Belfast Music Week
Chris Jones takes in a wealth of musical talents over three nights
Belfast Music Week is many different things to many different people. For those of us at the mercy of day jobs, the lunchtime showcases, panel discussions and album playbacks are sadly beyond our reach. But there is a cavalcade of evening entertainment to keep us busy.
Monday night is where it all begins, and in an unusual venue. The Titanic Quarter has gradually opened itself up to visitors, so a number of promising music venues have been added to Belfast's portfolio. And the SS Nomadic surely ranks as one of the least likely.
Perched in dry dock but no less magnificent for it, the Nomadic was the last of the White Star Line vessels and, though compact, it conveys something of the grandeur of the era. Sightseeing aside, we are here for the music, and the evening has a distinctly folk bent – knitwear and beards are very much in evidence even before In Their Thousands take the stage.
They immediately set about their task with an opening number that features an acoustic guitar and four-part harmonies, like some kind of rustic Irish barbershop quartet. It is far from their only trick, as, on further investigation the band boast an arsenal of rousing folk tunes enhanced by some atmospheric electric guitar and informed, as they told us, by a Donegal upbringing never far from the sea. Rather appropriate for the setting.
Emerald Armada also play on their maritime connections, and give a rousing performance to a partisan crowd, adding weight to their status as Belfast's answer to Mumford and Sons. But the night's high point is Farriers – Rachel Coulter manages to silence the happy hubbub as soon as she begins to sing.
A trio of two guitars, two voices and a violin, the Bangor band are joined by a moonlighting Conor Burnside (also to be seen performing with Silhouette, Joshua Burnside and Alana Henderson) on percussion, and there is much fun to be had in watching him improvise to songs he barely knows.
He does so admirably, and his energy and aptitude add to the good-time atmosphere. But, although the thigh-slapping folk stomps are great fun, Farriers' main weapons are their atmospheric songwriting, and the exquisite male/female harmonies of Coulter and Stephen McCartney. This is a performance of real substance.
On Tuesday night, I find myself in the more familiar surroundings of the Mandela Hall in Queen's University Student's Union, for the inaugural Northern Ireland Music Prize. An opportunity for the Northern Irish music scene to reach out beyond the local echo chamber, the line-up is as diverse as it is talented.
North coast punks Axis Of kick things off in their customary rowdy fashion, summoning fans to the front of the hall and bouncing around the stage like a band determined to make it count. Niall Lawler's deceptively subtle lead guitar, meanwhile, Is evidence of a band that has more on its mind than pure aggression.
After short videos on several of the nominees, electronic producer Space Dimension Controller – aka Jack Hamill – takes up his station behind a desk full of equipment and sets a course for half an hour of galactic funk.
It can't have been easy to capture the essence of SDC in a short showcase set, but Hamill starts deep with the hypnotic techno of 'Confusion On The Armament Moon', and finishes strong on the Prince-aping electro-funk-rap jamboree of 'Welcome To Mikrosector-50'.
Then we have the tender acoustic songsmithery of Anthony Toner, the Lurgan garage blues of The Bonnevilles and finally the bad-trip post-punk of Girls Names. Foy Vance takes the prize and is a popular winner but, as host Rigsy emphasises, the whole point of the Northern Ireland Music Prize is to start a conversation and shine a light on some of our less celebrated musical artist. The five talented acts on the Mandela Hall stage certainly manage that.
Onto Wednesday, and back to the Titanic Quarter for The Big List's showcase gig at the T-13 festival within a festival. A skate park by day, and formerly an industrial hanger, it's an extraordinary venue made oddly intimate by the sensitive way in which the XporT-13 stage has been set up at one end – with fine local beers on tap to boot.
This is another diverse bill erring towards the underheard and the experimental. Openers Hungerkünstler rail against The Man with two acoustic guitars and a bag full of wit, while math-rock duo The Continuous Battle Of Order air some stellar new material that combines chugging post-metal grooves and Craig Kearney's muscular drumming with guitar pyrotechnics from the inimitable Hornby.
Next on stage, Red River Ox Cart perform their first ever gig. A garage rock two-piece like The Bonnevilles, they focus less on blues rudiments and more on grungy riffage and an anything-goes attitude.
Finally, Joe Greene's six-piece space-rock adventurers Documenta play with a sound big enough to fill this venue many times over. With no less than four electric guitars, they make a gorgeous racket, while James McConville's busy, jazz-informed drumming is the secret weapon that gives Documenta their own distinctive character. It is a thoroughly satisfying performance.
Three nights down, in three different venues, and much more still to come. Get out, and enjoy it.
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