Rocking Up in Belfast

Paul McNamee on how the city is becoming a must stop for the biggest names in rock

REM played in Belfast for the first time on February 25, 2005. While this was cause for great excitement among fans – and those fans snapped up 9,500 tickets in a matter of hours – to the casual observer, it was not such a big deal.

After all, REM are not the band they once were and certainly no longer on a par with U2. They have played Ireland many times, most recently in Dublin’s Marley Park in the summer of 2004. The significant detail here was that REM are one of a growing legion of big-hitters who are now keen to play in Belfast. No longer just a provincial backwater to be avoided, the city is now very much a proper part of the circuit.

It wasn’t always so. There was a time when live music fans in Belfast were not well served. The Kings Hall (with a capacity of 7,500) was the only major indoor venue available for acts of a certain size and if it was pre-booked, there was no show. If your favourite band didn’t play Dublin, chances were you’d have to make a trip to Scotland or further south to see them.

‘The Kings Hall focused on exhibitions,’ explains Eamonn McCann, boss of Wonderland Promotions, one of Northern Ireland’s biggest concert promoters and the man who booked REM.

‘So in the past we had to work round the Balmoral Show or Ideal Home Exhibition or whatever it was it we wanted someone in.’

And here’s the rub. There is a common perception in Northern Ireland that the troubles put paid to many bands’ intentions of playing in Belfast, that fear and massive insurance premiums prevented the cream of the 80s and 90s from visiting. Not so, says McCann. The main problem was that Belfast had nowhere to put them.

Two things changed Belfast completely. The first came in August 1997 when U2 played an outdoor show in Botanic Gardens. The capacity at the gig was 40,000, but thousands more took to the city streets, intent on being part of a landmark event.

That show came during a series of important changes in Northern Ireland – the Good Friday Agreement was just a few months away and there was renewed optimism and hope. Hosting U2 was a moment of collective civic pride and it also showed that Belfast could do enormo-shows. It was a signal of intent.

The second massive change came three years later when the Odyssey opened in December 2000 and suddenly Belfast had a 9,500 capacity purpose-built arena.

‘The Kings Hall wasn’t a custom made music space,’ says Steve Strange, the Belfast born booking agent who now controls the live affairs of superstars like Eminem, Coldplay and Snow Patrol.

‘It’s a massive warehouse space and an exhibition centre. If you want to do a show there, you have to bring everything in – from backstage equipment to sound equipment. It worked out very, very expensive.

‘The Odyssey works because it is self-contained. It has great facilities, it has a great sound, there are no congestion problems for people getting there. It’s much more appealing as a proposition – even than the Point in Dublin [which has a capacity of 7,500]. That extra couple of thousand inside can make a vast difference.

‘It’s also cost effective to get acts here now. You can get them in from Glasgow at one end of the country, get them down the road to do a show in Dublin, then out to play Manchester or Birmingham.’

So it is that in recent months superstars like Anastasia, Justin Timberlake and Beyonce have all danced their way to the side of Belfast Lough. According to Strange, the opening of the Odyssey has had a massive positive knock-on effect too, allowing agents and bands to see the possibilities of Belfast, even if they don’t play that venue.

The White Stripes and The Darkness are just two major-leaguers who stopped in Belfast within the last number of months, aside from the Odyssey bands. It is as close to a peace dividend as rock and roll is going to get.

‘Belfast is a much more attractive place to come for acts. There is not the stigma or the fear there once was,’ says Strange. ‘It’s a good cool European city.’

There is also a wider question here about the development of Belfast as major musical city. It’s got a wind behind it and things are moving at a fair clip but can it ever truly rival Dublin?

Local music magazine Alternative Ulster certainly thinks so. They recently published a definitive list of the 50 most important people in the music industry in the north. Several years ago, it would have been a risible venture with barely enough names to fill the list. Not any more, says Jonny Tiernan, the magazine’s publisher.

‘Music here is at an all-time high. There are more people working here in the industry than at any time before. There is such an air of excitement around – something is brewing.’

Tiernan says it all adds up to making Belfast an attraction proposition for touring bands: ‘I think there is an increasing interest from people in live music so it feeds the thing. It’s not just the big bands who can pack them out at the Odyssey and justify their massive fees, but bands like Franz Ferdinand and The Strokes don’t think twice about playing in Belfast, whereas before they might not have come. It’s a great time to be involved in music here.’

The last four years have seen Belfast grow as a live centre at an exponential rate. The arrival of REM as the first must-see of 2005 shows that there is no sign of it abating.

By Paul McNamee