Sons & Daughters

A bright, brand new day for Derry~Londonderry as the UK City of Culture 2013 celebrations begin with a plethora of stars performing at The Venue

It's already being christened 'The Duvet', and The Venue, a giant tent-like structure at Ebrington in Derry~Londonderry, is filling rapidly as coaches bus in excited ticket-holders from the city centre, and hardy souls hoof it solo across the Peace Bridge on a freezing winter evening.

Inside it's warm and welcoming, however, and an expansive stage area, bathed in coloured lights and framed by video screens, is set for Sons & Daughters, the opening concert in the UK City of Culture 2013 celebrations. (Watch video interviews with all the major stars before curtain up.)

There's no gradual softening up of the audience, either: this show goes straight for the emotional jugular, as elder statesman of the evening, Derry songwriter Phil Coulter, steps purposefully down a stage-centre stairwell at curtain-up, and launches into a rapt rendition of his classic 'The Town I Loved So Well'.

It's a stirring moment, words and music juxtaposed with evocative film footage of historic Derry, and pointed images from the Troubles period. No cover-up here, no sanitising of the city's turbulent recent history for national and international television audiences. It's a riveting opener, immediately galvanising the 2,500 people present.



In terms of sheer intensity it's matched, and possibly surpassed, by Neil Hannon's extraordinary take on 'Sunrise', from The Divine Comedy's Fin de siècle album. Reflecting on Hannon's boyhood in Derry and Enniskillen, the song commingles yearning lyricism with sharp reminders of the darker influences stalking Northern Ireland in recent decades. Vocally and dramatically, it's undoubtedly a high point of the evening.

Beside it, Nadine Coyle's frisky segue of Girls Aloud chart-toppers, and the polished contributions of Glee-boy Damian McGinty, inevitably seem a little lightweight. 16-year-old Soak, meanwhile, is literally diminutive, but the young songwriter's glimmering 'Sea Creatures' delights the audience, clearly indicating that the next generation of Derry-Londonderry performers is already rising.

In a concert dominated by outstanding vocalism, it's good to see the city's strong instrumental traditions also represented, Gerard McChrystal's blistering saxophone virtuosity reminding hometown followers exactly why he's now considered one of the world's great jazz and classical players.

The drinks stalls and concession stands are buzzing at the interval, regular punters milling with a smattering of MLAs and assorted dignitaries. Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness is grinning broadly. 'Even bigger than when the Tall Ships came,' is his considered opinion of the first half's entertainment.

Part two immediately gets even bigger, as Derry's favourite punk boy-band The Undertones hit the platform, and the serried ranks of worshipping spectators rock out to 'Teenage Kicks' and 'My Perfect Cousin'. Even the MLAs are clapping along enthusiastically, one or two of the more street-savvy confidently mouthing the lyrics. Impressive.

Gary Lightbody


The appearance of Gary Lightbody (whose parents hail from Derry, and are in the audience) has a similar impact, initiating an impromptu singalong as the frontman plugs a clutch of Snow Patrol favourites out on an acoustic, abetted by Johnny McDaid on keyboards. At 'Chasing Cars' time, hands shoot skyward, arms sway beatifically, and Lightbody quits the mic stand for the audience alone to do the singing. Magic.

Two appearances by Dana (one, naturally, for her Eurovision-smashing 'All Kinds of Everything'), a cameo from The Priests (the fact that one of them's from Ballymena causes MC for the evening James Nesbitt considerable hilarity), and a cultural mash-up of Irish dancing with Ulster-Scots pipe accompaniment, are among the concert's other stand-out moments.

Topping everything that's gone before is, however, the second coming of Coulter at the evening's conclusion. No nostalgia this time, however, for the songsmith has been busy looking forward, and 'A Bright, Brand New Day' is duly premiered to cap the Sons & Daughters celebrations.

For all the new song's immediate melodic memorability (a Coulter trademark), its lyrics lack the sharply observational edge of 'The Town I Loved So Well', relying overmuch on aspirational platitudes. Its anthemic qualities, however, will guarantee you hear it constantly as this City of Culture year unravels.

This was a long, at times emotional evening: a heart of stone would have been needed to resist the wave of applause and affection that billowed forth spontaneously, when news that peace architect and son of Derry John Hume was present in the audience.

Sons & Daughters, brilliantly co-presented by BBC Northern Ireland and Culture Company 2013, proved one thing incontrovertibly: that Derry-Londonderry spawns prodigally gifted performers, of all ages, types and preferences. This was their moment in the national and international spotlight, and it cast nothing but credit and reflected glory on the Maiden City.

Highlights of the Sons & Daughters concert will be aired on BBC One Northern Ireland on Saturday, January 26 at 10.30pm. Satellite viewers in the UK can watch the concert on Sky channel 953, on Virgin on channel 863 and on FreeSat on channel 957. It will also be available shortly after broadcast on the BBC iPlayer.

Phil Coulter