Live Review: Aoife O’Donovan with the Guildhall Session Orchestra, The Barbican, London – 18th June 2024

Photo: J.Aird

One cannot but reflect that Aoife O’Donovan likes to do things at either end of a musical spectrum – having recently been performing her version of Springsteen’s ‘Nebraska‘ in a solo acoustic show –  she has moved to the other end of the range for this concert.   And to be fair this is something she acknowledges herself from the stage.  The album “All My Friends” looks at the political experience of woman in America in the 100 years since getting the vote and does it with an Orchestral accompaniment and that was the album being showcased at The Barbican on this night, complete with an orchestra and a choir.  This celebration of women’s suffrage came at an apt time – the last day of voter registration for the upcoming UK general election.  And although the songs that make up the album are drawn from reading about Carrie Chapman Catt they filter through to today as a warning that rights can be granted, and rights can be eroded and erased.

It’s clearly a pleasure, and an unusual one at that, with O’Donovan commenting that getting to perform ‘All My Friends‘ in total at The Barbican is a dream come true.  Naturally, with an orchestra and choir, the songs from ‘All My Friends‘ were going to sound very like the album recordings – something which O’Donovan would explain more than once takes a lot of organising, and it is something that will only happen a couple of times throughout her current international tour.

Photo: J Aird

The album consists of just nine songs – and one of them, a cover of Dylan’s ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll‘ was left out of the concert running – and so there was a need to inject additional songs from earlier albums without disturbing the flow of the material. An obvious way would have been to split the concert into effectively two sets, but instead O’Donovan inserted older, but appropriate to the feminist theme of the evening, songs such as ‘Prodigal Daughter‘ as book marks between runs of songs from ‘All My Friends‘, a choice that worked well.

The evening got under way with a trio of older songs, the orchestra accompanying Aoife O’Donovan and her band –  Euan Burtin on bass and drummer Dave Hamblett.  Along with the conductor – O’Donovan’s husband Eric Jacobsen – they would be the only men on the stage.  It was explained that Eric Jacobsen got the gig on the strength of being a professional conductor.

Briar Rose‘ is a deceptively pretty opener, revealing a tale of parental betrayal and a wilful inability to acknowledge what is going on.  With O’Donovan noting that the 4th of July means something else in the UK this year, ‘Red & White & Blue & Gold‘ has become a beautiful love song to a nation that is starting to forget what it is, at its best.  ‘Magic Hour‘ drifted with thoughts of death and visions of the coast of Ireland, plaintively presented with the aching heart wish wrapped up in “songs of old Ireland, songs about being young again…I wish I was young again.

Photo: J.Aird

Right Time‘ was inspired by thoughts about the Mothers of the suffragettes, although over time O’Donovan has come to think of it as being a song for all the daughters. It’s as near as the gig gets to a swaying bopper With it’s artful mix of folk-pop, punctuated by bluesy trumpet.  And speaking of  daughters naturally led on to ‘Prodigal Daughter‘ with Siobhan Miller coming on stage to add additional vocals.

Photo: J.Aird

It’s  a wonderful sidestep into family politics from ‘Age of Apathy‘, with three female generations of a family finding it beyond them to come together: “I know forgiveness won’t come easy / not for you / look at the child upon my knee / she has eyes of blue / she resembles me resembling you.”   It captures, in simple stark lines the stubbornness and, yes, the stupidity that can run deep in families.

Photo: J.Aird

The concert, like the album, steps up the tempo as the end approaches, with ‘America, Come‘ making a more powerful use of O’Donovan’s small band in conjunction with the orchestra’s strings. There’s a hair raising moment on the back of the neck as the choir echoes the lines about the Statue of Liberty “she does not wait for those who have a special interest to serve or a selfish reason for depriving other people of freedom” with a strident “freedom, freedom, freedom.”

Over the Finish Line‘ brings the fight for women’s’ rights into the present, a soft spoken call to look up from our phones and pay attention to what is going on around us – because “we are living in hard, hard, times” and there’s much that has been taken for granted that is actually under attack.

After all that had gone before, it is somewhat ironic that it should draw to a close with a second – possibly impromptu – encore of  O’Donovan solo on guitar for a cover of Joni Mitchell’s ‘You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio‘, a reminder that Aoife can be mesmerising enough on her own, there’s also an additional thank you  with “you don’t like strong women ‘cos they are hip to your tricks” accompanied by an ironic gesture of acknowledgement of orchestra and choir.

This was a very focused concert – when introducing ‘Daughters‘ O’Donovan laughingly suggested that her next album would be about trucks – but it made the point that the struggles are not over, and that the opportunity has arisen for a new generation to show that “the veins of these women are not filled with milk and water / these are mothers of bold American daughters / but they are not afraid / … / Suffrage is the way to win.”  It’s hard to imagine that anyone in the room would have disagreed…but these are not the people who need persuading. So, wonderful music and a worthy celebration of political success, but the underlying message that success is fragile remains disturbing.

About Jonathan Aird 2774 Articles
Sure, I could climb high in a tree, or go to Skye on my holiday. I could be happy. All I really want is the excitement of first hearing The Byrds, the amazement of decades of Dylan's music, or the thrill of seeing a band like The Long Ryders live. That's not much to ask, is it?
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