Soul Ambition Sofa Sessions

Singer-songwriter Tracy Dempsey leads an array of performers in the Ulster Hall foyer

Culture night is an odd thing. Odd in a good way, you understand, but odd all the same.

For one blissful night a year it’s Norn Iron alright, but not as we normally know it. Friday night watering holes that usually fill with work-weary drones suddenly bubble with art in all its many splintered forms.

Punters who would normally run a mile from a cultural confrontation find themselves nodding along with beats and smiling appreciatively at things they'd probably cross the road to avoid most of the time.

It’s an event that extends its feel good feelers right across the country, but you can really feel its impact in our capital city. Whisper it softly, but Belfast feels remarkably European when culture night rolls into town.

The place to be for full immersion in this city-wide sea change is the Cathedral Quarter, of course. Yet while that undeniable hub buzzes like a hyperventilating bee hive as the night unfolds, an early evening crowd gather on the pavement of Bedford Street for a city centre taster of the treats to come.

Soul Ambition Sofa Sessions is a cool little concept that’s been growing in the mind of Belfast-based singer-songwriter Tracy Dempsey for some time now. Originally conceived as a compact and bijou cabaret session hosted from the comfort of her own front room, the gig has graduated to the Ulster Hall for this mightily successful Culture Night spin off.

The premise is simple. Take over the foyer of the Ulster hall between 5 and 6.30pm, open the doors wide to the passing public and put on a cross section of musical and cultural delights for said public to delight in.

It’s clear from the bemused bakes on many of the besuited office honchos who pause by on their way to train stations and town centre car parks that it’s the sheer novelty value of such a performance that initially stops many of them.

Northern Irish soul purveyors Manukahunney blast through 'River Deep Mountain High' as I arrive, and a better way to kick start proceedings is hard to imagine. With a well-worn red leather sofa behind them, Manukahunney stand framed in that famous hall way like some kind of street corner soul review.

In quick succession they roar through punchy versions of 'Rescue Me' and 'I Heard It Through The Grapevine' with impressively drilled intent. In some kind of act of cultural sympathy even the sun has come out, which is good news for the performers stuck in that famous frontage – stopping rain-drenched pedestrians is a hard gig regardless of the quality of the music.

The retro soul of Manukahunney is followed swiftly by the slick reggae stylings of Rassie Ai. Assured and boasting the kind of beats you rarely get to enjoy on the pavements of Bedford Street, his short set is fresh and even induces a little Jamaican flavoured dancing from the gathered crowd.

Next up its a little hip-hop street dance courtesy of local collective Ajendance. It’s a surreal sight for sure, but a welcome one all the same.

The musical mix shifts again for a few laid back Appalachian tunes from Adele Ingram and Meghan McWilliams of multi-instrumentalist group, Wookalilly. A rendition of 'Wayfaring Stranger' echoes out into the early evening traffic, and Dempsey draws proceedings to a close by inviting a brace of Manukahunney singers back on stage to accompany her on 'Make You Feel My Love'.

It’s a fitting end to a splendid little event. As a way of sampling Belfast’s undeniable artistic talent Soul Ambition Sofa Sessions deserves praise. As a way of getting people in the mood for Culture Night this well-judged variation on a theme is just about perfect.

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