Folk and Bluegrass

Review: Aoife O’Donovan Enchants at Old Town School of Folk Music

Aoife O’Donovan © Rich Gilligan

Aoife O’Donovan is special. It’s easy to say that about many musicians, especially ones we hold dear, but there is something about O’Donovan that can’t be denied. Whether it be her easy demeanor or her effervescent writing, unique among her Americana peers, O’Donovan can always be trusted to provide an unforgettable show. On the last night of her 2021 tour, she appeared at the Old Town School of Folk Music, a venue known for its intimate room and eclectic roster. Like Evanston Space, there’s not a bad seat in the room—though I was all the way in back, it was still an ideal vantage point.

Opening for O’Donovan was Brooklyn-based artist Taylor Ashton. Ashton, solo on stage with only his guitar and banjo, is an endearing figure—his quiet, sometimes brooding Americana is undercut with comedy, making for a compelling performance. His self-deprecating humor and emotive, imperfect voice pair perfectly with his banjo playing, which was highlighted on standout songs “Pretenders” and “Nicole.” The audience thoroughly enjoyed his performance; many of them already seemed familiar with him. He would later come back out to join O’Donovan onstage for a few songs.

Aoife O’Donovan © Mariel Fechik

Though O’Donovan hasn’t released a solo full length LP since 2016, she has been prolific, releasing EPs, collaborations, and forming the trio I’m With Her with Sarah Jarosz and Sara Watkins. 2018 saw the release of their debut album, See You Around, and in 2020, O’Donovan released an EP called Bull Frogs Croon (And Other Songs), a commissioned project set to the poetry of Peter Sears. She also appeared on Goat Rodeo’s second collaborative effort, harmonizing perfectly with friend and collaborator Chris Thile. Finally, in January of next year, O’Donovan will release her third solo record: Age of Apathy is out January 22 via Yep Roc Records. Age of Apathy is a stunning record that sees O’Donovan stretching her talents to new places—both lyrically and sonically, it is some of her best work.

At last Thursday’s show, she gave her audience the gift of hearing much of the upcoming record, including the already released single “Phoenix,” as well as songs called “Galahad,” “Passengers,” “Sister Starling,” and “Elevators.” In her new work, O’Donovan’s Joni Mitchell influences come through strongly, but rather than simply create pastiche, she pulls from the most inventive parts of Mitchell’s work. O’Donovan’s melodic instincts and chordal structures are unmatched by most.

Playing with just her own guitar and Ethan Jodziewicz on bass, O’Donovan’s crystalline voice rang throughout Old Town’s auditorium. Even without a full band, the sound was full and warm, wrapping the audience in O’Donovan’s familiar performance style. In addition to new songs, O’Donovan also played fan favorites like “In the Magic Hour” and her rendition of folk standard “Lake Pontchartrain.” She even pulled from her recent live performance of the entirety of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska albumplaying “Open All Night.”

O’Donovan is pure grace, and her Old Town set was as fine an example of that fact as ever. Though her 2021 tour is over, she’ll be back on the road in 2022 (with a Chicago stop) to support Age of Apathy

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