A Breath of Fresh Air

Francis Jones checks out the NI talent on Ireland's biggest stages

Amongst the many attractions at this year’s Oxegen Festival, it was pleasing to note a small but distinguished Northern Irish presence. Festival performances are the perfect gauge of a band’s potential for crossover and widespread appeal.

However, much depends on the act possessing the willingness and wherewithal to convert the disinterested or downright hostile into novitiates of their particular musical order. Removed from the self-sustaining insularity of their own scene or genre, exposed to an new audience and, with the added pressure of playing in front of their peers it is purely on strength of material and audience connectivity that artists will prosper or fail.  It's time to check on the fortunes of three long championed acts: V//Formation, Leya and The Divine Comedy.

The elements favour V//Formation. It’s early Saturday afternoon and the New Band tent is swollen by the influx of rain-soaked unfortunates seeking solace from the unseasonable, though reassuringly Irish, weather.

Onstage, V//Formation seem determined to hitch the occupants of this makeshift musical drying-out clinic to their dark, power-pop wagon. They have always been a band of immense promise and now, following their switch to London at the start of 2006, they seem stage-hardened and more readily equipped to face-down the trials of live performance than ever before.

Where once V//Formation seemed inhibited by the live environment they are now confident and assured, in fact they are positively relishing this opportunity to convert unbelievers to the cause. And at the risk of making an inane observation, they really look the part.

‘Where The Wild Things Are’ is transcendent, Greg Brown sings with maniacal self-belief while brother Rick, resplendent in 1980’s American cop couture, is the epitome of playful, rock riff panache, whilst the rhythm section, comprising the roiling tattoo of Chris McComish and Pete Robinson's swaggering bass, provides unstinting momentum.

The new wave strut of ‘Dancer’ is carried by some exquisite guitar filigree. ‘Dot’ is at once elusive and evocative whilst new track ‘Pacificon’ is epic and spaced-out. Undaunted by the occasion V//Formation have given one of their finest performances to date and, by the end, audience approval is nigh-on unanimous.

It is shortly after midday on Sunday and thankfully the persistent rain that so marred the previous day has abated. We’re outdoors at the NME Stage for Leya, a band who prides themselves on the unwavering level of effort they give to each and every live performance. Today will be no exception.

A healthy crowd has gathered to see the band proclaimed by HotPress’ readership as most promising act of 2006 and Leya seem determined to live up to that billing. Frontman Ciaran Gribbin is his charming, personable self, coercing the audience by sheer force of will to abandon themselves to Leya’s plaintive soundscapes.

‘On All My Sundays’ is engagingly dreamy, and the spectral Jeff Buckley-esque ululations of the frontman on ‘Moving On’ prove mesmeric. The closing ‘The Dream The Money Bought’ is quintessential Leya - epic and emotional it builds from a tentative, restrained beginning to a billowing, unfettered climax.

For an established artist like Neil Hannon, 4pm seems a rather modest slot. Nevertheless the Pet Sounds tent is packed to capacity as the debonair son of a preacher man prepares to take the stage. Ably supported by his Divine Comedy cohorts, Hannon careers through a bracing ‘Diva Lady’.

There is a triumphant wistfulness to ‘Lady Of A Certain Age’, Hannon’s theatrical performance providing the perfect counterpoint to the rudimentary rawk ‘n’ roll relayed all weekend by the mass of stubby fingered vulgarians. There is a startling cover of current Nelly Furtado hit ‘Man-eater’, the dapper frontman surreptitiously glancing at the lyric sheet which has been pasted to the stage floor.

The musical culture clash is hilarious with Hannon saying “It feels right.” He unerringly hits those Divine Comedy sweet-spots, provoking mass singalongs for ‘Something For The Weekend’ and ’National Express’. He acts his way through each scene in a sublime rendition of ‘Our Mutual Friend’ and closes with the classic ‘Tonight We Fly’.

From a festival veteran like Hannon to relative novices V//Formation, the Northern Irish contingent proved that they were more than capable of holding their own against an internationally acclaimed parade of musical talent. Each seized the main chance and, who knows, perhaps next year the main stage?