Lisa O’Neill At Whelan’s – Review
A quietly packed-out Whelan’s proved the perfect venue for Lisa O’Neill last night, as she performed a nicely balanced set of new and old songs, keeping the audience in the palm of her hand all the while. Touring in support of her latest release Pothole in the Sky, a uniquely Irish album which manages to find the mythic in the mundane, O’Neill appeared to be in great form, belting out her new tracks with gusto and delighting the crowd with some old favourites.
O’Neill’s star has been steadily rising since Same Cloth or Not arrived back in 2013 and Pothole in the Sky is a clear next step for the Cavan singer, refining and expanding upon the colloquial style of songwriting that has endeared O’Neill to many. It is apparent that she’s very proud of this new collection of songs, offering enlightening back-stories, laced with dry wit, in the quieter moments between songs.
After an endearing performance from support act Ain’t Saint John, O’Neill opens the set on her own with ‘Red Geansaí’ before bringing out the band for title track ‘Pothole in the Sky’. From the outset, it is clear that O’Neill’s powerful voice is the star of the show. There are plenty of impressive vocalists to be found in Irish music today, but few with the unique vocal affectations and rural twang that characterise O’Neill’s unique brand of folk. Not content with merely performing the songs, the gig proves a rare opportunity for insight in to the Cavan woman’s songwriting process, as she draws comparisons between the exhilaration of skydiving and the experience of being born to contextualise ‘Pothole in the Sky’, for example.
Mournful romance is the thread running through the next couple of tracks as O’Neill breaks out old favourite ‘England Has My Man’ before moving onto a newer track in ‘Nasty Man’, her voice threatening to crack under the strain of a wonderfully impassioned performance. It is clear that Same Cloth or Not has made a lasting impression on many of those present in Whelan’s, as ‘Come Sit Sing’ and ‘No Train to Cavan’, two stand-outs from that release, receive a rapturous welcome from those present.
Energy builds as the evening winds on, O’Neill’s powerful vocal delivery serving as the anchor for newer tracks like the mythically inspired ‘Gormlaith’s Grieving’ and album-closer ‘The Hunt’. O’Neill and her talented backing band close the set on the latter, leaving the stage as the adoring crowd call for more. Of course, they return for an encore a moment later, with O’Neill sitting behind the keys this time. Another charming story and bit of banter with the crowd leads into a rousing performance of ‘Black Sheep’, a layered near-epic from Pothole in the Sky. The real closing number comes, totally unexpectedly, in the shape of a Jefferson Airplane cover, with O’Neill commanding the stage throughout a performance of ‘White Rabbit’.
This final song, rife with references to Alice in Wonderland, is a fitting end to the evening. Like Alice, O’Neill, through her music, finds herself in an odd sort of wonderland. Unlike Alice, O’Neill has concocted the wonderland herself, drawing on Irish myth and tradition to embellish rural Ireland with a sense of dark mystery, crafted through off-kilter folk instrumentation and an entirely unique singing voice. With her stunning performance in Whelan’s, Lisa O’Neill managed to bring the audience into this strange wonderland for the evening.