Like many things in Ireland, it all started over a cup of tea. It was the summer of 2014, and Bryce Dessner was in Cork city performing in The Marquee as part of the band he started with his brother Aaron, known as The National. Hickson, in her role as chief executive of Cork Opera House, invited Dessner to tea in Hayfield Manor, hoping to get an insight into his life as a musician and his work with orchestration. Two and a half hours later, Sounds From A Safe Harbour was born. The festival, that’s name is meant as a link between the Cork port of old, first took place in September 2015, with acts such as The Gloaming, Wild Beasts and Lisa Hannigan. It was a great success and boasted great reviews upon completion. For the second iteration, however, Dessner and Hickson wanted to make things a little bigger.
On the weekend of the 15th of September, over 450 bands from across the world descended on Cork to take part in one of the biggest festivals of music, art, culture and conversation the city has seen in quite some time. Organisers roped in the likes of playwright Enda Walsh and actor Cillian Murphy in order to create the broadest and most encompassing sense of Cork that they could. Murphy in particular, whose true passion is music, took it upon himself to do as much as he possibly could to aid the festivals development. Over the weekend he was omnipresent, taking in concerts in all venues and hosting public conversations with acts such as Fionn Regan and The National. In such conversations, he would do his best to delve into the mind of a creative and attempt to aid the audience in their understandings of the process behind songwriting, performance and, in The National’s case, orchestrating scores for major cinematic releases (as they did with ‘The Revenant’).
Across the weekend they were also a huge amount of free gigs, with ticket-centres popping up across the city that fans could just arrive at and get tickets. The weekend first began with a treasure hunt, with the Sounds From A Safe Harbour Twitter and Facebook pages posting locations of bars and restaurants across the city, asking fans to sing at staff in order to gain entry to a gig titled ‘People’. This ‘People’ gig however, turned out to be a rare performance from ‘Big Red Machine’, a collaboration between Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and the Dessner brothers from The National. This 45 minute performance, which took place in the enchanting surroundings of St. Luke’s Church, showed two creative minds meeting in the middle and creating a melting pot of electronics, muffled vocals and inescapable samples. The music featured within this performance was the most futuristic heard from either bands, and left fans both craving more and wanting to cherish this special moment that, it isn’t far off to say,may never happen again on Irish shores.
The first headliner to take to the stage during the weekend was Lisa Hannigan. who, alongside the RTE National Symphony Orchestra, stunned the audience with a setlist of songs that ranged across her collection of albums. With every gig taking place in Cork Opera House being streamed online across the world via Franco-German TV network ‘ARTE TV’, it left both those watching in the venue and from their home in awe of the emotional power of the Irish Songstress. Friday saw the arrival of Bon Iver, one of the most popular acts to play across the weekend. Tickets were like gold dust, and fans who were lucky enough to gain entry to the Opera House were given a spectacle to behold. Vernon, never one to shy away from experimentation, mixed things up musically. Through key changes and complete reworkings of songs, Vernon kept the audience captivated and quiet throughout his 90 minute set. He played a set that leaned heavily on his newest album, “22,A MIllion”, but also played fan favourites from across his repertoire. He brought out guests, such as Fionn Regan, the Dessner brothers and the Voiceworks choir, a local choir. Highlights of the night included 10 d E A T h b R E a s T, 29 #Strafford APTS, Perth, and chilling renditions of both 33 God and Wolves, both featuring the Voiceworks Choir. As the gig came to a close, Vernon looked out to the audience and uttered works that not only described that night’s events, but also the weekend as a whole : “This is not entertainment, this is a spiritual fucking thing”
Saturday night saw The National take to the Opera House stage. The gig quickly turned into a party, with Vernon, Lisa Hannigan and Fionn Regan making appearances during the set. The audience in attendance were blessed to hear a mix of songs both new and old, and with this gig being the beginning of the band’s world tour to promote their new album “Sleep Well Beast.” And it’s difficult to imagine a more magical start to a tour. As the weekend drew to a close, there was a sense that everywhere you went that you were part of something special, there was a sense of collectiveness that is almost impossible to find at any other festival. This was a once in a lifetime moment for acts, the audience and organisers alike. Here, at our safe harbour, we brought the magic home and left with a weekend that will never be forgotten. Cork awaits Sounds From A Safe Harbour 2019 with baited breath.