Celtic rockers reel in the years in style

‘A lot has happened in the last 30 years,’ Horslips de facto leader Barry Devlin tells a packed house at Belfast’s Odyssey Arena. Since imploding three decades ago everyone’s favourite Celtic rockers have rarely appeared on stage together, but tonight is a blast back into their 1970s heyday.

Famed for their love of spandex and cross-dressing - as well as their genre-bending mix of Celtic influences and glam rock - Horslips appear to have grown old gracefully, judging by the sombre black shirts and suit jackets on show tonight. There’s also none of the fiddle throwing mayhem that marked their last official live gig, in the Ulster Hall way back in October 1980.

Instead the enthusiastic (and overwhelmingly middle-aged) crowd is treated to a polished and, at times, explosive set that mixes greatest hits with some of Horslips more obscure - and esoteric – material.

Early song ‘Furniture’ is a typical Horslips hybrid: bizarre lyrics about an aged dining room set, Charles O’Conner giving it proper diddly-idle-dee on the fiddle while Johnny Fean solos like Ricky Sambora on a hot night in New Jersey. Invoking the spirit of Bon Jovi might seem churlish but the Odyssey’s cavernous, breezeblock walls merely accentuate the stadium rock quality of Horslips’ power chords and onstage theatrics.

Unfortunately the early momentum is lost slightly during a rather moribund, semi-acoustic version of ‘Faster than the Hound’, the crowd drifting into chat or towards the bar. Devlin’s announcement that the group are about to crack into a ’17 or 18 minute’ version of a piece from the Book of Invasions soon has this critic heading for a pint, too.

On returning, ‘Blindman’ delivers yet more gnomic lyrical gems - ‘Scarecrow, wooden heart, finds it hard to love’ – before a powerful version of ‘The Man Who Built America’. Surely the greatest paean to migrant workers ever written, it even sparks an unlikely bout of headbanging from a group of balding men down the front. Surely moshing wasn’t invented in 1970s’ Irish dancehalls?

Country dancehalls are a far cry from 6,000 paying punters in a modern(ish) stadium but Horslips handle the transition admirably. Throughout the show, the first of a two-date ‘Irish tour’ that ended on Saturday in Dublin’s O2, screens on either side of the stage superimpose images from their videos with a live relay.

Horslips wait until the very end to crank out best known tune, 'Dearg Doom'. (You’ve definitely heard it, the riff was borrowed for the Republic’s Italia ’90 anthem ‘Put ‘Em Under Pressure’ and has been used on copious television and radio programmes). The seated flanks finally rise to much whopping and hollering and the band triumphantly leave the stage to a resounding chorus of ‘Horslips, Horslips.’

They might have abandoned the dresses (and the drugs) but Horslips could still teach the young whipper snappers a thing or two about putting on a show. Some things never change, even after 30 years.

Peter Geoghegan