One of the most charming - but ever so slightly confused - additions to the Irish festival scene, The Midlands Music Festival, seems to be no more.
According to several well placed sources, the festival has been postponed - or, depending on your point of view, axed - this year as its promoters, POD Concerts and Rag Lane Entertainment, found it increasingly hard to secure top drawer talent which fitted the Midlands bill.
The failure of the promoters, POD Concerts and Rag Lane Entertainment, to secure a big box office name for the third outing has now led to the festival being postponed for a year.
After the relative disaapointment of last year's event, they had been aiming high this year - they had to - and concert-shy Joni Mitchell had allegedly signed on the dotted line before deciding not to tour. They really pushed the boat out on securing the silver-haired services of Neil Young and Bob Dylan too, but they failed to nab either man. George Jones, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton and even American rock icons Tom Petty (long overdue an Irish visit), John Fogerty and ZZ Top (due to play it last year) were on the hit list. The Eagles were the stars everyone wated. But without any of these on board, the writing was on the wall. Having made little or no money in its previous outings there wasn’t much in the Midlands kitty to lure any of the high kings of the country, folk and MOR genres, and without them, Midlands was doomed.
The festival will be sorely missed this summer; in it's all-too-brief life it had become a welcome addition to the Irish live scene. But there won't be too many tears shed in MOR land as they will be more than looked after by Aiken Promotions who have lined up a veritable orgy of shite in the form of Eric Clapton and numerous other dullards to fill venues in Malahide and Cork. And no doubt the Eagles will cut the ribbon on the new look Vodafone Point "Theatre". It also looks increasingly likely that in the next two weeks Aiken will unveil big shows for key Midlands targets Dylan and Young. No doubt a load of other heritage acts will be unveiled too.
The festival proved to be the sleeper success story of the increasingly crowded Irish festival market when it debuted in 2006. Pitching itself as a rootsy, family-friendly contemporary country festival, the likes of Kenny Rogers, Loudon Wainwright III, Nanci Griffith, Emmylou Harris, Jackson Browne, Dwight Yoakam and Glen Campbell were unveiled as the headline acts for its debut outing. But within weeks, the ‘2 days of Contemporary Country at the Castle’ tagline covered a more broader festival. Some seasoned middle of the road veterans such as Van Morrison, The Saw Doctors, and Don McLean were added to the upper echelons of the bill, whilst down below, folk-friendly steay-as-it-goes acts such as Tony Joe White, Lambchop, Mozaik, Albert Lee and others helped to broaden the appeal of the festival. For some reason Low were in there too. Country was looked after with Hayseed Dixie, Del McCoury, The Hillbilly All-Stars, Guy Clarke, Darden Smith, Charlie Landsborough, Ray Wylie Hubbard and the Hacienda Brothers. A real masterstroke, done with typical John Reynolds flair, was the decision to allow kids under the age of 12 in for free. Sadly, a stage set to be curated by Foggy Notions fell by the wayside, as did another stage full of old-timers. Acts like Calexico and more were pulled from the bill.
The event was a success and, as anybody who was there for Garden Party earlier that same summer would tell you, the venue was a real find. Set beside a lake and a real-life castle, it was a wooded, landscaped gem, with no bad views of the main stage, and with deckchairs galore it was an oddity, but a laid-back one at that. Facilities, catering and drinks wise, it was a small-scale Electric Picnic with decent grub and feck all queues.
Crowd watchers had a real treat at Midlands, as it was a festival which seemed to attract every strand of Irish society. The crowd was a real mixed bag of culchies, elderly couples, young families, seasoned festival goers, piss heads, genuine salt-of-the-earth music fans, gangs of good natured youngsters and people you would never normally see at a gig, never mind a two-day outdoor music festival. I remember meeting my father’s solicitor, out of his tree, wandering around clutching a wine box praising the skies for the presence of Jackson Browne. Even my girlfriend’s parents were there AND they got to meet Kenny Rogers despite her father calling him a "plastic-headed cunt" not two minutes before they shook his hand and welcomed him to Ireland.
