American comedy preacher brings his anti-consumerist campaign to Belfast's Corn Market with choir in tow
It’s a glorious August day in Belfast and so I’m shivering under the spitting drizzle in the Corn Market watching a man in a fetching suit railing against the evils of shopping to a gaggle of uncomprehending but enthusiastic retail therapists.
It’s not a message the burghers of Belfast would be keen to endorse as we struggle out of recession, and it’s odd to think that the Reverend Billy is joined in his assault on the small businessman by flag protestors and the Parades Commission.
I’m being disingenuous: the good reverend has no beef with the small businessman at all. In fact, I suspect 'think locally, act globally' would be one of the supporting tenets of his beliefs. It is the reckless, headlong pursuit of consumption – which used to be called, in less enlightened times, gluttony – which is the problem, back when it was not seen as the ultimate aim of a robust economy.
Billy, railing against the modern cultural consensus, actually believes that stockpiling a load of old useless old tat is a bad thing to do. Everything you know is wrong! His choir arrive to back him up bedecked in veils and leather basques – it’s like the 'Ashes to Ashes' video in living monochrome.
As with all al-fresco art happening’s in Belfast, nothing happens until the street-sweeper goes about his business and he pays particular attention to detail today, circling the Corn Market and leaving a wake of liquid behind him like an enormous gastropod. The choir to talk among themselves.
Then the Rev is here and he’s street-tuff, a ball of energy in a crumpled linen suit and stack heels. He moves around the square like a boxer, weaving and twisting, the sandy grey quiff bobbing up and down. He is a peculiar mix of Morrissey and Bill Clinton, though we are spared squonking sax solos at least.
'We’re celebrating life on earth,' he declaims. 'Our honeybees are going extinct!'
He then introduces the band: 'This is the Honeybee-lujah Choir.' And we’re off, because the Honeybee-lujah Choir is a crack gospel unit and they are testifying. It is irresistible, compulsive and genuinely subversive.
No one can possibly disagree with the righteous power of eco-gospel. The Miss Havisham chic begins to make sense too, as what I took to be dried flowers reveal themselves to be dying bees clinging to the beekeeper’s gauze, coloured funeral black like a widow’s weeds.
Throughout the Rev takes a back seat, happy to pivot and clap, shouting the occasional encouragement and performing variations on the 'running man' dance move. The choir are excellent, five-part harmonies and electric piano sending shivers up the spine, though it’s often difficult to make out the lyrics – something about the middle-east here, a brief mention of fracking there.
But there is no such difficulty when the Rev takes the mic and starts proselytising, fire and brimstone seeping from his imagined pulpit. 'We are activists who sing. Going around the world and asking people to think about the message of our song. The devil is upon us and we gotta rise up.' It is the devil of unchecked commerse, of voracious planet-devouring capitalism, of whom he speaks.
Billy unravels slightly with 'We gotta stop shopping so much', looking about him: 'I’m in a shopping centre, aren’t I?' A brief moment of clarity, but I don’t want moments of clarity from my hellfire preachers, I want a splenetic, pop-eyed mad man who is going to scream himself hoarse. And the good reverend delivers. (The crowd thins slightly at this point.)
'We gotta save some lives today,' he bellows. 'The folk in Stormont are in bed with the gas and oil men, dating them, getting them drunk! Don’t let the poisons come here and take your water from you. Can I get a hallelujah or am I staring at my own face in the bathroom mirror?'
As the choir break into a song about honey-bee colony collapse disorder owing to the continued use of neonicotinoid pesticides, Billy describes how this poison affects the sophisticated navigational ability of the bees, eventually breaking off into the crowd to actually portray the bee, screaming 'Where’s my hive? I can’t find my hive!'
I find the Reverend Billy utterly enthralling. There is a commitment here, a strong message, however garbled, about radically re-engaging with the world. He means it, man. His 'gospel yeh-yeh' sound is sweet honey that sugars the bitter pill. As Billy says, as the pantomimic mask drops momentarily, 'We’ve got to be a new kind of species: Homo sapiens, you’re killing the earth.' Testify.