CQAF: Rockin' on the Front Porch

The Beatles and Bluegrass. Sounds like hell, but Allan Preston discovers an eclectic stroke of genius opening the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival

Believe it or not, Beatlegras are considered to be made up of some of the finest musicians of the American Deep South. With bluegrass, jazz and classical inluences their songs are almost as amazing to see executed as they are to be listened to. 

Similarly, Johnny Black and the Rusty Shacklefords have been called a Belfast supergroup. These two groups are the big hitters in a bill of four, and all conspire to open the Cathedral Quarter Arts Fesival with a bang. 

Before that, though, the 200-strong crowd at the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival Marquee are treated to the Rough Deal String Band and Omagh's Dirty Blues Band, in a night that's all about modern musicians.

‘I know we’re the first band of the night, but there’s plenty of room up here for a waltz,’ says Ben Keogh, frontman with the Rough Deal String Band. They take Belfast into the American deep South with songs where moonshine is mentioned as many times as the name John Henry. 

Like a scene straight from O Brother Where Art Thou?, this is exactly as a celebration of bluegrass and country music should be, with Bill Whelan's banjo virtuosity matched only by Tim Roger's flaming fiddle.

The Dirty Blues Band hail from Omagh, although you might not guess so to hear them play. ‘This is the first of two songs about prisons and trains,’ says frontman Kevin Sweeney letting the appreciative audience know what they’re in for.

They combine bluegrass, folk and early rock 'n' roll with Irish trad, inspired by the likes of Earl Scruggs, Hank Williams and John Foggerty. Songs like ‘CC Rider‘, ‘Worried Man’ and ‘Momma Rock Me’ get the first big cheers and dances of the night. 

A cover of 'Folsom Prison Blues', where the fiddle melodies of Colly Campbell replace the original recording's guitar lines, provides a fresh and upbeat take on a classic.

With the party in full flow, Beatlegras take to the stage. As a bluegrass band who reinterpret The Beatles' back catalogue, they're a curious proposition before even lifting their instruments.

Double bass, mandolin and guitar produce a storming rendition of ‘Back in the USSR’, followed by frontman Dave Walsers' announcement ‘we love it here, can we move in with anybody?’

Walser is joined by fast-fingered George Anderson on upright bass and vocals, and multi-instrumentalist Milo Deering who demonstrates remarkable ability on everything from mandolin to the fiddle.

In a chat after the show, Walser reveals that the band had a few problems in getting to Belfast. 'We felt the plane descending. The pilot said, "I know your expecting to land in Ireland", but we ended up in New York.'

While this is Beatlegras' first time in Ireland, they're aware of their musical roots. 'If the Irish hadn’t come to America,' says Walser, 'there wouldn’t be any bluegrass.’

The song 'Rattle the Boards' demonstrates this point with the most Irish traditional sound of the night. The group’s enthusiasm and sense of fun attracts even more dancers. Almost all of them have serious foot-tapping skills, leaving no room for pretenders.

By the time final act Johnny Black and the Rusty Shacklefords take the stage, the dance floor becomes fuller than ever.

The group are known as the best country act in town, and it’s easy to see why. Visually impressive, frontman Johnny Black is flanked by three striking female vocalists.

James Heaney and Neil Diamond perform on guitar and bass, along with the night’s first drummer (and Dirty Blues Band bass player) Joe McGurgan on banjo.

With another take on 'CC Rider', a faithful cover of O Brother Where Art Thou's 'Man of Constant Sorrow', and a female-led Johnny Cash song, ‘Jackson‘, they bring a first-rate end to the evening.