Orchestral Manoeuvres Open CQAF

Julie Feeney, Foy Vance and Duke Special take on the Ulster Orchestra

The acts in Orchestral Manoeuvres have divided opinion in NI. Here, CultureNorthernIreland offers three perspectives on the night.

David Lewis was convinced by a colourful cocktail.

A big night out in Belfast usually comprises umpteen pints of lager, shots of flaming sambuccas, dancing to Daniel Bedingfield, a curry chip, and long walk home in the rain because there are no taxis.

The Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival’s Big Night Out was a classier affair, particularly its Orchestral Manoeuvres concert, which saw three of Ireland’s hottest musical properties team up with the Ulster Orchestra.

If Julie Feeney was a drink she’d be a cocktail. A vodka martini, a Manhattan or icy Margarita, say, something elegant, stylish, with plenty of bite.

Her self-orchestrated song cycle was a veritable Happy Hour of miserable music. Think the soundtrack to Badlands meets Björk, with a school recorder thrown in. Original and striking.

Singer-songwriter Foy Vance would be a pint of Guinness by the fire in your favourite pub. There is something innately comforting about his cloth cap, baggy trousers and soulful voice.

‘Do you like my new band?’ he asks playfully after taking to the Waterfront stage. ‘The gig at McHughs next week is going to be interesting.’

He’s already had two songs feature on Grey’s Anatomy and ‘Doesn’t Take a Whole Day’ from his new album is similarly begging to be synched with a tear-jerking TV moment.

Vance and the orchestra, conducted by a dapper David Brophy, both let rip on the closing ‘Indiscriminate Act of Kindness’, making the head swim.

After an interval we’re back on the cocktails again. Duke Special is a huge Tequila Sunrise or Singapore Sling – layers of garish colour, chunks of fruit and an umbrella on top.

Peter Wilson’s dramatic songs are made for orchestral arrangement, and the crashing strings, jangling brass and delicate flights of woodwind fit perfectly.

‘There’s music in our souls, there’s music in our souls,’ is the Duke’s final line, slurred softly into the microphone like the pub drunk at the end of the night. Intoxicated, we believe every word.

Vance-aholic Kirsten Kearney finds that little men have no shortage of talent.

The night belonged to the little men. Not in the sense of underdog, for this was a gathering of the cream of NI talent. And never before has talent been packed into such short fellows.

And of course, there should be a stylish, chic, and slightly surreal woman in the mix, to even up the score. Not to mention a leprechaun-on-a-spring conductor (also just tipping 5 foot).

Julie Feeney is almost indescribable, so I’ll describe her as ‘The Irish Björk’, Tori Amos in her early days, and Kate Bush all in one, with a sprinkle of Maria in The Sound of Music, just for good measure.

That Feeney is talented is undisputable, but she took a while to convince. Her warbling vocals warbled a bit too much and her juddering attempts to sway reminded me more of a puppet than a diva.

By the end of her slot though, she had me almost convinced. By the scope and variety of her work, the magic of her own orchestrations and sheer nerve. Still not convinced, but definitely merits a visits to her MySpace.

A self-confessed Vance-aholic, any chance to see him perform is grasped with hands, feet and ears. He doesn’t disappoint, although the orchestra took very much a backing role, supporting but not majorly adding to the songs. ‘As I see you’ brings audience members close to tears in a triumphant performance.

But the homecoming and the stage belonged to Peter Wilson. Sporting a fetching new tin soldier outfit, his outfit complements percussionist Chip Bailey’s ‘what else would you wear with a cheese grater’ military garb.

The long haul of the LA flight didn’t show on the Duke as he charmed, entranced and wowed the crowd with anthemic songs and humility.

Although Duke’s songs gave the orchestra a chance to soar, it still didn’t feel that they were being used to their full extent. It would be fascinating to do a straw poll of their reactions. Amused, confused, bemused, the faces said it all.

The night was a brave experiment and a worthwhile one. The Ulster Orchestra proved adaptable, energetic and open to new challenges, while the boys from the north proved that NI music is well and truly settled on the world stage.


Lee Henry is brassed off, but it doesn't prevent a heavenly and hallucinatory evening.

It all began with Ralph McLean.

‘Now remember,’ he told the Waterfront Hall, ‘you can clap when Julie Feeney comes out, and you can clap when she finishes her set, but please, please – for me, for yourselves, for the children – refrain from clapping during her performance.

'It’s a medley, you see, of numbers from her album 13 Songs, which she has arranged especially for tonight. A complete piece of art that should not be interrupted. Can you dig? You feeling me?’

Or words to that effect.

And I must say that, after Feeney’s orchestral rendition of ‘Plastic People’, I found it almost impossible to comply.

With a musical imagination far beyond the means of your average pop strumpet, Feeney deserves to be applauded everywhere she goes, any time of day or night, whether onstage or off it, because she's just so unbelievably talented.

Her voice and the mood of her songs reminded me of the best of Faithless, and I half expected a mighty, all-consuming techno beat to kick in, bringing the good people in the Waterfront to their feet in a collective burst of robotic spasms.

The only gripe I had with Feeney – as with any of the artists featured – was the sparse use of the orchestra’s brass section, only fully implemented during Foy Vance’s final number, the heartbreaking ‘Indiscriminate Act of Kindness’.

During Vance’s set I had a vision of heaven, with Sinatra swinging by the bar, Marvin Gaye serenading the apples in the adjacent courtyard and Sam Cooke checking the ladies on the dance floor.

Above them all, strumming his guitar up on cloud nine, Mr Foy Vance, the best thing to come out Belfast since Van Morrison, leading the chorus of angels for the good of mankind.

And then there was Duke Special, dressed – a little annoyingly – like a toy soldier, but fantastic nevertheless.

I swayed my head like a demented philanthropist as the Ulster Orchestra ran through a short medley of the Duke’s tunes, before the man himself took to the stage.

Of course, his songs speak for themselves. And his drummer stole the show.