Co Tyrone has long been recognised throughout Ireland as a hotbed of amateur drama and no location more prominent in thespian circles than Donaghmore courtesy of the Bardic Theatre.

It is more than likely that the tranquil village is soon to be recognised as a focal point for alternative folk music scene thanks to the intimate and welcoming Café 47 Folk Club. Set on Main Street in the village the Café 47 has already hosted artists of such stature as The 4 of Us and tonight it was local artist, Sinead Willox and the indomitable Corkman, John Spillane.

The show at Café 47 was Willox’s first live show but she has already built up a solid following via her social media channels – in a matter of weeks, her version of Finbar Magee’s ‘Belfast Love’ has already attracted well over 40,000 views. It’s how it all starts these days – build an audience online, record great songs, work hard and play intimate live shows to a receptive audience.

With a very powerful and distinctive voice, Willox sings proudly in her own accent which lends itself to a considered set list, which includes arrangements of contemporary and traditional songs by diverse artists such as Clannad, U2 and a selection of songs by Co Down Songwriter, Finbarr Magee. Her version of ‘Belfast Love’ may well become her own.

Accompanied by local guitarist Larry Harte and fiddle player Briege Quinn, Willox performed a beautiful set, punctuated by stories and conversations with the audience which reconfirmed her natural affinity with live performance. A sublime debut for the singer and the perfect support for Spillane.

Irish culture is made up of many interconnected strands – music, language, literature and folklore, bound together through the ancient art of storytelling. And as storytellers go, they don’t come any better than John Spillane.

Part filidh, part Bard (maybe part druid) Spillane comes directly from the Celtic tradition of the the seanachai. “Musician, songwriter, performer, recording artist story teller, poet, dreamer “ are words from his website which accurately describe the breadth of his talent whilst at the same time not quite doing justice to his brilliance.

John Spillane
John Spillane

Like Willox, Spillane sings in his native accent – as a Corkman, unsurprisingly lyrical, poetic, wise and rebellious. The set covered the breadth of a 35-year career which has spawned 12 recordings with another work – ‘100 Snow White Horses’ – due for release sometime soon.

Each song was bookended by razor-sharp wit and insight from Spillane – whether it was all part of a well-rehearsed narrative or not, Spillane adjoined each song with stories which held silence in Café 47, save the odd (and badly received) chat about the shocking price of cabbage in Tescos.

He speaks in song, whether it is to promote his forthcoming album which is being funded on his Fund It page. He has already secured 85% of his €25,000 target and based on his performance at Café 47, the 2-time Meteor award winner is worthy of every penny.

It’s tempting to make comparisons with his work – other great storytellers with hints of Tom Waits and the all too easy association with Christy Moore but in many ways Spillane is beyond compare.

His ability to speak on behalf of nature, of unrequited love, of war and rebellion is matched equally by his power of connection with the audience. In between a set which included, ‘The Dance of the Cherry Tree’, ‘Oro Se Do Bheatha Abhaile’, ‘The Dunnes Store Girl’, ‘Passage West’, ‘The Streets of Ballypehane’, Spillane played 3 radio commercials he had been commissioned for – including one for Irish Distillers as well as a song about Donaghmore, which he most likely made up on the spot.

The songs from ‘100 Snow White Horses’, including ‘Under That Old Clare Moon’ and The Dawn Chorus suggest that Spillane is running into another rich vein of form. In Celtic Ireland, the art of storytelling was revered and a hierarchy influencing the social standing each storyteller, such was their value. Spillane is the preeminent bard and storyteller in our time and a man of deadly craic.

All in such a first class venue. It is refreshing to know that gigs like this take place outside of the main Irish cities, in venues like Café 47. The window of the café bears the legend “Est. 2018” with the suggestion that they want to be around for some time.

Based alone on tonight’s performances they most definitely will.