There’s an exciting, semi-secret music scene going on in Belfast, and it owes more to the Americana movement than it does to traditional Irish Folk music. In the last year, albums by Bap Kennedy and Anthony Toner have stood alongside anything by their contemporaries in Nashville, and another four or five singer-songwriters have been winning plaudits when supporting some household names on recent UK Tours.
When a Steve Earle concert sold-out in hours, a musician, a manager and a promoter got together over a pot of tea or two and decided to create a mini-Americana Festival to celebrate the 15th Birthday of Belfast’s Real Music Club under the guise of the inaugural Belfast Skyline Festival, and to present it during the same afternoon.
Due to the vagaries of cheap flights I had to fly in to Belfast on the Saturday and back home on the Monday. As a once regular visitor to this much maligned but beautiful city, this wasn’t a hardship although I had to put my ‘sad eyes’ on when I explained my itinerary to my wife.
Friends collected me from the airport and we spent the morning catching up and discussing the Festival over several cups coffee and eating a huge ‘Ulster Fry’ breakfast.
As they left to spend the rest of the day with their families, I was left in the hands of Paul Kane at the Oh Yeah! Music Centre. Although the Centre is primarily used to train and teach youngsters from various backgrounds about the various strands of the wacky world of music, it also houses a remarkable collection of music memorabilia from Northern Irish bands and singers as diverse as Gary Moore, Ruby Murray, Undertones, Snow Patrol, Energy Orchard and…..what’s his name? Oh yes; Van Morrison! I was thoroughly enjoying myself chatting to Paul over yet another cup of tea when he suggested that we go on a ‘Belfast Rock and Roll Tour’ – who was I to refuse?
The trip is available to everyone, but normally on a proper tour bus, but I got the deluxe personalized version from Paul. I won’t spoil it for you, but who knew that Northern Ireland, and Belfast in particular, has had such an influence on the music I/we like? Plus there is a wonderful mural in memory of the late DJ John Peel; depicting the adage ‘Teenage Dreams, so hard to beat’ from the Undertones song, Teenage Kicks and…. I have now visitedCyprus Avenue!
After taking advantage of the welcome offered by several hostelries on the Saturday evening, my head was a tad sore on Sunday morning, but after some strong coffee and an even bigger breakfast I made my way to the Limelight venue where both concerts were taking place. Even before I’d heard a note of music the Club rocketed straight into my Top 10 Venues list, as the stage was the right height for diminutive figures like me, and with a raised seated area to the left I knew I was going to see everything – and the house speakers looked pretty powerful too.
I’m not one for actually hob-nobbing with Pop-stars, but during the soundcheck, Real Music Club impresario Jim Heaney introduced me to a few of the artists who were going to be playing, including a couple whose albums I’ve reviewed and my welcome was beyond ‘warm’, especially when No Depression was mentioned. It was a similar reaction from a couple of fans later when they asked what I was doing there. ND’s reputation couldn’t have been higher.
When Anthony Toner opened the proceedings with his ode to growing up in Belfast, Sailortown, there were already over 100 people in the club and the applause that greeted the opening bars was only matched by the noise when it ended.
Toner was soon joined by Paul Casey, Eilidh Patterson and Ben Glover for an hour long session where each singer got to showcase three songs ‘in the round.’
One of the joys of sessions like these is discovering new talents and I was soon smitten with Eilidh Patterson, who took something of an Emmylou role by singing harmonies with the others, but when she sang, the room was immediately silenced by her sweet voice which had just enough ‘edge’ to make her stand out like a poppy in this illustrious crowd, especially with a new song called Lies.
I was already aware of Ben’s talent, as he recently toured with both Gretchen Peters and Mary Gauthier, but in this setting he appeared to ‘raise his game’ to another level, even though he appeared to blush when he name checked Mary Gauthier as his ‘writing partner’ on a new song called Oh So, which had the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end.
Paul Casey was just as impressive, and more than held his own when he got to sing his songs.
As we politely queued to buy CD’s at the Merch table, Jackie Rainey entertained the packed, sweltering crowd as the stage was being set for a special birthday cake presentation to Jim Heaney who runs the club, which was a lovely touch in these cynical times.
I’d previously been ‘tipped off’ about the next band, but was still surprised to see how unfeasibly young Malojian looked for such a gathering. Most Americana gigs I go to are frequented by artists and music fans well over the age of 40 and many considerably older, so it’s still a surprise to see teens and even twenty-something’s on the stage or in an audience.
Looking like he should be in an Indie Band, Stevie Scullion immediately hushed the boisterous crowd when he opened his mouth and an absolutely beautiful voice came out.
Without getting too excited, Scullion’s four piece band, Malojian, have echoes of Crosby, Stills and Nash or the Fleet Foxes about them, and with their good looks, cool air of mystery and some amazing songs, they tick all of the boxes for an exciting future.
The stage was cleared and refilled with military precision for the fulsome figured Blues ‘shouter’, Kaz Hawkins, who immediately cranked the party up a couple of notches with her raucous Honky Tonk songs, and I feel I really must mention the outstanding Lipstick and Cocaine from her forthcoming album in September, which was a real pot-boiler.
The very first Belfast Skyline Americana Festival eventually came to a close with a blistering performance from one of the city’s finest musical exports – Bap Kennedy and his band, which features a very youthful Brenda Kennedy on bass and the legendary Gordy McAllister on acoustic guitar.
Trying to shoehorn a 30 year career into a single hour is never going to be easy, but Bap pretty much got the balance right, managing a nod to Van the Man when he covered Madame George, and Jimmy Sanchez from his latest album and Howl Onshowed a vastly underrated diversity of quality in his very personal song-writing.
With only ten minutes to go before the session had to come to an end, a mysterious bearded man made his way through the crowd. As he neared the stage Bap smiled and welcomed his friend Steve Earle to join him for an unforgettable version of Angel is the Devil, which, albeit under-rehearsed, was still a magical musical moment I’ll never forget.
When the roar slowly died down as Steve returned to his soundcheck in the other hall, Bap gave us a heartrending adaptation of Townes Van Zandt’sWaiting Around to Die before ending the show with his signature song,Midnight Kiss, which, as the lights came on, had left big smiles on nearly every face in the room.
With handshakes, “Thanks for comings”, and manly hugs all around, I made my way back to my hotel for a shower and change of clothing before returning to see The Mastersons and Steve Earle in the main hall later.
Although Earle’s performance was pretty much the same as what I’d seen the previous week in Gatesheadhttp://www.nodepression.com/profiles/blogs/steve-earle-and-the-dukes-and-duchesses-at-sage-gateshead, I enjoyed tonight a little bit more, but that was probably because the audience was all standing, and I’ll be diplomatic and say ‘drink had been taken’, making the atmosphere a bit more Rock & Roll, if nothing else.
All in all, I just knew that this was going to be the first of many bigger and even better Belfast Skyline Festivals.
Real Music Club
Limelight Club, Belfast
2nd June 2013