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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My Favourite Shirt

September 29, 2013 — Leave a comment

I’ve just spent a good hour with a needle and some wool, tending to my favourite shirt. It’s not something I habitually do, but the garment needs some care and I couldn’t manage without. We’ve done 15 years together. A John Smedley special in apple red. The unimpeachable Dorset style in fine, Merino wool, with the turnback rib cuff and the collar that always sits just so.

 
smedley2Me and the shirt have done formal meetings and fierce parties. We’re travelled a bit and met interesting people. Even when the going has been messy, the shirt has sustained a fibre of grace, even when the wearer was lacking. It’s a shirt that gives everybody a bit of a chance.
I bought my first John Smedley shirt about 1986 in Camden. I seem to remember getting it in an early Reiss shop, but such details are elusive. But I’m sure it was a navy short sleeve in sea island cotton, and I soon added a red version of the Isis design. We went to warehouse parties and north London dive bars. It was accompanied by a black MA1 jacket, selvage Levis, Doc Martin shoes and  eventually Weejun loafers.

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Spooling Around

September 7, 2013 — Leave a comment

cranberry640

Happy Cassette Store Day, all. Currently reeling on the Dig With It tape deck is a 1990 release by the Cranberry Saw Us, indie combo from Limerick. Say it quickly and you might figure the pun, a legacy from former singer and jape-meister, Niall Quinn. His replacement was Dolores O’Riordan, who soon came up with a song called ‘Linger’ and The Cranberries were off.

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1982 and Van Morrison is onstage in Belfast, chasing his rapture across ‘Summertime In England’. A roll call of the poets, the mystics, the romantics and the lightning catchers. More than eight minutes, and not a bit of it surplus. He’s calling out to Coleridge and Wordsworth, Blake, Whitman and Beckett. On saxophone there’s Pee Wee Ellis, sometime James Brown associate and he’s matching the singer’s fever, blowing with abandon. As is his wont, Van revises his  lyrics from the recorded version, sending more names into the ether.

“Mister Heaney,

I read your book,

Preoccupations,

Among the regions”.

And then he’s off again, citing RS Thomas and DH Lawrence as the song makes a squalling case for feeling and sensation: it ain’t why, it just is.

You might have supposed that Van and Seamus Heaney were connected. The most prolific writers on the island. The pair of them deep into their sense of place, their local resonances, the names and the townlands, the squelch and the smell of it. Like Kavanagh before them they could find the epic in the commonplace, the small-town Homers. While the poet would find amazement in a water diviner, Van channeled his magic through the transistor radio and the wavelength.

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