Talented Derry chanteuse tops the bill at the Black Box with entertaining support from Lisa O'Neill
Known for its eclectic slate of comedy, music, theatre and chat, the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival continues to thrive as a premier creative showpiece for both Belfast and the wider region.
At the heart of its eponymous district, the Black Box is something of an institution in the city’s bustling creative landscape. The venue plays a central role in the festival’s annual lineup, and on opening night 2014, it hosts a pair of Ireland’s most acclaimed young musical artists.
The career progressions of both Lisa O’Neill and SOAK – real name, Bridie Monds-Watson – suggest that the level of musical excellence springing forth from these shores is as strong as ever. O’Neill, a native of Ballyhaise, County Cavan, recently completed an American tour with singer-songwriter David Gray.
SOAK’s rise, meanwhile, has been stellar in spite of her callow age, and now, barely 18, she boasts a burgeoning résumé featuring two acclaimed EPs and a European sojourn in support of Scottish synthpop giants, Chvrches.
A memorable showing for BBC Introducing Live in her home city of Derry~Londonderry saw her being plugged by Zane Lowe and Huw Stephens, amongst others, and she recently sold out her first London gig. Her attendance, therefore, in the intimate surroundings of the old cobbled quarter, is notable given the heights to which she is aspiring.
As a lead-in, O’Neill offers gravitas and sound confidence in her own abilities, sauntering onto the stage without instrument or backing to belt out a raw and uncompromising folk piece, complete with foot-stomping and a repertoire of facial tics. There are even hints of the Clancy Brothers in the forceful, abrupt presentation – the ‘Royal Canal’ comes up – but O’Neill’s routine is very much her own.
Joined by her accomplished band, she takes up a guitar to prove herself a capable musician as well as an interesting writer. It’s all presented in a unique style, at once traditional and brazenly modern. Her material ranges from the quirky to the highly personal.
One moment, she is throwing Elvis impressions into an up-tempo number about feeding The King himself ('Elvis I Give You Irish Stew'), the next she is recalling her deceased uncle with the touching 'Neillie’s Song', a tale of life on the road written for a precious relative.
Between tunes O'Neill is hugely amusing, recalling childhood days of striking out across the border in search of Caramacs and some guy named ‘the Border Fox’. Love songs are funny things, she concludes drily, ‘they usually last a lot longer than love itself'.
SOAK’s time out front is, by contrast, a far gentler affair. It would be inaccurate (and unfair) to describe her as lacking in stage presence but, for all her gifts, she is yet to overcome the nature of her current identity. She is, on this night, a talented, but somewhat self-conscious 17-year-old, out there for all to see, and at times she seems lost for words in the glare of public attention.
That said, SOAK remains an engaging figure, friendly, warm and genuinely happy to be in Belfast. Working hard to interact with her audience, she mines particular craic from a table near the back willing to laugh at the observations even she admits aren’t intentionally humorous.
With only 90 minutes between her and the ability to legally buy her own drinks, an impromptu rendition of 'Happy Birthday' breaks out from the audience. She is genuinely touched.
Musically, Monds-Watson demonstrates commendable maturity; her songs are neat and tightly arranged. They are as beautifully balanced as they are original, and while, at present, she is unlikely to revolutionise the low-key, indie genre in which she currently exists, there is undeniable pleasure in seeing youthful potential harnessed by the very person it inhabits.
Remarkably, the Derry youngster has only been playing her guitar – a comfortingly worn piece of kit – for five years. Her skill is evident from the start, however, as she eases into 'Explosions', an elegant piece marked by a delicate, lilting accompaniment. Her voice, too, is pure and assured. Indeed, the extent of SOAK’s preternatural ability is clear throughout.
The rendition of 'Sea Creatures', a song she wrote at 13, is particularly arresting. An intricate little ballad invoking the topical spectre of school bullying, it is genuinely affecting. 'Trains' is also one of her earlier efforts, a quietly ambitious yet restrained number, characterised by layered refrains and a pleasingly unexpected change-of-pace finale. ‘I’m not calling myself an adult,’ she says, almost wistfully, ‘but this is a song from my youth.’
A cover of Bonnie Raitt’s 'I Can’t Make You Love Me' is especially lovely, and there is more than a touch of bravery in tackling an oft-imitated classic with no small measure of breezy nonchalance. It is this self-assuredness, perhaps, that rings truest. SOAK’s talents are real but she carries them lightly. There is little pretence here; what you see is what you get.
Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival continues until May 11.