Julian Cope is dead to me. He died at Christmas 2013 when he pulled out of a concert at the Black Box in Belfast, citing “the current security situation there and the logistics involved”. What this amounted to was a couple of dissident republican issues around town. A few squibs by Belfast standards. We had been at a gig in the Cathedral Quarter on December 13 when a suspect device was found at the side of St Anne’s. SOAK had continued with her performance two hundred yards away and we stayed at the venue with the young fans until their parents could collect them. No fuss, nobody got hurt and songs with meaning were shared. But this was enough for Cope to nix his January 16 booking at the Out To Lunch Festival.

1b9e9601132555183d41a946c35b5d16It was especially depressing because Julian had presented himself to the world as a libertarian, unfettered by convention, lashed on drugs and the proponent of foolhardy japes like “sock”, when he would crawl over the roof of a moving vehicle with a sock over his head. He had witnessed the Poll Tax Riots of 1990 and had written keenly about it for the NME. Now here he was, backing out of a local gig on a minor pretext.

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I had some laughs with Neil Stuke, back in the day. He worked in Robot on the King’s Road, near World’s End. Bit of a rockabilly, which was the thing then. Robot sold the best shoes and suits – cobalt peg slacks and creepers a speciality, well ahead of the first Rayban revival. The Clash and The Stray Cats were clients and Brian Setzer would ride his Harley along the drag, posing with intent as he roared past Vivienne Westwood’s and American Classics.

GedCcNi5Mark Powell was the established geezer at Robot, mannered after a young George Cole. He worked the floor alongside my old pal Johnny Davis and later Chris Murray​. The two Daves ran the business and kept a bit of order. There were Saturday sessions at Henry J Bean’s and a load of party invites from the Sloane set. Neil Stuke had the wit and the moves. He would do impersonations and take the rise out of difficult clients. Sometimes the boredom on a slow day would cause him to do wild, eccentric dances and everyone howled. Continue Reading…

By Stuart Bailie

Cyprus Avenue is one of the vital postcodes in popular music. It is our Penny Lane, our Strawberry Fields, our Waterloo Sunset. It has outlasted a moment in the Sixties and it continues to resonate. The particulars belong to Van Morrison and while it is dense with his own meaning and suggestion, it invites each listener to find their personal aspect in the trees and the drama of Belfast, BT5.

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By Stuart Bailie

Their fans took an old Al Jolson song and they made it their own. They said they’d walk a million miles for one of their smiles… Miami. They adored the band with their fresh repertoire, their smiles and their moves. In particular, they lit on the singer Fran O’Toole, the boy from Bray whose vocals revealed a love for soul music and whose face was kind and gracious. He looked like the American star David Cassidy. The other band members were half-joking when they said that they were jealous.

Onstage, it was all about the lightness but it was also a serious business. There were set codes of behavior, about talking to their audience after a gig, about how to answer fan mail, about good behaviour in public. They had their own hairdresser. Their manager, Tom Doherty from Topline Promotions even sent the Miami Showband’s brass players to dance classes, encouraging them to move it like the Four Tops and to swing and dip their instruments, just so. Continue Reading…

XU*7770139Bridie Monds-Watson played the Black Box in Belfast on the occasion of her 18th birthday last May. We sang our best wishes to her and she smiled, but it was plain that the artist known as SOAK was not happy. It was the night that she officially became an adult and it was a threshold that she wasn’t ready to cross.

A year later and she’s not come over yet. Her songs are about the primacy of youth, the impact of every instance. There are no analogues. It hits or it hurts. Bridie sings about the wrench of school friends being parted, about the sound of parents screaming at each other through the floorboards, about joy rides, bullies and bell jars. Her songs are emotionally true. Her debut album is a wow.

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jealous320Naomi Hamilton sings about the zen illumination of sunsets and freckles, peppermint and a name that fizzes on the tongue. She is Jealous Of The Birds. All the senses are mustered and mixed. The songs tend to pivot on a moment of overload, when things are beautifully or sadly, all too much.

