This Aoife O’Donovan article was written by James Dawson, a GIGsoup contributor
Since her first album with Crooked Still 12 years ago, Aoife O’Donovan has been one of the most thrilling and unpredictable voices in contemporary folk music. She has a rare ability to cut through the cant and the unearned air of superiority that often surrounds modern players of traditional music. So, whether singing American folk and blues like “When First Unto This Country” and “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” with Crooked Still, or the ancient English ballad “Some Tyrant” with Sarah Jarosz, O’Donovan has been able to get to the heart of old songs and inhabit their melodies, stories and characters as deeply as anyone.
Touring in support of her second solo album, “In The Magic Hour,” O’Donovan played nine of the album’s ten songs to a crowd packed around the small stage in the grimy, low-ceilinged bunker of Cowley Road’s Bullingdon club: “It’s like there’s been a children’s party up here” she said, unsticking her shoes from the stage.
Since going solo, the traditionals have largely been absent from Aoife O’Donovan’s albums and some of the dynamism that made Crooked Still so intoxicating has evaporated. There are excellent performances throughout “In The Magic Hour”, but often the accompaniment seems too studied and the songs don’t have the freedom they need. But with her stripped-down touring band, the songs have taken on new life. In sessions with Paste Magazine, CBS, and with O’Donovan performing solo for The Bluegrass Situation, tracks like “King Of All Birds”, “Porch Light” and “Magic Hour” have revealed depths that maybe not even O’Donovan knew they had.
This exploration continued at the Bullingdon, each song had a hook, a moment that opened it up. Whether it was the way O’Donovan dismissed the band from the stage and played “Beekeeper” (from her first album “Fossils) alone with so much dread in the melody and assertion in her vocal, or the lilting chorus of “Oh Mama”, the kind of songwriting that sounds like it existed long before any one singer put it down on tape, or the infectious feeling of confidence and satisfaction as the musicians breezed into the instrumental of “Porch Light.”
The playing throughout was superb, with Steve Nistor’s drumming perfectly accompanying O’Donovan’s tumbling melodies and guitarist Anthony Da Costa’s delightfully off-kilter playing. All evening Da Costa’s soloes emerged so organically, with such unlikeliness and deep feeling that it seemed they had to be made up on the spot.
Perhaps most of all though, O’Donovan’s solo material showed it has the power to invoke the oldest forms of folk music in a totally organic way, the way age-old lyrics or themes from traditional music echo in any particular song never feels false. It’s a gift O’Donovan shares with the very best performers: Bob Dylan, Robert Johnson, her contemporary Rhiannon Giddens.
Never in her solo career has this been more evident than at the Bullingdon, where the subtlety, humour, emotion and, perhaps more than anything, the toughness of her and her music were stunningly apparent.