If there's something lovely about the early summer sun, then there's something incredibly lovely about Bluegrass played in a church as that early summer sun washes across four amazing musicians. Without wishing to get all biblical, it seems like a blessing.
CUP O'JOE aren't your porch dwelling, grizzled old Bluegrass players huddled around a single microphone, plucking out the Deliverance tune. There's no nameless sense of menace, no clichéd straw chewing. Instead, there are glorious harmonies delivered by siblings who clearly know exactly how the others tick. There's a lightness of touch perfectly suited to this late-ish May evening and there's a sense of musicianship that sort of transcends anything you might expect from a bunch of stringed-things, strummed and picked.
Banjo player Tabitha Benedict has been here before, as part of the incomparable Midnight Skyracer. Where they whip up a moonshine drenched party, watching her in Cup O'Joe feels a bit like eavesdropping on the greatest campfire sing-along. When you realise that Benjamin Agnew on double bass and Reuben on guitar are her brothers, that feeling isn't exactly dispelled. The fact that the mandolin player, David Benedict, is her husband (and only American in a Northern Irish band) leads you to suspect that this lot must have the finest family gatherings ever.
You can imagine that those family gatherings over in Co. Armagh are long and languorous, relaxed and free-flowing. Certainly, that's how the two sets of this evening unfurl. Brand new songs tumble into almost new songs, traditional Irish songs gently bump against proper Bluegrass tunes, obscure covers and timeless originals wrap their arms around one another and gaze up at the sky.
On an inspired cover of John Hartford's Mississippi Valley, all four of them get to show off their remarkable skills. As happens time and again through the evening, the banjo and mandolin explore to the very edges of the tune while Benjamin's elastic bass tethers the whole thing and Reuben's guitar burns white hot. The musicianship is extraordinary. This is progressive Bluegrass; instruments played with speed but with love and care and warmth.
When the banjo is put to one side, Tabitha picks up an acoustic guitar and sings. As much as her brothers have lovely voices, it is hers that carries this band. Sounding not a million miles from Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek, she crosses genres as well as continents. Navigator is a new song with an old title but is a delight, sung beautifully and crackles with poppy Skyracer vibes. She pulls off something similar on a cover of Gillian Welch's Wichita too. Those are big boots to fill but she fills them.
The tune of the night, though, is I Just Can't Sleep Without Caffeine. A Western swing number complete with video animation on the screens above the altar. It is witty and jazzy, effortlessly brilliant with a great tune and allows four incredible musicians and three gorgeous harmonies free rein. This is the sort of song that should be on every lazy summer playlist.
Also blessed by the early summer sun was the opening set by CHARLIE LIMM. Unashamedly in thrall to ‘70s singer songwriters, there are echoes of Stevie Nicks, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt in her five songs. Silence Of The Girls is literary, wordy and complex, a showcase for her versatile voice, while a cover of Tom Petty's Wildflowers rocks very gently indeed. The beautiful country folk of Falling Every Time bodes well for a soon-to-be-released EP.
By the end of the evening the sun has faded, maybe the campfire has burned down, but that feeling of being blessed remains.
Words: Gavin McNamara
Photo: Barry Savell