And, hey, this is her first gig. Her jacket matches the vermillion of the stage drapes. She plays in open tuning, she says little, but she whistles when it fits. It’s partly a folknik sensibility with hints of whimsy and punk. Like Karen Dalton in Café Wha, or Kurt Cobain, lost in the pines.
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cait5Cáit O’Riordan gives it attitude and plays Shane MacGowan songs. Last time she did this in Belfast was probably 1984 when The Pogues rattled about the slummy old Crescent Centre. I remember there was a stage invasion and the band looked anxious. Two minutes later and all of the musicians’ booze had been hijacked by punters, thirsty like a gang of devils.

Great times and those first two albums were the best. Cáit had a perfect sneer and she played these stomping bass lines like she was Marshall Grant, accomplice to Johnny Cash in the Tennessee Three. She was a feature of that formative sound – showband, punkabilly and Irish. She also compounded the band’s gender chaos, notably when she sang from the Jeannie Robertson songbook. ‘I’m A Man You Don’t Meet Every Day’. She was Jock Stewart. She shot her dog. She was badass.

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camille300High Church goes well with Camille O’Sullivan. The grand scale, the lofty feelings and all that ceremony. She flutters from chancel to nave in a glittering, bat-winged cape, searching out the exceptional ends of the human condition. But chiefly she’s after the sad stuff. It’s about the poise versus the pain.

Fitting then, that this is the first night of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival in the very building that centres the area. It’s the city’s best week and let’s hope that the sixteenth year of all this will continue to resist the killjoys, the austerity thugs and the dour faces of kulturkreig that hang from every lamppost. In this mean, threatening climate, the cathedral feels like an actual refuge.

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Hot Scary Summer’ by Villagers is set in the rare heat of a Dublin evening. Two lovers leave the house, bound for the cobblestones and the crowds. But while they are kissing al fresco, there is a sense of unease. The singer watches “all the pretty homophobes looking for a fight” and his joy ceases. He thinks about his life of pretending. He also realises that the affair is over. The two men have run out of commitment, their emotions are all used up. He sings about being “half a person, half a monster”.  It is the most affecting farewell. ‘Hot Scary Summer’ breaks your heart.

villagers200The sadness is deeper because the gay ballads of Ireland have always sounded like this. Almost fifty years of covert love, about shadows and disguise and fear. Conor addresses this on his new songs while he sings out for the gift of courage and he even tries to empathise on the lyric of ‘Little Bigots’. His current album, ‘Darling Arithmetic’ was inspired by a friendship with John Grant and the latter’s monumental song ‘Glacier’. Conor vowed to be more open about his own life experiences. So there is tenderness and quiet rapture as he writes about all the phases of a relationship. Many of the songs have a universal value, regardless of sexuality. But on a handful of these tracks we also hear what it’s like to be out on the margins, less than a fully realised human.

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It must be 1978 and I’m in English class with Frank Ormsby. This is a good thing. He will enthuse about Louis MacNeice and TS Eliot. He will share our dismay as we read about Tess d’Urberville and her trysts with the eternally wet Angel Clare. Frank has thick rimmed glasses, a fringe and a Fermanagh accent. Sometimes he bins the syllabus and reads us lesser-known Irish poets or he fetches something out of The Honest Ulsterman, a publication that he’s edited since 1969.

These moments don’t do much for our exam capacity but we like it. Frank gets into raptures over the words, the style and the sentiment. When he’s like this, he’s barely conscious of his pupils. Next, he picks a moment in a story about a devout student who levitates during an exam and has to resort to filthy blasphemy to descend. We laugh forever. Our systems have been altered by punk rock, Embassy Regal and Mundie’s Wine. Our limbs are solid with excessive time on the sports fields. We can parse any number of Latin verbs but we can barely talk to a woman. We think Frank is OK.

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