Creative art of all kind thrives at Donegal’s Regional Cultural Center

Donegal’s Regional Cultural Centre (RCC) in Letterkenny is nearing the end of an extremely busy year, hosting a plethora of art exhibitions, movies, music concerts and other diverse activities – with more still to come over the next couple of weeks.

I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying and reviewing a number of concerts featuring internationally renowned musicians from several countries in several different genres.

Though missing out on what must have been two wonderful evenings, ‘Vein’ with New York saxophonist, Greg Osby, and the performance of Pierre Bensusan, I did manage to hear Nashville-based singer-songwriter Jude Johnstone. Here is what I thought of the evening.

live music in Donegal, concerts at RCC

Through a combination of vocal and piano-playing talent and down-home bonhomie bordering on delightful eccentricity, Nashville-based singer-songwriter Johnstone warmed the spirits of her attentive audience at on a recent wet and wintry Friday evening.

Resembling a sunglass-wearing pixie in patent shoes behind an impressive shiny black grand piano, the earthy woman performed many of the compositions that have helped her create such a strong reputation within music’s inner sanctum. Among them was ‘Unchained,’ a song that became the title track of a Johnny Cash album that won him a Grammy for Best Country Album in 1998, featuring the line ‘Take this weight from me, let my spirit be unchained,’ as well as ‘The Woman Before Me,’ which was a number one hit in the country music charts twenty-five years ago.

Skillfully supported by Strabane guitarist Pete Doherty and bassist Nicky Scott, Johnstone opened her concert with the powerful ballad ‘A Woman’s Work,’ an anthem for women worldwide, following it with a tribute to one of her favorite cities, ‘Amsterdam,’ a song from her new album with a wonderful guitar solo. Her rendition of ‘On That Train’ from her ‘Quiet Girl’ album was as lonesome a call of melancholy as a whistle down the tracks at midnight, Johnstone’s mellow, mellifluous voice weaving in and out of her piano notes effortlessly.

One of the pleasures of this Jude Johnstone concert was her simple naturalness (to no-one’s surprise, she said she hated formality) and her storytelling talent as exemplified in the song ‘Wounded Heart,’ which at the RCC featured a lovely piano-guitar duet, when she reminisced about meeting Bonnie Raitt at a pre-Grammy party in the Troubador club in Los Angeles. Johnstone had already sent the well-known singer a lot of her material in an attempt to persuade her to feature one of her compositions on an album, but with no success. At the club, probably with a sharp eye out for her, she ended up sitting beside her in the back seats and giving her a demo tape she carried in her handbag. Sometime later Johnstone got a good-news call from the singer at home. Excited, but with her family all around her, she ended up taking it in her closet.

An intriguing melody performed on the evening with a distinctly Irish aura was the haunting, gentle ‘Road To Rathfriland,’ a place Johnstone described as “a little town as cute as a bug,” adding that she was “going through a rough time” when she visited it a few years ago and “this combined with the beauty of the place and the sadness in my heart created the song.” While this composition reflected melancholy, another song ‘People Holding Hands’ reflected another emotion entirely -anger, with Johnstone explaining that after twenty-eight years of marriage she was going through a difficult divorce and, visiting a romantic Californian town, was faced with streets filled with couples holding hands and smooching. Her soft, cynical, sentimental story-telling and singing voice reminded me clearly in terms of persona, of Ireland’s Mary Coughlan.

The most comical anecdote of the evening accompanied her rendition of the gritty song ‘Touchdown Jesus’ when she described meeting the singer Doctor John in his boxers at his caravan soon after he performed flamboyantly in full colorful regalia at the Super Bowl and how he brought her for a drive and showed her the giant praying hands at Tulane University in New Orleans, thus the song’s title and refrain.

Johnstone closed out her concert with ‘Before You,’ a song from her new CD that she declared hopefully “might buy the next farm” and an encore, after failing to navigate her way around stage paraphernalia to the exit curtain, of ‘One For Us.’

The various music concerts mentioned above are only one facet of the Regional Cultural Center’s many activities. Below is a short sample list of upcoming events:

CRAFTed – Friday, 9 December 12.30pm – 2.30pm

An exhibition of craft works by children taking part in the Design & Crafts Council of Ireland’s CRAFTed Learning Skills for Life Primary Schools programme will be on display at the CRAFTed showcase in Workshop 3 from 12.30 till 2.30.

Art Exhibition – Now until January 28th

A group exhibition curated by Shaun Hannigan and Adrian Kelly comprising a wide range of artworks associated with Donegal and the visual art programmes of the RCC and Glebe Gallery over the past 20 years.

Gary Gamble & Friends – Friday, 16 December, 8.00pm

Live Stand-Up Comedy with Gary Gamble & Friends (Not The Juck Off The Radio!) Youtube Sensation Paul Bonar brings his comedy creation, Gary Gamble, to the stage, with Special Guests Andy McGranaghan & Pauric Gallagher, with MC Barry Mack.

Special Consensus (USA) – Friday, 20 January, 8.00pm

Formed in the Chicago area in 1975, the ‘Special Consensus’ is a four-person acoustic bluegrass band with a repertoire that features traditional bluegrass standards, original compositions by band members and professional songwriters, and songs from other musical genres performed in the bluegrass format.

Well done to director Shaun Hannigan and all his staff at the RCC, as well as Donegal County Council Arts Officer, Traolach O’Fionnain. Keep up the good work and enjoy a relaxing, well-deserved holiday season.

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