Having recently released their debut album, everyone's favourite folk act round off the year in stompin' style on the Belfast Barge
A cosy venue at the best of times, the hold of the Belfast Barge looks extra cheery with the addition of festive fairy lights and an abundance of tinsel. Spirits are high in anticipation of folk favourites, Farriers, and the mood is light even as the rain patters against the windows.
Before the main event, Dan Mulligan gets things warmed up, accompanied by pounding double bass and 1950s Sun Records style country guitar. A talented and often amusing wordsmith, Mulligan’s lyrics are a combination of the traditional and the contemporary, as demonstrated on ‘Dream Cubed’ (an Inception-inspired title, apparently).
'I knew a kid in a suicide cult,' he sings on this jaunty number. 'He survived, but it’s not his fault.' Elsewhere, Mulligan laments the fact that his overqualified girlfriend is on the dole, even though she’s ‘gonna be the next Cheryl Cole’. It’s tongue in cheek stuff, and great fun.
References to things being ‘folked up’ on ‘Folk Dope’ might take things a step towards the cheesy, but Mulligan’s well-worn baritone is a great counterpoint to the rollicking rhythm, and the line ‘at least it beats the mephedrone’ gets a deserved cheer from the crowd.
While the singer’s American accented singing voice might not be entirely authentic – Mulligan even acknowledges that he ‘couldn’t be more Bob Dylan if I tried’ – the tunes are solid, the wordplay is sharp and the band is tight. Can't ask for more than that, surely.
The stage in the intimate venue barely contains the Farriers – who perform on percussion, bass, dual vocals, guitars and viola – and as the first track kicks off, it's clear that we're in for a good old sweaty hoedown.
Rattling along with joyous intensity and enthusiasm, the country-folk stalwarts wear their influences on their sleeves, yet there is something unerringly unique in their brand of bluegrass balladry. In an era of endless Mumford clone acts, Farriers are more than a little refreshing. They are, very clearly, the real deal.
With its punchy vocals and catchy chorus, ‘Keep It Alive’ is a standout track, sounding as if the Crash Test Dummies had a musical baby with The Band and raised it on Springsteen and good times. Farriers enjoy themselves too, the smiles never leaving their faces, even when proceedings are slowed down for a heartfelt ode to small-town Australia.
A tender cover of Joni Mitchell’s ‘River’ sends tingles down spines, and manages to instantly silence the rowdy crowd. Soaring harmonies raise the roof, although the affect is somewhat marred by the elongated hiss of a fan opening a can of Guinness – the perils of a bring-your-own gig.
Luckily, Farriers find it every bit as funny as the crowd, and congratulate the offending reveller on his ‘backing vocals’. How pleasant it is to see a band not taking themselves too seriously, where other performers might otherwise throw a hissy fit.
An en mass game of pass the parcel is also great fun, as Farriers provide a soundtrack of country hits and party favourites including 'The Weight', 'Under Pressure', 'Folsom Prison Blues' and a version of Old Crow Medicine Show’s 'Cocaine Habit', and happy punters go home with snuggies and copies of the TV Times. Nice touch.
By the time the gig has wrapped up, an already excitable audience are in full boot-stomping swing, and singer Stephen Macartney takes time to quip, ‘If more people come in, we’re gonna need a bigger boat!’
When the immortal words, ‘Has anybody ever heard of Shakin’ Stevens?’ are uttered, everyone knows what is coming. A friend joins the band on sleigh bells, and it's all together now on ‘Merry Christmas Everyone’. Rounding off an evening of hootin’ and hollerin’ in festive style, this Christmas the Barge truly is the boat that rocked.