishes off with (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman and I Say A Little Prayer (voted for by the audience). In the middle of a glorious singalong that reminds me of the film My Best Friend’s Wedding, the rain starts to fall again but it doesn’t even matter.
Back at the main stage, Indie Northern Ireland artist Jealous of the Birds (Naomi Hamilton) drew a crowd that kept on growing and growing. Saint Sister (Morgan McIntyre and Gemma Doherty) then took over the spotlight just as the sun really began to shine. It was set that perfectly weaved their two albums. Musician and singer Karen Cowley (Wyvern Lingo) joined them for the a-cappella The Place That I Work. The cover of Mandinka ("you’ll all know the words to this one") was particularly moving. They told the crowd that this would be their last show for a ‘wee while’ and closed out their performance with a cover of LCD Soundsystem’s All My Friends, which was so good I entirely forgot it wasn’t theirs.
Contemporary composer and producer Max Richter with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra was the surprising highlight of the weekend. It’s a performance of Recomposed, his complete recomposition and reinterpretation of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, released in 2012. The quieter passages of the music risked getting lost as the festival crowd chatted and bustled in the tent (acoustically, probably not the best setting to be listening to this) but in the strongest moments the music builds and reaches out over the stage to thunderous applause. At the front, Richter stood at a laptop with Norwegian violin soloist Mari Samuelsen to his right, so alive with energy as she played. It was a breathtaking experience.
Cork star Biig Piig (Jessica Smyth) kicked off the year with a nomination for RTÉ Choice Song of the Year for Kerosene and appeared on the BBC Sound of 2023 list, so the main stage is where she belongs for her second ATN appearance and she owns it. Her debut album (as yet untitled) is coming soon. Not wanting to miss a rare opportunity, we head on to see Staples Jr Singers, the trailblazing soul gospel group who only ever released one record, nearly 50 years ago in 1975. The guy next to me says this is the best performance of the weekend.
Lorde proved just why she’s a global pop star. Kicking off with her mega-hit Royals, she drew the biggest crowd of the weekend (until Iggy Pop). "It’s such a privilege to come back here," Ella Yelich-O’Connor told the crowd, "my dad is Irish". After the New Zealand superstar, it was time to find our feet firmly planted back on Irish soil with Clondalkin rapper SELLÓ, who had the small Circle stage on fire with his Gaelic drill. By the time he performed Dublin, the place was electric with energy.
Closing out the festival, 76-year-old Iggy Pop, the Godfather of Punk, prowled the stage with his signature bare chest, mischievous and legendary. On two occasions he gets off the stage to get closer to the crowd. He plays the hits - not that I am personally familiar - and his roaring presence feels like the perfect end to the weekend, even to me.
Sunday performances I wish I hadn’t missed:
James Murphy (LCD Soundsystem) DJ set