Snow Patrol guitarist Nathan Connolly performs a cathartic hard rock support set at Belsonic
The Belsonic stage at Belfast’s Custom House Square sits in a convenient urban amphitheatre. Surrounded on all sides by tall office buildings, apartment blocks and the imposing riverside Customs House – a Victorian edifice perhaps not readily associated with popular music – the square is transformed into a cacophonous bowl for an annual week-long festival.
Belsonic always attracts an eclectic range of performers and audiences. This year the likes of Example, Tom Odell and, most notably, alt-rock giants Queens of the Stone Age, populate the lineup but, from a local point of view, Dublin-based Little Matador represent a particularly interesting fixture on the 2014 bill.
The side project of Snow Patrol guitarist Nathan Connolly, Little Matador is a band very much removed from the often ponderous, middle-of-the-road stylings of Lightbody and Friends. Out to promote their self-titled debut album, they return to the festival, on Connolly’s native patch, in support of dual Glaswegian festival heavyweights Biffy Clyro and Twin Atlantic. Their energetic show, however, belies any notional undercard status.
The punters are still filtering in when Connolly and his allies stride on to the stage, darkly clad and oozing an attitude one is unlikely to see anywhere on a Snow Patrol arena tour. This is a youthful crowd, prepared for, and expecting, inclement conditions, but heartily receptive to Little Matador’s stomping opening number, ‘Stitch Yourself Up’.
Smoky and urgent, quick-fire lyrics channel the aforementioned Queens of the Stone Age with their knowingly edgy feel. Indeed, they are a world away from Connolly’s usual tropes and his four grizzled bandmates – including former Idlewild bassist Gavin Fox – seem pulled straight out of the Big Book of Hard Rock Stereotypes.
‘Take my broken heart, tear it apart,’ they sing with no lack of tortured enthusiasm and visceral imagery. ‘Steadying shaking hands, stitch yourself, so we won’t come undone.’ These gritty lyrics are no surprise given the fact that Connolly has admitted to penning the record while in a profound personal funk.
If taming those demons allowed for a degree of catharsis then it shows, for the frontman possesses the bearing of a man slipping his bonds, musical or otherwise. Tall and willowy, his vocal range – untested, for the most part, in the Snow Patrol juggernaut – is impressive. There is a rawness also, borne out by the confident post-punk strain of Little Matador’s songs: singular, occasionally ferocious and often abrupt in conclusion.
Steeped in current mainstream indie rock, Connolly has picked up more than a few influences from elsewhere. ‘Reasons’, a thumping, semi-anthemic effort, has more than a hint of Kasabian in its steady refrains and layered vocals though, mercifully, this is no lazy pastiche.
During a short interlude, Connolly also proves to be on crackling form. ‘A gig in my home f*cking town,’ he says, with a sense of triumph. ‘I apologise to anyone who sees me after 11 o’clock tonight.’
If his dirty new sound appears to have liberated him, Connolly’s refusal to completely abandon the genre which made him successful is best illustrated by ‘Shatter’. This acoustic-tinged number is lilting; a refined, swaggering melody drives it forward in an attempt to answer a central question. ‘How long, how long, will this burn in my head?’ Little Matador wonders. One suspects the music itself depends on such queries remaining open.
As the set winds down, Connolly provides a possible insight into the place from which these hard-hitting airs spring. ‘Cheating Heart’ is self-explanatory, he suggests. The raging chorus bursts forth with speed and its aggressive precision exudes genuinely focused pain: ‘What will it take for your cheating heart to change?’ Its point is less clear. There is shame here, but to whom does it belong?
And with that, Little Matador are gone, forced to make way for those enjoying large print on the posters. It is a pity, though arguably a clever tactic. Brief but compelling, appearances like this serve as a taster, a promise of much more to come.