BBC St Patrick's Day Concert

Ulster Orchestra support Soak, Paul Brady, Duke Special and a host of others as BBC Northern Ireland prerecord a Waterfront Hall concert to be broadcast on March 17

It’s March 3 and St. Patrick’s Day is looming on the horizon. So it’s a little surreal, two weeks in advance of the big day, to be pretending that it is suddenly upon us. That, however, is what BBC Northern Ireland requires of a packed house at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall for the television recording of their annual celebration concert. 

In previous years the event has been recorded live for radio, but this is the first time it has been televised as part of BBC Music NI, the regional broadcaster’s contribution to the UK-wide BBC Music initiative.

Presenters John Toal and Karen Kirby, ably switching between English and Irish, have their work cut out in keeping their chat current, reminding the massed gathering from time to time that due mention should be made of what day it is – or should be. 'Are you having a great St. Patrick’s Day?' they holler. The audience responds with an obliging but slightly absent-minded, ‘Yes!’

The Waterfront is all dressed up for the occasion, with ne’er a hint of shillelagh or shamrock. Diaphanous streamers and fairy lights evoke something more akin to a Three Degrees nostalgia night than a rip-roaring hooley. Even the lighting design seems deliberately neutral, with only the occasional blast of green breaking through in acknowledgment of the occasion.

But cosmetics, atmosphere and logistics aside, the night is all about music, with the Ulster Orchestra proving yet again that, when called upon, it is one of the best backing bands in these islands.

Marshalling the troops is conductor David Brophy, who bustles onto the podium with his usual good-humoured enthusiasm for the job in hand. He wastes no time in taking the evening by the scruff of the neck for a rollicking opening by the orchestra. It’s such an obvious choice, it's almost a cliché: 'The Irish Washerwoman' from Leroy Anderson’s Irish Suite.

Some concerts start quietly and build to a climax but this one starts like a high-speed train, thanks to Moxie, a band of young musicians from Sligo and Limerick, possessed with the swagger and brilliance to be the next Planxty. Their dynamic fusion of traditional, bluegrass, jazz and rock rings out in wild celebration of their beloved, untamed west coast.

Brothers Ted and Jos Kelly on tenor banjo and keyboard respectively, Cillian Doheny on banjo, Darren Roche on button accordion and Paddy Hazleton on drums rip through two numbers from their debut album, Planted, leaving the stage to thunderous applause from an audience dying for more.

Equally haunting is the return of two more brothers, Brendan and Declan Murphy, aka The 4 of Us, the Newry band that was one of the biggest names in music in the late 1980s and early 1990s. With various changes in line-up, the surviving two have stuck at it through thick and thin and their inspiring presence in this impressive line-up is thoroughly deserved. 

What a joy to hear great anthemic numbers like 'Mary' and 'Washington Down', plus the more recent 'Blue' – a favourite of the late Gerry Anderson, to whom they pay warm tribute – given a lush, almost cinematic treatment courtesy of the orchestra.

Two generations separate Paul Brady from Bridie Monds-Watson (aka Soak) and it is evidence of the endless richness and longevity of music in Ireland that these natives of Strabane and Derry are so highly regarded internationally. Low key and modest, Soak is an intriguing performer, recently nominated for the prestigious BBC Sound of 2015 poll.

Multi-talented singer, instrumentalist and songwriter, Brady, meanwhile, needs no introduction. A new song, 'Oceans of Time', is followed by the rocky, evergreen classic 'Nobody Knows'. In a post-performance conversation, Brady reveals that the first of a possible series of albums entitled The Vicar Street Sessions is soon to be released, on which he performs live with the likes of Mark Knopfler, Sinead O’Connor and Bonnie Rait, a long-time collaborator.

There is a hush of expectation as the waif-like Duke Special takes his seat at the piano to deliver two of his vast collection of plaintive fables of modern-day life, as well as a deliciously mysterious version of the Harry Nielson song 'One'. Once again, the orchestra makes a meaningful and resonant contribution, and although the Duke is well used to performing in a wide variety of musical and theatrical settings, he admits that if he had a transit van big enough, he would take them on tour with him.

There are sweet sounds of an altogether different kind from the acclaimed Derry chamber choir Codetta, directed by Dónal Doherty, co-founder of the sadly missed Two Cathedrals Festival. And the familiar strains of 'The Minstrel Boy' come to us via the combination of musical maestro Neil Martin on whistle and Armagh uilleann piper Conor Mallon, inaugural winner of the BBC Northern Ireland and Arts Council of Northern Ireland’s Young Musicians’ Platform Award of the Year.

As the clock ticks around, one senses a shared longing for the one thing the evening has thus far lacked: a good old traditional session. It is St. Patrick’s Night, after all. Thanks be, we get it, in the hands of no better men than Martin on pipes, virtuoso percussionist and former Riverdance musical director Noel Eccles and violinist/fiddler Seamus McGuire.  

The three have been making music together for years, and tonight perform a trio of jigs, composed by Martin for his daughter, Maeve. The mischievous grins on their faces and the sound of feet tapping around the hall bring the evening to a suitably raucous finale, and set the scene for a great celebration of St. Patrick soon to come.

BBC Northern Ireland's St Patrick's Day Concert will be broadcast on BBC Two Northern Ireland at 9pm on March 17, and on BBC Radio Ulster from 8pm to 10pm on the same night.