A who’s who of Northern Irish music was on display for a series of free gigs in association with Belfast’s first Creative Output showcase, hosted by Generator NI and Belfast City Council. During the day music industry experts from across the UK flocked to the city to share their expertise and experiences in a series of panels and meet and greet sessions. In spite of the stormy weather, Thursday evening saw music lovers brave the elements to show their support to the 43 acts on display across the eleven venues.
► Melanie Brehaut
Andrew WK Output talk
Generator NI really pulled off a major coup by securing Andrew WK as their keynote speaker for their ‘Output’ music conference. Known the world over as not only a “professional partier” but as a charming, insightful and intelligent dude, he was the ideal person to speak to the hushed and excited crowd he faced in the MAC.
Talking eloquently about a range of subjects such as his rise to fame, his lyrics, his role model (Santa. Of course) and his ‘f**k it’ attitude to the music industry, he exuded peace and tranquillity – quite a change from his raucous ‘party animal’ image from his videos and concerts. He answered a barrage of questions with kindness, joy and the kind of slow and deliberate wit that makes you wonder, “is he kidding or – ?”. This was most evident when, in answer to the question, “how do you respond to Gene Simmons stating that rock is dead?” he suggested that perhaps Simmons was facing up to the prospect of his own mortality!
Wrapping up his speech with a spirited keyboard performance of his biggest hit ‘Party Hard’, WK exited as serenely as he had arrived. Legend.
► Robert Brown
Joshua Burnside, White Male Actors, Travis is a Tourist, Hurdles, David C Clements & Emerald Armada
The fact that the evening showcases were spread across numerous venues caused me much concern throughout the day, as torrential rain bombarded the province. Thankfully by the evening (bar some minor flooding) the storms resided and music fans filled the streets of Belfast. My night began in Voodoo where Joshua Burnside and his brother breezed through a charming set that reinforces the notion that he is a real talent.
It’s no secret that Strabane and its abundance of quality bands have taken prominence in our coverage of the scene over the last 24 months. No surprise then that White Male Actors were on my hit list for bands not to be missed. Falling somewhere between their idols R.E.M. and Manic Street Preachers, the Strabane three piece’s new EP, Ghosts is full of big stadium anthems and sound just as impressive upstairs in the Hudson as they do on record.
A short jaunt round to the Oh Yeah Music Centre, presents the prospect of singer songwriter Travis is a Tourist. The venue is packed and Travis has come prepared with a full band. The addition of the extra instrumentation moves his sound closer to former band Colly Strings, treading that fine line between soft rock and pop.
After racing to make it round to the Duke of York it emerges that Hurdles haven’t even finished sound checking. A quieter period of touring seems to have done them good, they seem refreshed and ready to battle for the crown of best indie band in NI. With new song ‘France’ sounding all dreamy and Friendly Fires-esque I know where my money is going.
For regular readers you may be familiar that I’ve a particular soft spot for David C Clements, as you may have guessed he was the artist I was most looking forward to seeing. Not that he disappointed either. Unusually I think David actually suits solo shows as it puts all the emphasis on the swirling majesty of his voice. While there is no time for the epic ‘Hurricane’, it’s still a captivating performance that leaves many salivating for the long awaited debut album.
After much deliberation I plumped for the Emerald Armada to close off my busy evening of venue hopping and returned to Voodoo. As expected their following has turned out en masse and the evening finishes in triumphant celebration. I can’t get anywhere close to the stage to grab some pictures particularly during the spirited hoe-down of ‘I Don’t Mind’. Right now it is hard to argue that the Armada aren’t one of the most enthralling live bands in NI right now.
► Alastair Greyson
In An Instant, Callum Stewart, Hurdles & More Than Conquerors
Straight up, and straight in, In An Instant used every minute of their set to erupt into a loud, melodic explosion as they always do. And, as they always do, relying heavily on backing tracks to provide their signature sound, the only thing lacking was deviation from every other performance. This isn’t always a bad thing, as it’s always refreshing when a band sound as they do on record. Mark’s strong vocals and Ryan’s virtuosic guitar lines were commendable aspects to this set, driving the renditions of tracks from their EP, ‘Light You Know And Love’. The crowd recognised and sang along with each of their songs, and the band fuelled their performance from this. In An Instant quickly thanked the crowd and industry professionals then prepared us for a night of variety with one last song and a shout to the other acts. A great performance, however there’s nothing new to report; the band are still on top of their game since their career launched with Chordblossom’s Kickstart competition earlier this year, and I can’t see them disappointing fans any time in the near future.
