The Boys are Back in Down

Paul McNamee on the exciting new wave of bands from Downpatrick

Downpatrick is still best known as the place St Patrick waded ashore centuries ago and set about establishing himself as the world’s most famous Irish Welshman.

It’s an area loaded with religious history, myth and significance – the burial place of St Brigid and St Columba – where pilgrims still flock.

But the town is set to become more than a spiritual centre. Eleven years after Ash first hit chart peaks with their bubble-gum punk metal tunes of teenage heartbreak, a clutch of new bands are emerging from under their shadow, ready to move up and grab some genuine stardom. The leaders of this new County Down movement are Acidtone, The Answer and Relish.

Acidtone are a young band of Rage Against The Machine-style noiseniks. The Answer are an old-fashioned rock group who carry the big-haired, thundering chords baton down from Led Zeppelin while Relish, led by the Papenfus brothers, are now moving within modfather Paul Weller’s court and count U2 amongst their biggest supporters.

So how has this mid-sized market town come to be Northern Ireland’s new centre for rock? How did St. Patrick spawn the devil’s music?

Walking around Downpatrick, it’s not immediately apparent. A pleasant town of faded Georgian splendour, the only indications that something creative might be bubbling under the surface are a trio of impressive cultural centres - the St Patrick’s Centre, the Down County museum and the Arts Centre, all within a stones throw of each other. That’s a lot of culture for a town of 12,000 people.

‘There is an incredibly rich cultural heritage in the district, whether it be visual arts or music,’ says Denise Griffith, assistant arts director at the Arts Centre.

‘There is an amazing number of kids who grow up with some sort of traditional music background around here and I think culture and the arts is very much promoted in the area.’

It’s a point echoed by Speedy Mullan, a blues obsessive and owner of Mullan’s Bar – a central meeting place for all aspiring Downpatrick musicians.

‘There has always been great talent in Downpatrick,’ he says. ‘The kids playing now, their parents might have been members of the Downpatrick folk club. There’s a fantastic folk tradition here. So the young ones have an interest in live music and developed it in their own way. The father of two of the members of Acidtone was in Rosetta Stone – a band from Downpatrick who had real success in the 70s.’

Mullan’s is an amalgam of old and new Downpatrick. A homely bar of dark wooden floors and secret nooks and crannies, its walls are covered with pictures of The Beatles and The Stones, Hendrix and Pearl Jam. It had always been Mullan’s intention to create a pub in Downpatrick that was built around live music where young musicians could play their own material. So traditional sessions run in tandem with blues and rock nights.

All local bands meet in Mullan’s. The last time Ash were in town, they played an impromtu set in the pub and Mullan can list names of countless would-be stars who plot world domination from within his four walls.

That said, Acidtone, the band thought by many to be Downpatrick’s brightest hopes, are too young to hang about in bars. Lead singer Adam McKee was still only 14 and the other three members are doing GCSEs in 2004. But, their tender years haven’t stopped Ash bassist Mark Hamilton from signing up and agreeing to co-manage them.

‘I heard them, for the first time just over a year ago and I was blown away by them,’ he says. ‘I couldn’t believe they were that good, that young. They were brilliant musicians. I thought they had potential to be massive and I wanted to be part of it.’

Last year Acidtone won an all-Ireland Battle of The Bands competition that landed them time in a recording studio. A debut album has been recorded during the sessions and Hamilton is keen to let the world see what his charges can do.

‘We’re going to slog that around and get them signed. But three of them are doing their GCSEs so there’s only so much they can do until their exams are over. In the summer they’ll be touring over the UK, doing the festivals and then hopefully get out to Japan because Sony are looking to sign them.

‘Realistically, because Adam is so young, they’ve got two years to go to find their sound before they need to go at it fulltime, so by then they should be phenomenal.’

The influence of Ash has a lot to do with the musical direction of all these bands – and other emerging names like Absent Methods and Thirteen Roses. Because Ash won chart success with a harder sound it has pushed Downpatrick bands to emulate their local heroes and focus on tough guitar breaks rather than something more delicate.

The town’s location may also be a factor. Downpatrick is just far enough away from Belfast for local bands not to want to make frequent trips up the A7 so instead they watch their local peers in local bars and feed off what they are doing. By doing so, they remain outside of any fashions or fads sweeping through the music industry. Downpatrick is essentially a musical island.

The Arts Centre and Down Arts Forum have recognised the talent burgeoning under their noses and have decided to do something to keep it going. They are working on creating a rehearsal and performance space for bands on the first rung. Downpatrick is pushing forwards and those in the area in a position to help are not keen to let it slide back.

The million-selling success of Snow Patrol is driving a small but growing band of London-based A&R men across the Irish Sea to find potential new stars. They could do much worse than get out of the city and head to north Down.