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Live at the Belfast Opera House (DVD: PAL, 5.1)
Artist: Cara Dillon
Label: Charcoal Records
Time: 17 Tracks / 83 + 5 minutes

Yet again, Cara Dillon gives a virtually faultless performance with the all-acoustic band that joined her to record the Radio 2 Folk Album of the Year, Hill of Thieves.

Essentially, this is the live edition of that album, featuring all eleven tracks plus welcome old favourites like “Black is the Colour” and an entrancing version of “The Snows They Melt the Soonest.” Not that it would sound too live if you just heard the music: Dillon’s voice is light and pure as alabaster, the band plays impeccably and the mix makes everything gel to studio standards.

Hill of Thieves is a traditional album, as is most of the other material in the set, with just the odd self-penned coda or lyric. It is only Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love,” slotted into the second half, which seems a little out of place. However, it is not the song’s newness, as much as its slightly angular chorus that jars a bit; Dillon doesn’t seem to be singing it freely. 

Otherwise the set list is excellent and suits her voice beautifully. She tends to bookend the halves of her show either unaccompanied or with simple, understated piano from husband Sam Lakeman (“False, False” and "Fil, Fil a Run O") allowing the other songs to build or fade, depending on what instruments she wants to bring on.

She has guitars, fiddle, pipes, whistle and Bodhrán to choose from. She has often played whistle herself, but this is the first time that I have seen her play fiddle as well (“The Knotted Hankie - The Huntsman - The Gold Ring”), keeping up with regular player Zoe Conway.

With many songs about women hurt by scoundrels named Paddy or Johnny, there is an emotional thread, which Dillon plays down somewhat. However, singing the song “There Were Roses,” which is about sectarian killings, in Belfast’s Opera House raises the temperature markedly. I am always a little surprised when she invites the audience to sing along to the chorus, as it’s one that many would want to simply hear and reflect on – as much of the audience clearly does here.

The one huge disappointment is the lack of extras. There are simply three songs from the album, all of which are covered here anyway, all playing to the same five-minute video of the day of the gig – and even that is stretched out. While she did have a lot of interview content on previous DVD The Redcastle Sessions (which was probably a slightly richer musical experience in terms of content and atmosphere) there is surely plenty that could be said about the live side of her work, comments from members of the band, or even a rehearsal session.

Extras aside, this is a typically pristine work that pairs Dillon’s magical voice with time-proven songs and a polished set of players. Anyone looking for beautiful renditions of traditional Irish music has plenty here to feast on. It can't get much better.

Derek Walker

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