The National, Bon Iver and friends rewrote what it means to throw a festival

Last weekend was the second edition of Sounds from a Safe Harbour in Cork

The origins of Sounds From A Safe Harbour go back to a speculative Facebook message sent three years ago. Mary Hickson, former CEO at Cork Opera House, contacted The National’s Bryce Dessner asking to meet for a cup of tea while the band were in southern Ireland on tour. They got together, an hour later the concept for a new festival was born and a year later the first one took place in 2015. Returning for its second edition, the event now spans four days, utilises more than 20 spaces and combines music, art and literature.

It’s not difficult to find an example to typify what the whole thing is about. On Saturday afternoon, less than 24 hours after The National score their first UK number one album with ‘Sleep Well Beast’, Matt Berninger, Bryce and his brother Aaron are covering a Cat Power song (‘Maybe Not’) at a free talk in a old fashioned theatre bar in front of 250 people. As Bryce explains: “It’s different from the normal rock tour or festival where you cut ‘n’ paste into a city.”

It’s true, SFASH doesn’t follow any transplanted festival formula. Along with Hickson and the Dessner twins (Bryce and Aaron), the programme is curated by actor Cillian Murphy – back in his home city – and playwright Enda Walsh. Between the five of them, they’ve sculptured an event that’s both creatively unique and satisfyingly unpredictable.

Aaron and Bryce Dessner speaking at one of the workshops

It reaches into every corner of Cork’s waterside city centre, from lunchtime into the night. A specially commissioned eerie video installation (Guilt Trip) by Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson in the Crawford Museum is just a few minutes walk down the street from where Cillian Murphy introduces a screening of the documentary film ‘The Possibilities Are Endless’, for example. There’s a ‘music trail’ stuffed with new artists, and even a show out on Spike Island – a journey by ferry to the fort – by Crash Ensemble.

Much of the programme is free, which means those who didn’t secure tickets for flagship nighttime shows at the Opera House by Lisa Hannigan (plus Aaron Dessner and the RTE National Symphony Concert Orchestra), Bon Iver’s first indoor European show of the year or the opening night of The National’s huge EU tour aren’t excluded from the experience.

Those big shows do produce some spectacular moments. Bon Iver, most recently seen headlining summer festivals like Primavera, performing the starkly beautiful ’22, A Million’ in the town centre Opera House is breathtaking. A show only made more special by collaborations with a local choir, the Dessner brothers and Fionn Regan – who performs his own ‘Abacus’ and Bon Iver’s ‘00000 Million’.

Equal to that, The National’s show on Saturday night is the band bringing the production they’re about to take into theatres and arenas into a 1,000 capacity venue, complete with a full lights show and a large video backdrop broadcasting footage from cameras placed around the stage.

The National on stage with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon

It has less of the feel of a gig, and more of a family get-together for a special birthday. The two-hour performance is a rotating door of guests, Justin Vernon smiling on guitar and samples, Lisa Hannigan providing vocals on half a dozen tracks and Irish group Slow Moving Cloud supplying elegant strings. As always, Matt Berninger’s performance bubbles like a kettle coming to boil, building to a frenzied conclusion where his voice cracks and he drives his microphone stand into the stage as if he’s drilling for water. It’s thrilling stuff.

But, really, it’s the moments happening away from those headline shows that differentiates SFTSH from any other urban festival experience. The surreal sight of Cillian Murphy interviewing the Dessner brothers against the backdrop of a tatty red curtain, sat on a couple of wonky bar stools in a bar, discussing everything from the band’s songwriting process to their film soundtrack work (Bryce famously wrote the music for The Revenant, and scored the “bear scene”).

And later in the afternoon, a unique performance from Bon Iver – playing a piano show at Cork’s School of Music, a contemporary hall, where 400 people or so squeeze in to see Justin Vernon and Sean Carey face each other on beautiful black Steinways. It’s special to hear the songs from ‘22, A Million’ stripped of their digital distortion – and his cover of ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me/Nick of Time’ given a rare outing is arguably the highlight of the weekend. Vernon, so often the definition of an introverted performer looks ecstatic and relaxed, joking with the front rows knelt respectfully in front of him.

That goes for the whole thing – there’s little, or no, barrier between artists and audience. The crowd sings happy birthday to Bryce Dessner’s daughter, and he and his young family push a pram around the streets between his shows. Cillian Murphy queues for the same grubby pub urinal as everyone else.

It’s not a template for a different approach to festival, because SFASH is about getting away from a template. From the pop-up shows to spontaneous collaborations, it’s an open artistic experiment that everyone’s in on.

The results – yes, sometimes mistakes and all – are a succession of unrepeatable moments. “We need our music to surprise us; we need our festivals to surprise us,” says Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon before wrapping up a headline set with ‘Skinny Love’. “This is not entertainment, this is a fucking spiritual thing.”

Sounds from a Safe Harbour, various venues, Cork, 14-17 September 2017

Photos by: Bríd O’Donovan/Festival