Interview – John Cleere

There are so many ‘roots’ festivals these days you could spend years visiting a different one without ever going back to the same one twice. That Kilkenny Roots Festival attracts the same crowd year on year without fail is testament to an event that has really found a place in many hearts, mine included. Now in its twenty-second year, Kilkenny Roots – or ‘The Roots’ as the regulars refer to it – this small but perfectly formed nugget is the go to place every May for roots lovers from all over the world.   With the likes of Patty Griffin (pictured), The Sadies, and Texan legend Alejandro Escovedo topping the bill, this year will be no different. Americana-UK  caught up with Festival director John Cleere ahead of the impending frivolity.

So twenty odd years of Kilkenny Roots Festival! That’s some going. Take me back to those early days if you will. How did the festival come about? What were the goals set then? Have you been involved since the very start?
It’s actually 22 this year! I was running Cleere’s at the time. We had built a small theatre at the back with raked seating. We found it was a bit inflexible and formal for gigs, so we took out the seating and started doing a mix of theatre and gigs. We were looking for a new festival in Kilkenny at the time, so I brought Tom Stapleton (an experienced promoter) on board to book the festival. Tom stood down in 2006 and I’ve been running it since.

In those early days, were all the venues involved from the start? I’m guessing many have come on board year after year?
A few have gone by the wayside, but it’s still about 80% same venues. The opening of the Set Theatre in 2010 was a major boost, it gave us a home for our headline gigs. Jason Isbell was our first gig there. Not a bad start!

Those early line-ups read like a ‘who’s who’ of the great and good on the americana/roots scene. Who were you most exited about booking back then and was there a moment when you thought ‘hey, we’ve arrived!’?
Tom’s contacts in the early years were vital. It meant that without any track record we were able to book people like Rodney Crowell, Guy Clarke, Calexico, Ryan Adams (grrr…), Ray LaMontagne.

As the festival has grown, with people coming from all over now, has the ethos changed at all?  I appreciate budgets, funding, etc is a constant battle but the heart of the festival seems totally built on love and a real enjoyment of the music.
I suppose we never sat down with a business plan. I don’t think the phrase existed at the time. The sponsors and pubs have given us a free hand and never interfered with the running or booking. It means we have been able to concentrate on the programming. It might seem a little haphazard, but a lot of thought and work goers into it.

I know how much time and effort goes into these things – through other festival organisers I know – does that spoil the fun and enjoyment you have with it these days, John? You are always working whenever I see you! I guess it must detract somewhat from the experience?
I’ve often said I’d love to go to the festival if it was held somewhere else and just enjoy it! It’s hard to relax over the weekend. You’re always waiting for that problem phone call. We have a good crew, especially on the technical end, so fingers crossed.

How do you manage to put together such amazing bills year after year? Logistics of band touring, availability, costs must be a constant juggling act but you seem  to nail it! That must warrant some sense of huge pride?
I think anyone involved in the music business understands how challenging it can be. Every year we start again with a clean slate. We are very much dependent on what acts are touring. It’s unusual for an act to just play Kilkenny, although Dori Freeman is just flying in for her Kilkenny gigs this year.

Tell me a little more about this year’s festival. Who are you most excited about?
I’ll do the politician here and say I don’t have one particular favourite. I genuinely think it’s a really strong bill from established acts like Patty Griffin and Alejandro, plus new acts like William The Conqueror and The Accidentals. To paraphrase Father Ted in ‘The Lovely Girls’ competition – they’re ALL lovely acts!

I also love the free music trail, there is always bands on that who I don’t know who blow me away every year. How do you put that together? Are you looking for bands there who one day might step up to a full proper Roots gig down the line? Who should we be looking out for this year?
Not necessarily, but it’s great when they do progress and come back to do ticketed shows. John Blek, Prinz Grizzley are good examples of that. I think Deadbeatz from Austria, Villiers & The Villains, The Shadowshakers will make a big impression. I remember Andy Fyfe having a great time at Loudest Whisper a couple of years ago. He described it as “Guys in their 70’s rocking like it was the 70’s” in his review.

Ive been to KK Roots for last eight years, and meet folks there who have been to all of them. Again, that sense of loyalty to a festival really only comes about when the end product is so wonderful. Its a special event, john. You can’t help feel it every year. Kilkenny itself is a magical place, how much do think the city plays a part in the weekend? I’m guessing its not always so much fun!
It’s certainly not all fun and games, but there’s a wide range of festivals throughout the year, ranging from comedy, arts, food, music, film and even economics. I’m obviously closest to our Roots audience and there’s a genuine feeling of sadness when it’s all over for another year.

Looking back over the years John what – if anything – would you have changed about the festival?

We could always do with more money and have the flexibility to bid for more acts. I wouldn’t like it to get too big, I don’t think there would be a much bigger audience than what we have at the moment.

Name me one act you would LOVE at Roots but – as yet – haven’t managed to book?

Generally I’m happy to work with what’s available. We missed out on Joe Ely a couple of times. He’s one I would love to get here. I saw him do a legendary gig here back before the festival was started. The Bottle Rockets spring to mind also.

Kilkenny Roots Festival takes place from May 3rd to May 6th at various venues around the city. For tickets and information go to www.kilkennyroots.com

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