Rachel Coulter curates an evening of spooky song and storytelling at the Bangor Open House Festival
If ever an event was well named it is the Open House Festival, which, in the 15 years of its life and under the inspirational management of Kieran Gilmore and Alison Gordon, has opened doors into a whole host of new and unfamiliar musical experiences while building a warm, friendly atmosphere shared by artists and audiences alike.
Open House has grown from a modest programme dovetailed onto the 1999 Belfast Festival at Queen’s into two full-scale festivals and a year-round series of concerts in the city. Not content with that, however, Gilmore and Gordon have turned their attentions closer to the place they call home.
The Bangor Open House Festival is now in its second year and is already proving a phenomenally popular addition to the cultural programme of the North Down seaside town, with most events sold out in advance and long queues a familiar sight at venues.
In keeping with the festival's slightly off-the-wall reputation and vintage-styled good taste, the venues themselves carry their own individual ambiance, from the tiny rustic Beach House in the flower-strewn gardens of Cairn Bay Lodge B&B to the deck of local skipper and yarn spinner Brian Meharg’s boat Ocean Crest.
Then there is the hallowed sanctum of Bangor Abbey and the members’ lounge of Ballyholme Yacht Club, and the upstairs room of one of the town’s oldest seafront hostelries, The Windsor. Who would have imagined that, at the top of the Windsor’s perilous, much-trodden staircase is to be found a wonderful, colonnaded room, divided into two levels by a wrought iron spiral staircase and ornate gallery?
Softly illuminated by fairy lights, coloured lanterns and flickering candles, the space is the ideal choice for Bangor’s Ghost, an intimate cabaret evening of songs, poetry and spooky tales delving deep into Bangor’s rich and eventful past.
The production evolved from a bright idea which popped into the head of Rachel Coulter, guitarist and vocalist with local band Farriers. Coulter thought it would be fun to delve into the history of her native town, a history she admits she knew little about.
When the planning for the first festival in 2013 began, she shared what was then a half-formed notion with her fellow committee members – who include Bangor writer Colin Bateman – and they told her to go ahead and do it. So she did. Second time around, Bangor’s Ghost has gathered real momentum and in the half-hour before the doors open there is a scrum for seats and a long queue of optimistic punters looking for ticket returns.
Inside, the packed audience squeeze around small tables and instant new friendships are forged over glasses of the black stuff and dinky little bottles of tepid Chardonnay. Everybody seems to know everybody else and a palpable sense of community and camaraderie builds even before Coulter steps forward to do the introductions.
There are no stars on the bill and, with one notable exception, all the performers are Bangor born or bred, knowingly capturing the genteel manners and traditional social mores of this ostensibly affluent town, as well as a sometimes turbulent history, which is often forgotten or disregarded.
Duke Special – whose only direct link to Bangor is a summer job on an ice-cream van on Ballyholme beach as a teenager – may, arguably, be the best known performer involved, but the stage is a completely level playing field from which no end of pleasant surprises will flow in the two hours that lie ahead.
Proceedings begin, and end, with music. Farriers have a devoted following, which is growing apace. Coulter, Stephen Macartney and Kate Squires on guitars, viola and vocals have crafted a creamy blend of harmonies and fine musicianship, the content of many of their self-penned songs deriving from the landscape and heritage of North Down.
They present a couple of numbers from their forthcoming new album, as well as a gorgeous a cappella solo by Coulter, inspired by an early morning stroll through Bangor Abbey’s graveyard, where she stumbled upon a stone dedicated to Captain George Colville, whose ship sank at sea off the nearby coast.
Poet Moyra Donaldson captures some lovely moments from her schooldays, first as a small child imagining herself to be a magnificent horse, then as a hair-tossing teenager, aspiring to the heights of glamour.
Donaldson's highlight is a beautiful poem centred around the plight of the ship Eagle Wing, which in 1636 headed across the Atlantic from the port of Groomsport with 140 Presbyterians on board. Heavy storms caused it to turn back. One life was lost, but another began: a baby born on board and christened Seaborn. Donaldson poignantly recaptures the drama from the point of view of the baby’s mother.
Loud laughter and prolonged applause are the rewards earned by Bangor stalwart David Lennon for his muscular singing and storytelling, alongside two outstanding musicians, Marcus McAuley on mandolin and the quite brilliant fiddle player, Bronagh McClean.
Lennon is endlessly conversant with every nook and cranny of Bangor’s history and geography. What he doesn’t know he seems able to ad lib with cavalier conviction and authenticity. From Bangor’s massive role in the 1798 Rebellion to the travails of Columbanus and the human sacrifice in the fields of Flanders, his rich voice adds drama and authenticity to these landmark historical narratives.
Bangor girl Cherrie McIlwaine has been presenting late night music programmes on Downtown Radio and BBC Radio Ulster for a long, long time. Most of her contemporaries in the audience have grown with her, revelling in her faultless musical tastes and soothing, smoky-voiced presentation.
No mean actress, she draws on all her broadcasting and stage experience to deliver some perfectly-judged readings of love poems, arch social commentary and a quite delicious critique of Bangor gossip, taken from a poem discovered recently in a time capsule, lurking under the floorboards of a Victorian house on Gray’s Hill.
McIlwaine adds her own amusing anecdotes about growing up in the town and of never having recovered from her best friend Julie falling into a late-night conversation with none other than the gorgeous Cat Stephens, who had been playing a gig in the town and was relaxing in a solitary swing-boat out at Pickie Pool.
Duke Special is then in supreme form, relaxed, genial and treating us to some unforgettable nuggets of his creative genius. For some reason, his witty song about the exotic Rita de Acosta and her string of rich, elderly husbands sounds a discordant note amongst some female members of the audience, but it is impossible to resist his sweet melodies and tangential vision, based around colourful characters and unexpected stories.
As the final minutes tick by, the Duke steps away from the piano and takes a seat at the harmonium for a mock-solemn anthem with which he bids his ‘parishioners’ goodnight and safe home at the end of a thoroughly entertaining evening.
Bangor Open House Festival runs in various venues until August 31.