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MUSIC REVIEW: Open House Festival

Three reviews from the stand-out events at Belfast's bravest music festival

Updated: 01/10/2008
Hillbilly Hell was promoted by the good people behind the 10th Open House Festival as ‘an ass kickin’ redneck riot’, the first of the major festival attractions.

I arrive expecting spit and sawdust, tub-thumping, reckless musicians and huge-breasted barmaids serving liquor like quarterbacks – catch! As the night progresses, however, it becomes apparent that Hillbilly Hell is an altogether more restrained affair.

Open House deserves its reputation as Belfast’s most eclectic, eccentric music festival, an annual gathering of roots musicians and their rusty instruments. Over the years it has played host to the likes of one-man blues movement Seasick Steve and bluegrass visionaries Hayseed Dixie.

This year the line-up is equally ambitious, coupling acclaimed upstarts like Pete Molinari with old-timers Four Men and a Dog, with Belfast DJ David Holmes thrown in for eclectic good measure.

If you’re not into country music, Hillbilly Hell feels very much like the afterlife gone wrong. For the hundreds of honky-tonk enthusiasts attending, however, it’s a little bit of Georgia right in the centre of town. You get the feeling that tonight, across the land, farms lie empty with their lights left on. 

The Festival Marquee in Custom House Square is well lit, decked out with circular tables and chairs. Although there is a rather small dance floor space by the stage, there isn’t a lot of ass-shaking going on - not exactly the ‘redneck riot’ I was expecting. It’s more a barn dance, minus the dancing. A barn, in fact.

Dublin outfit Prison Love get things started. Self-styled ‘inmates of the Bluegrass Correctional Facility’, they play a multi-instrumental brand of punky Bluegrass and Cajun. Aficionados in the crowd lap them up. 

Headliners The Wilders also arrive with a bewildering selection of instruments to their name, including a ‘chugging clawhammer banjo’ and ‘slippery dobo’. Don’t ask me. By this point I’m more interested in the vat of paella by the bar and the hilarious cowboys roaming the venue with Stetsons in place.

Affable to a man, the punters whom I happen to converse with welcome obvious cynics like myself with open arms. If they knew how I felt about Hugo Duncan, perhaps they wouldn’t be so friendly.

After a little persuading from band leader Ike Sheldon and two maverick young ladies bravely pulling moves, the crowd finally descend upon the dance floor. It’s hip-smacking stuff, good, clean family fun.

In the end I don’t regret skipping line dancing class in school, but I wouldn’t mind one of those Stetsons. By all accounts, the ladies love ‘em. 

Lee Henry

After a night of debauchery and dancing with cowboys at Hillbilly Hell, I waken up with a distinct hunger for chilli. It may be the fact that I'm lying on a sofa that isn't mine, faced with a huge bunch of chillis that I acquired the night before. 

So I set off for ChilliFest, a three-day event at the Open House Festival. After queuing for around twenty minutes and paying £7 entry fee, I find myself back in the rather large Festival Marquee. 

Inside, the atmosphere is suitably authentic, with stall after stall serving chillis of every conceivable type. Outside, people drink ice-cold beer and enjoy the sunshine. 

Unfortunately, I miss out on the hilarity that is the Chilli Eating competition, but buy some chilli myself, which is delicious, and watch a thigh-slapping Cajun band play on stage, with their crazy instruments and lyrics about whiskey and leaving your wife. Wholesome family fun. 

All said, ChillFest 2008 is an enjoyable experience with plenty of opportunities for chilli freaks to purchase novelty items like hot chilli jam and sombreros. 

A warning for all chilli lovers out there, however - there is a demon lurking on those novelty item stands. It goes by the name 'Dragons Blood' and it burns so much that you feel that your eyes might pop out and your tongue bleed. It reduces my body-building brother to a quivering wreck. 

The Open House Festival's ChillFest is not for the faint-hearted.

Mairead Walsh

The much vaunted Brooklyn band O'Death touch down in the Festival Marquee for Saturday night at Open House with a name apparently borrowed from a traditional American folk song out of Western North Carolina and a fast-growing reputation for innovatively fusing bluegrass, gypsy folk and punk rock sensibilities. 

The organisers have kept the same barn-like set-up as the previous night, but the crowd couldn't be more different. If Hillbilly Hell was cowboy central, O’Death feels like a reunion shindig for an aged Hell’s Angels chapter. Grizzled old bikers sit around picnic tables drinking beer as support act the Samsonites deliver their pacey blues-punk hybrid.

Shame, then, that O’Death’s arrival, when it comes, is a rather muted affair. The house lights inexplicably stay up as five disheveled looking figures stumble onto the stage – perhaps the worse for the pints I spied them downing in McHugh’s earlier in the evening.

An ensemble that comprises a violinist, two guitarists, a bassist and a drummer should never lack for vivacity, but O’Death get off to an unexpectedly slow start. Vocalist Greg Jamie seems uncomfortable playing a venue of the Marquee’s size – even though it is half full, and most of the crowd are hovering with intent around the beer stand – and the rest of the group struggle to acclimatise to the space afforded them.

It’s only by the third song in, the feverishly energetic ‘Spider Home’, that O'Death begin to compose themselves, and the influence of the likes of the Cramps and the Misfits, as well as some good time bluegrass, starts to shine through.

As the bar empties, the mosh pit fills up and the Marquee is rocking - by the close the entire band are topless, sweaty and giving Belfast a glimpse of why they are making waves on both sides of the pond. 

Peter Geoghegan


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