“People are stunned when they come here for the Roots Festival – they love all the buzz of our city and county”
Smithwick’s Kilkenny Roots Festival has been running for 23 years. This year, indeed, should be its 25th anniversary, but they lost two years due to the pandemic.
This week I had a great chat with John Cleere, the man behind the scenes at one of Ireland’s top Americana/Roots festivals. Festival director John and the City Vintners started the Kilkenny Roots Festival in 1998 and have never looked back.
John Cleere is from Green’s Bridge in Kilkenny, where his family ran the Nore Bar. His father’s family bought the Nore Bar in 1922 and John grew up in the house next door. He attended CSB school and after graduation took a job with Aer Lingus.
He always felt he was a square peg in a round hole and after 19 years he returned to Kilkenny. He took the plunge, quitting a pensionable job to set up Cleere’s Bar & Theatre, now run by Johnny Holden and Paul McCabe.
As well as being a traditional bar, Cleere’s Bar & Theater is an IMRO award-winning performance venue that hosts the best national and international music, theater and comedy shows.
Here’s a glimpse of John’s love for music…
John, how did the festival start?
At the time, I was very involved with Les Vignerons and we were looking for something to do to try and extend the tourist season, particularly in early May.
Eddie Langton, Mayor Andrew McGuinness and John Cleere at the launch of the Roots Festival 2022 PHOTO Vicky Comerford
At the time, Kilkenny was sort of a July and August tourist season. We needed something for the city to bridge between Easter and summer. We were looking for a few different ideas and I knew a guy who did a lot of gigs with me and Cleere’s Bar – Tom Stapleton.
Tom had huge experience with bands like the Waterboys and the Pogues. He had the knowledge so I asked Tom if he would book the groups because none of us really knew how and we had no international contacts. He started booking the first groups in 1998.
The first year was a bit hairy – we almost got through it, but the response was pretty good and our Diageo sponsors stuck with us. We gave him another year, and from the second year he took off.
Tom ran the festival from 1998 to 2005. In 2005 Tom said he wanted to step back, that he had done everything he wanted to do, and I took over in 2005.
What type of music are you looking for?
The music goes under the broad banner of Roots – Americana music, which is more folk and more rock. It’s a broad spectrum.
Is it music you can dance to, or music you can sit and drink a beer to?
Based on this year’s lineup, there are about three or four bands you could dance really hard to, and some you just want to sit down and listen to now. We put on the quietest acts usually during the day. There’s no point in doing a silent act late at night, it won’t work.
There is both a paid track and a free group track?
There are 12 acts on the ticket track and 26 on the free trial sponsored by Smithwick. The festival will begin on Friday evening. The first act is Wexford’s Remedy Club, which has built up a huge following. They will kick off at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Billy Byrne’s.
The festival will continue until Monday evening when we will end at Kyteler’s Inn with Jesse Dayton from Texas. If you want to dance, this is the group to go to!
What is the appeal of Smithwick’s Kilkenny Roots Festival for bands?
Well, I guess like most festivals in Kilkenny, including ours, it’s well run, and people know it. It is a quality and well organized event. They can also be assured that they will be paid, which is very important.
Efforts were made to start festivals in different parts of the country and you will hear sob stories but people worked for days and got nothing but we are very proud to say everyone got paid right off the bat, whether under the free music trail or paid events.
We have a good reputation I think as Kilkenny Tradfest and that was a huge success in March. Tradfest gave us all a bit of confidence at the start of the year, it went so well, helping us all get going from there.
The Kilkenny location is also selling. People are stunned when they come here and love all the buzz of our city and county.
It must have been a difficult decision then to withdraw from the Cleere bar?
I’ll tell you, it’s a great deal, but it’s wearing you out.
I also had another opportunity to do something else with Diageo and went down to Cork for nine years with the Jazz Festival.
The late Willie Meighan of Rollercoaster Records was such an important figure in the music industry in Kilkenny and so important to the Festival.
Willie would have been my right hand for a few years.
We always remember him, and he is the first name that comes to everyone’s mind, especially people from overseas, UK and Germany. Rollercoaster is almost their first stop when they arrive in town.
You are very calm in preparing for this festival – does that come with years of experience?
As I say every year, something is going to happen! I remember about four years ago a girl from Canada was playing. One morning at 5am she phoned me to say her driver had not arrived to take her back to Dublin airport.
I thought, where can I find someone to drive in Dublin at five in the morning? So I quietly slipped through the door, drove to the airport and returned just before 9am to do another 15 hour day!
People tell me I’m very calm, but really on the weekends you’re just waiting for that call to say there’s a problem. Otherwise we have a very good team – the technical team and Rory Broderick’s team are really good at sorting things out.
You’ve also discovered some amazing bands over the years, some of which have won Grammys.
A lot of the bands that come to the festival, people might never have heard of it, but I think people trust us that the bands wouldn’t be playing if they weren’t good.
When we launched two weeks ago, I listed the number of people who have won Grammys and several Grammys who were in Kilkenny first. Like Jason Isbell, who won four Grammys. His wife Amanda Shires, who also performed in Kilkenny, won a Grammy. Sturgill Simpson has won four Grammys. Patty Griffin has won two Grammys and many more.
It’s always nice to see that your choice worked out in the long run.
You’re like the Kilkenny version of Dave Fanning. Where does your love of music come from?
It was just organic. Ever since I was a child, I had no idea what I liked. I remember back in the 70s my collection of albums in my studio in Drumcondra and one day we were robbed.
They must have thought what the hell it was because they only took two records out of the huge pile that was on the floor – my Rory Gallagher and Rod Stewart albums and left everything else, the rest was probably too obscure!
Smithwick’s Kilkenny Roots Festival runs from April 29 to May 2. To learn more, see www.kilkennyroots.com