Live at the Castle

Status Quo, Jools Holland and more rock Carrickfergus

The 60th anniversary of Carrickfergus Borough Council may not sound like the most rock ‘n’ roll reason to celebrate, but in Northern Ireland we’re not known for needing much excuse to break out the Buckfast and party hats.

The council-sponsored Live at the Castle festival is rather more dignified than that, though. In fact, the atmosphere at Carrickfergus Castle is positively genteel as Dublin singer Imelda May gets the weekend going with an engaging half-hour of pseudo-rockabilly. May’s upcoming Belfast show at the more intimate Mandela Hall - on October 21 as part of the upcoming Belfast Festival - may offer a truer flavour of her energetic sound, however.

Next up is Paul Carrack, an ex-member of Roxy Music, Squeeze and Mike and the Mechanics. Despite his apt moniker, Carrack isn’t quite king of the Castle, but his set of past successes and a couple of Eagles numbers – songs he co-wrote for the mega-selling act, perhaps explaining how he can afford a slick, seven-piece backing band – warms the crowd up nicely for Friday’s headliners, Jools Holland and his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra.

And, boy, do we need warming up. ‘It’s cold, but we laugh at the cold,’ says the boogie-woogie piano maestro as he takes to the stage, before letting out an almighty cackle in the general direction of the Irish Sea.

The waves are crashing, seagulls are soaring overhead and the wind is nibbling at our collective extremities, but Jools and his 18-piece outfit – including magnificent drummer Gilson Lavis – stick it out for a two-hour extravaganza of jazz, blues and special guests, the most exciting of whom is Dave Edmunds. The 65-year-old rock legend takes centre-stage for a mini-set including ‘I Hear You Knocking’ and ‘Sabre Dance’, though sadly not the sublime ‘Girls Talk’.

As is the norm with Status Quo, the turnout for Saturday’s main attraction ranges in age from seven to 70. That doesn’t mean frontman Francis Rossi tailors his between-song banter for the more sensitive members of the crowd, though. His cheeky-chappie shtick goes down a treat, as does the set-list – despite it being near identical to the one delivered at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall in February. If ever an audience was easily pleased, it’s the Quo’s.

Hardcore fans may yearn to hear something from the early, psychedelic albums – or the obscure 1988 B-side, ‘Halloween’ – but for a few thousand punters on a Saturday night by the sea, the hits will do nicely.

That means we get ‘Caroline’, ‘The Wanderer’, ‘In the Army Now’, ‘Down Down’, ‘Whatever You Want’ and ‘Rockin’ All Over the World’, cranked out with as much energy and attitude as five men in their 50s and 60s can muster – which, in Quo’s case, is actually quite a lot. There’s also room for a few more recent tracks, with 2004’s ‘The Oriental’ and 2007’s ‘Beginning of the End’ proving as rocking as anything from the band’s glory years.

Live at the Castle is that rare open-air event that has a sense of occasion yet manages not to inflict endless queues, traffic jams and overpriced refreshments on its paying customers.

Excellent production values and a top-notch sound mix make up for the bad weather, while a closing fireworks display puts a nice cap on proceedings. With promoters CDC Leisure having signed a three-year contract to bring concerts to Carrickfergus, the future looks bright for this seaside town.

Andrew Johnston