The news that Sinéad O’Connor had passed away struck Ireland the day before the opening night of MusicTown at The Complex (27 July) and it hangs over the first act, folk artist Aoife Wolf, like thick fog.

In the middle of her 22-minute set, Wolf tells the story of how her single “Beyond Saving” was written on a broken-down piano she spotted in a house in France, considered by her host to be worthless. Performing it tonight requires Wolf to sing over some pre-recorded music without the protection of holding a guitar, but she’s going to go for it. Because, she says, “what would Sinéad do?”

Wolf gives this talk in a crouched position, side on to the crowd. It’s a defensive stance, part of the slight awkwardness of her chat. There’s a vulnerability to Wolf’s music too. Her electric guitar is supported by a violinist, shaping a sound that’s heavy and atmospheric.

On “Ringing in the Ear” (“I don’t normally play it live so I’m looking forward to playing it now”), Wolf’s voice is fragile and ethereal, like a sound you might expect to swirl deep in an enchanted wood, as she captures a break-up in stark terms: “It’s over/ Now this loneliness to me, it feels like/ A ringing / In the ear I can drown out the sound, it won’t.” She puts the button on the song by hitting some bluesy notes on her guitar.

With encouragement from the crowd helping her get past some hesitation, Wolf closes the set with a more direct tribute to O’Connor. “I was really, truly devastated to hear about her last night,” she says. “I don’t normally get really affected when celebrities and people you don’t know pass away, but I think we all felt really connected to her.”

What follows is a phenomenal solo rendition of “Mandinka”, an early O’Connor single. Strumming the chords, she strips the punky tune to its simplest form, hitting the tough-to-reach high notes. The crowd is with her, but this is a moment between Wolf and O’Connor.

So begins the opening night of MusicTown, a four-day festival curated by promoter and record label Foggy Notions, at The Complex on Arran St East. Four Irish acts are on the smartly curated bill tonight, all with their own take on what could broadly be described as folk, roots, Irish trad, and with a connection to land and the natural environment.

The times between acts could have been tightened up – for a decent amount of the four-hour show there’s nothing happening. But the most significant snag is in the second set. Natalia Beylis and Eimear Reidy play two lengthy instrumental compositions, but they’re hurt by an analogue buzz that rings over the quieter moments. Anyone who has tried hooking an old iPod up to a cheap set of computer speakers via a cable will know what I’m talking about. It’s a shame. With Reidy on cello and Beylis on organ, their music blends nature with sci-fi sonics, a marriage of the organic and the otherworldly.

Next up it’s Adrian Crowley, Ireland’s long-standing laureate of dread. Since the late 1990s, Crowley has been making music that runs through the same doomed canyons as that of Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, and The National. Early in his set, he explains how Foggy Notions’ main man, Leagues O’Toole, requested he play all new music. Whether or not that was a joke, Crowley wasn’t sure. But he’s going to do it anyway.

Performing alone with some pre-recorded soundscapes for company, Crowley first dons an electric guitar, his play resonating with a sense of foreboding, before switching to a Mellotron, which he uses to emit an even harsher sound. His lyrics are filled with folkloric and mythological elements, such as mountains and castles, as well as harsh industrial scenes, like quarries.

He describes crossing through a wasteland while the music grinds and churns. “Is there truth to the rumor you met the Grim Reaper late one night on an empty platform?” he sings in his cavernous voice, the delivery slow and heavy, like he washed down some drowsy flu medicine with a can of beer. Crowley’s brooding set can sound like funeral marches, the singer acting as a doomed wraith circling overhead.

Sweet relief comes in the form of two songs influenced by Crowley’s interest in bossa nova music. On the first, he simultaneously plays his Mellotron and the Marxophone, an antique fretless zither the singer says is 100 years old, while backed up by pre-recorded bossa nova jam that I’m not sure is an original piece or not, but sounds like it could have been sampled from heavily warped record found in at a flea market in Rio de Janeiro.

The final song of his set pulls a similar trick, but this time bossa nova forms the basis of what might even count as a pop song. With an extra focus on melody, Crowley sings about walking through cherry blossoms. He throws his head around and mumbles in the mic between verses. Turns out, this moody ghost quite likes the brightness.

Finally, there is Wicklow’s Anna Mieke, a recent RTÉ Choice Music Prize nominee for her second album, Theatre. Mieke begins her set as part of a three-piece band, with a drummer and a multi-instrumentalist, before inviting a couple more musicians to join mid-set. The drums have a gorgeous muted tone, which works for the evening of naturalistic sounds. Violin, saxophone and clarinet adds extra density.

​​Mieke opens with “For a Time”, a tune that displays her nimble fret play, fluttering vocals, and bare the influence of Irish trad. Before performing her version of the lovely “Go Away From My Window”, a traditional American ballad (usually spelled “Go ‘Way From My Window”), Mieke acknowledges John Jacob Niles, the legendary Kentucky balladeer who wrote it, and some delta blues guitar play makes it distinct from the rest of her set.

Finally, there is “Seraphim”, which Mieke explains was written in a forest in Finland, and such a romantic setting idealizes the rootsy feel of her approach. The final notes hit just as a few people have begun filtering out of the room. Trains need to be caught, and other plans fulfilled. For some, it’s probably just been a long night, but one of performances with majesty, grace and a sense of thematic cohesion.

Dean Van Nguyen is a cultural critic and music journalist for The Irish Times, The Guardian, Pitchfork, Bandcamp Daily and Wax Poetics, among others. As well as pop culture, he writes about identity, youth,...

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