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

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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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Los Angeles, and David Holmes is in a recording studio finishing off the Primal Scream album. That’s going well but he’s simultaneously working on the soundtrack to the Good Vibrations film, working to a small budget. Some of the songs have been written straight into the script, so there’s no issue with Hank Williams, Rudi, The Undertones and The Outcasts.

good vibes soundtrack200That still leaves plenty of space, but the setting of a record shop is the perfect chance to be bold. Why deal in the obvious – your Bob Marley, your English punk – when Terri Hooley’s ears might be resounding to Lee Perry and The Upsetters, to Bert Jansch, The Small Faces or The Saints? So David is grafting each morning on this mission, downloading the new rushes from Belfast and matching them up to the tunes that he keeps filing away.
But there’s an abiding problem with the end title music. It needs to be something iconic – the big sayonara to this emotional story. A possible contender has been ‘Gloria’ by Them, but it’s just not achievable. Then Bobby Gillespie comes up with the genius suggestion.

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Back in the day there was File Under Easy listening. They were not afraid to rock and the teenage Nathan Connolly played his guitar slung low and turned up high.  Colin Murray was their cheerleader / manager and F.U.E.L. released a tune called ‘Closure’ that showed promise. Somewhere in my archive I have a photo of their singer giving me the finger from the Nerve Centre stage, supporting Snow Patrol in May 2000. Innocent times.

matadorNathan got his call-up papers to the Patrol shortly after. But he must still have the urge to rock, hence his new project, Little Matador. They play their first show at the Goat’s Toe in Bangor. Dave Magee, sometime F.U.E.L. stalwart and LaFaro shaker is on guitar. Likewise Troy Stewart from The Windsor Player. Gavin Fox from Turn is the bass guy, while Paul ‘Binzer’ Brennan bashes the skins.

They’ve surely put in the rehearsal time and have worked plenty on the album, but that hasn’t excused Nathan from party time at Voodoo until 6am on gig day. You might say that it adds to his appeal: paint the words LOVE and HATE on his knuckles and he’s a ringer for Robert Mitchum in ‘Night Of The Hunter’, all hooded eyes and cool wastage.

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facemag330I’ve thrown out most of my old magazines, but this one’s a keeper. It’s an issue of The Face magazine, September 1982. By then, the publication had been on the stands for two years, revving on street culture and post punk confections. We were urged to wear zoot suits and Westwood, pirate chic and kamikaze prints. Music was headed out of the rock venues and into bespoke clubs where the DJ ruled and style was all. Here was a mag to pilot the transition.

 
Some of it was dreadful, but The Face expressed the verve of the time. You can see the first 50 covers here, and appreciate how they took a steal from the NME and the other newsprint inkies. A decade before, Nick Logan had steered the NME from a trade paper into a music weekly with attitude. Then he established Smash Hits, bringing mirth, wit and irony to the pop kids. But The Face was a different mission as Logan invested his own savings, set up in a little office on London’s Mortimer Street and evolved his vision away from the corporate houses.
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The Abbey Habit

August 5, 2013 — Leave a comment

It’s a BYOC night at Bangor Abbey tonight. As in, Bring Your Own Cushion. The seating may not offer much in the way of luxury, but the concept is still inviting. It’s the work of Open House Festival in Bangor, Co Down and we’re about to witness Farriers with the Arco String Quartet. So we grab a pew and join in the expectancy with 400 other witnesses. The stained glass is illuminated by the weakening light in August, the faux candles flicker and Farriers begin to enthrall.

farriers320Last September, the band’s first significant outing with the Arco String Quartet took place in the tiny Picture House at the Ulster Folk And Transport Museum. That was the most special night. Bluegrass and folk tunes with bonus strings and the singular arrangements of Michael Keeney. And if the early Farriers gigs relied on a Mumford-like stomp, their evolving manner has taken on a delicacy also.

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This shot of Conor J O’Brien was taken on Gordon Street, Belfast on Sept 10, 2010. He had just soundchecked at the Black Box and I’d interviewed him for my Radio Ulster show. The ‘Becoming A Jackal’ album was four months old and was already imprinted in my soul. I was reading Herman Hesse and wiring up my own connection between Steppenwolf and the Villagers’ story of lupine dread and alienation. I was quite lost. No point in trying to say this much to the author. He had heard many other compliments and was playing it courteously.

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We had met briefly in 2006 during his time with The Immediate. I liked their album ‘In Towers And Clouds’ but it was over-fussy and too many heads were involved. The live shows were turbulent but not always in the best sense. I guess I must have seen him perform with Cathy Davey but I became a proper fan at sxsw in March 2010 when he seemed to materialise at potent moments, singing about lonesome vigils, rituals, zombies and exile. Elsewhere on Austin’s Sixth Street, there was mass fakery and music with little heart. Meantime Conor was there with his battered Spanish guitar, singing a quiet, true commentary.

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