Van Morrison confirmed that he is still rubbish on home soil, an utterly charmless man; I peed on Louis Walshes shoes; I ate the finest half-chicken I have EVER eaten at any festival in close to 20 years; and I had a whale of a time, certainly much more fun than I have had at an Irish festival in a long, long time. And the music wasn’t bad either. I’ll never forget standing with about a dozen others watching Low, and then being outnumbered by Lambchop. It has to be said that Kenny Rogers was bloody great - he rocked in a pure guilty pleasure kinda way, but he also had a shit-hot band of session guys you were sure you've seen before (you had) and he had Coolio (?). Glen Campbell was funny in small doses, Del McCoury was a lovely find, Jacksone Browne pretty good, Dwight was alright, Loudon Wainwright III was better than his offspring, Hillbilly All-Stars were great fun, and the likes of Tony Joe White etc were all good because it was all good all around.
There was some degree of surprise then when it was announced that Midlands 2007 would move to Belvedere House, Gardens and Park in Mullingar. However, the move worked. This venue had proved itself remarkably adept at housing at least 17,000 pill heads and apprentice trades”people” for the Hi-Fi:Ireland rave-up, so surely it would cope with an influx of older, more discerning music fans.
The move also meant Midlands shed its contemporary country tag, and a really diverse bill was announced. Signs that it was on shaky legs were glaringly apparent when the headliners were unveiled. Glen Campbell - on at about 2pm the previous year - was promoted to the top of the heap, whilst gnarly country vet Kris Kristofferson was unveiled for the Saturday. After much procrastination on his part, an initially reluctant Christy Moore was added to the bill. Other notables included Richard Thompson (at last!), Gillian Welch, Aimee Mann, Steve Earle, Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, Hillbilly All-Stars, Blind Boys Of Alabama, and, er, Kíla and some more including perennial Irish audience favourites Paul Brady,and The Waterboys.
The rest of the bill featured: Mundy, Anjani, Raul Midon, Jim Lauderdale, Old Stagecoach, Allison Moorer, Tom Russell, Prison Love, José González, The Be Good Tanyas, Bray Vista, Hothouse Flowers, Richmond Fontaine, Ben Taylor, Niall Toner, Sunny Sweeney, Luan Parle and The Cosmic Banditos.
As I posted below, the country market was all but sidelined for the second outing in a row, and Foggy Notions didn't make the cut for a second year with the promised four stages becoming two. However, the festival was another relative success, but despite the awesome venue, and all the plush extras and decent attention to detail we’ve come to expect from outdoor outing organised by POD, the magical atmosphere of that first outing was not in abundance. The incessant rain wasn’t a factor in this, there was just a sense of anti-climax.
Crusty Moore was impressive enough, and depending on how drunk you were, he rose to the occasion, but when you were going home after the first day singing the praises of him and Mundy you knew there was either (a) something great about salt-o-the earth Irish music; or (b)something wrong.
The novelty factor of Glen Campbell could only last so long, and it really should have ended the previous year. He just couldn’t cut the mustard as a headline act, and he was patently the wrong choice. The fact we were reduced to catching a cabaret cruise ship act such as this was a crushing disappointment, as was the thoughts of seeing Jose Gonzalez and a bird who did a line with Leonard Cohen in slots any number of killer acts on last summer's festival circuit would have died for.
However, there was plenty of gold in them thar hills, and the likes of Richard Thompson, Blind Boys of Alabama, Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, Prison Love, Hillbilly All-Stars, Gillian Welch and even The Waterboys more than made up for the poor and in choice of acts elsewhere on the bill.
At this juncture, you have to feel a little sympathy for POD’s John Reynolds and Rag Lane’s Darryl Downey. As far as promoters go, they are a very rare breed indeed - men of good intentions who put the punter first. But they were also gravely confused about what they wanted Midlands to be, and by cancelling it for a year, it may damage its reputation. They must be disappointed with the lack of firepower, especially considering there are few indoor venues for the big acts to play this summer, and we can only hope that they bounce back bigger and better in 2009. Maybe they should emulate the Cambridge Folk Festival (which runs on the same weekend) or perhaps make it a sister festival? Maybe they might consider taking Aiken on board too... Whatever, by postponing it, they have stunted its growth somewhat. Maybe they should have let it grow.
An official announcement is due later this week, as it is understood they were making a last-ditch attempt to save the festival last week and earlier this week. However, it’s too late now as Jim Carroll reveals on http://www.ireland.com/blogs/ontherecord/
Maybe a year off might give the promoters a chance to change things round a little, and to rethink it and decide what it should be. As far as the synergy of the event, the festival name, it's location and everything else goes, Midlands has it in spades, so hopefully it’ll be back.
So where could it go?
Should it go more country? Should it go like the aforementioned Cambridge Folk Festival and festivals like Cropready? Or carry on as they were and hope the big guns with across the board appeal will be available next year?