Real Music Club Celebrates 15 Years of Folk
Now in its 15th year, Jim Heaney's roots and Americana club is spreading the gospel by venturing out of Belfast
Folk and acoustic music may be on the up, but there's nothing bandwagon about Belfast’s Real Music Club, which is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year.
Based in the Errigle Inn on the Ormeau Road, the club has earned a reputation as the premier roots and acoustic music venue in Northern Ireland. Founded and run by 56-year-old Jim Heaney, the RMC has been responsible for bringing top Americana acts to the country during a period of increased interest in folk and country music, as well as giving local acts a foot up.
To celebrate its 15th birthday, the RMC ran a one day festival, Belfast Skyline, in the Limelight Complex in July 2013, headlined by alt-country superstar Steve Earle with the Dukes and The Duchesses. 'We had a great day,' Heaney recalls. 'It was brilliant to see such a tremendous audience at both the afternoon and evening events.'
Many of the support acts on the day were Northern Irish artists, including Bap Kennedy, Paul Casey, Anthony Toner and Malojian, most of whom have been regular performers at the RMC over the years. Heaney is passionate about working with local acts. Originally from north Belfast, he became involved in music promotion in the mid-1970s.
'When I was 18 I started going to folk clubs, in particular the Sunflower Folk Club in Corporation Street. I got friendly with Geoff Harden, who ran the club, and he gradually got me to help him. I then moved on to running clubs myself and got involved with the Belfast Folk Festival.'
Heaney worked in the music business for the next 20 years, both in management and in music promotion, until a stroke of luck led to the formation of the Real Music Club in January 1998.
'It was an accident, really,' he remembers. 'A booking agent in England was looking for a promoter to put on a John Hammond Jr concert in Belfast. No one in those days was doing Americana in Belfast, so he convinced me to do it. It was a success, and the club grew from there.'
As luck would have it, there was renewed interest in American country and roots acts in the early 2000s, and Heaney found himself spoilt for choice when it came to booking authentic acts who could pull in a crowd.
Younger artists like Willard Grant Conspiracy and The Handsome Family (dubbed ‘Americana’ or ‘Alt-County’) were being championed by popular music magazines such as Uncut and Mojo, and belated mainstream respect was being shown to roots musicians from earlier generations. The RMC was able to showcase these acts during Irish tours.
'Through running the RMC I’ve got to see and work with many great artists,' Heaney adds. 'Hayes Carll, Mary Gauthier, Gretchen Peters... It’s also been great being able to work with artists I’ve admired for many years like Steve Earle, Billy Joe Shaver and Tom Russell. A particular highlight for me was getting Lucinda Williams to Belfast for her first ever Northern Irish show.'
That show took place in the recently refurbished Limelight Complex – a sign of the RMC's growing popularity and Heaney's determination to spread the gospel of acoustic and roots music. The RMC will continue to venture from its traditional home in the Errigle to promote shows in other parts of the country.
'I’d often been asked to put on shows across the province, but until recently I didn’t really have time to do this,' Heaney comments. 'I’ve been doing a number of shows recently in Flowerfield Arts Centre in Portstewart in conjunction with singer-songwriter Anthony Toner, who works there. We’ve more planned for the future.
'I’m also doing other stuff throughout the country. I put together an Irish tour for Mary Gauthier. I also spend a large part of my time these days on the road, driving artists and tour managing. I’m with Belfast band Girls Names, and I’ll be driving Tom Russell on his Irish and UK dates this month.'
With long-standing experience of the music scene in Northern Ireland, and as someone who has struggled during lean times when it was difficult to fill venues, Heaney feels that there remain obstacles in the way of continued growth for both the RMC and other independent music promoters, despite the mainstream success of folk music in recent years.
'There are organisations which are funded from the public purse who are in direct competition with myself and other independent promoters,' Heaney explains. 'This funding is primarily being provided to put on festivals, but increasingly we see these operations running concerts throughout the year.
'I can understand the value to the public purse of festivals – though I feel Belfast is oversubscribed with these – but I can’t see the logic behind public money being used to put on "commercial" events that compete with the private sector.'
Nevertheless, Heaney is looking forward to the RMC continuing to bring the best Americana acts to Belfast and beyond, as well as continuing to showcase local roots music. 'I’m not sure if I have the energy for another 15 years,' he laughingly admits – though as a keen cyclist he is fitter than many half his age. 'Maybe someone younger can take it over from me sometime.'
Heaney promises, though, that he and his team – John McCart, the resident MC, in house photographer Gerry McNally, and sound engineer Cregan – will continue to do what the RMC has always done.
'We’ll carry on bringing quality Americana to these shores, as well as helping as much as we can in giving our local singer-songwriters a step up. Americana music is, to an extent, on a high these days, but these things are cyclical. We’ll still be going when it’s maybe not so much the flavour of the month.'
The next Real Music Club concerts feature Dana Masters performing in the Errigle Inn on September 5, and Sam Baker performing at the Errigle Inn, Belfast on September 12 and the Flowerfield Arts Centre, Portstewart September 13.