Next up was singer-songwriter Callum Stewart, armed with his band providing the strength to power every one of his songs. Opening with ‘Anatomy’, a song notable for it’s George Harrison-esque elements of alternative rock, he and his band pave the way for the rest of his set in grand and loud manner. Although Callum’s vocals sound very different when trying to sing over more than one instrument at a time he manages to perform admirably in this setting, adding a different view to many of his classic acoustic tracks with lead guitar melodies supported by bass and drums – the classic band effort. This is not the Callum Stewart Belfast recognises, it is a very band-driven set. Callum’s vocals and passion show heavily throughout his set, such as in ‘Poison’, and as it comes to an end, he announces that his last track will be ‘Free’ – one which everyone was able to sing along to. A memorable way to end the set memorable sticking in the minds of those watching from their seats.
Having recently replaced their second guitarist Fearghal Breslin with Thomas Bannon, it’s safe to say that the crowd weren’t expecting Hurdles to be at their best. However, quite the contrary; this is the best comeback Hurdles could have hoped for since having gone slightly under the radar during the recording, writing, and liaising that the Oh Yeah Centre’s Scratch My Progress programme demands. Performing classics from last year’s EP, ‘Where To Start’, Hurdles win the crowd over immediately, easily enticing them to get off their seats and join them at the front. ‘Roadrunner’ was easily a crowd favourite, with many singing every word back at the band, and representing the music through what can only be described as interpretive dance. New guitarist Bannon was welcomed by the crowd too, once it was clear he subscribed to the trademark Hurdles brooding, cool disposition as he played his powerfully gentle style of lead guitar over each song. Hurdles represent the freshest brand of indie pop available, with dance anthems to post-hardcore breakdowns ornamenting their songs in new ways every time, surprising the crowd with yet more chances to go crazy. It’s no wonder this band are the subject of so much hype – an asset Hurdles will no doubt make use of in the lead up to their release of their new single ‘France’.
There was a lot of excitement, impatience and even someone falling over a table for no good reason in the interval before the headline act. More Than Conquerors put their fans out of their misery by taking to the stage and doing what they do best. Opening with ‘Pits Of Old’ and progressing through their NI Music Prize-nominated album ‘Everything I’ve Learnt’, the group portray an immediacy in their cornucopia of sound, primarily driven by awesome harmonies between Kris Platt and Jamie Neish. As Kris and Danny Ball decide to leave the stage and mosh with their fans to ‘Bear Knuckle Fight’, more variety in their performance becomes apparent – More Than Conquerors are an ever-developing group, keeping things fresh all the time, and do so here by adding impromptu breakdowns, improvised drum solos, elongated screams, and moments of harmony that aren’t present on the record. Always expressing deep lyrics, vigour in performance and the energy of a large hyena, this performance is no different as More Than Conquerors go just as berserk as the crowd – rightly so, seeing as it’s been months since their last Belfast show. Ending their set with a new, unnamed song, the band don’t disappoint. The new song is very alternative in every aspect, with odd rhythms and unpredictable melodies and very heavy with a harmonic chorus as one would expect. The band knew they were giving us a show to remember, and something to look forward to even if it leaves us with an unsatisfied anticipation of what is yet to come.
► Tanya Strowger
Ciaran Lavery, Callum Stewart, Travis is a Tourist, PØRTS
To kick off my night of music I headed to the Black Box to see Ciaran Lavery. Over the summer I had been to the launch of his latest E.P ‘Kosher’ in the main room where he played with a full band so it was nice to see him play solo for this gig – a great opportunity to hear the songs stripped back as they were written. Clearly Ciaran is at home on stage, creating a relaxed atmosphere with his warm and witty repartee. The songs are honest, emotional and heartfelt and his performance silences the crowd, everyone hanging on his every word. A brilliantly engaging set of old and new material proved to be a great start to the night, a popular opinion as the Green Room was packed, with more people outside clamouring to get in.
Next stop was The Duke Of York for Callum Stewart. In contrast to Lavery I’d seen Callum play solo earlier in the year and was looking forward to seeing him with a band for tonight’s gig. It was clearly a bit of a squeeze for the five lads on what was a very small stage area but that didn’t seem to hinder their performance. Callum has a strong and confident voice that suits his music and easily fronts a band. With so many guitar based indie bands on the circuit it’s great to see a band playing awesome pop songs. The considered arrangements and strong harmonies make these guys really stand out. Callum finishes the set with his first single ‘Free’, an excellent pop tune that is incredibly catchy and oh so chart-worthy. It’s clear to see Callum has a great talent for writing and performing and at 17 he’s definitely one to watch.
A short walk around the corner took me to the Oh Yeah Centre for Travis Is A Tourist. As a fan of his previous acoustic based work I was surprised to see an electric guitar feature for the whole set. In what is a clear departure from that singer/songwriter sound Travis showcased some new songs from his forthcoming E.P. A bigger sound reminiscent of The 1975 sets the perfect backdrop for him to open up his vocal and really go for it. Judging by this confident performance of new material it seems the difficult second E.P. might not be that difficult after all.
To finish my evening I made my way back to The Green Room for PØRTS. This seemed to be a popular venue for the night as it was jammed with music lovers and plenty of industry folk from the day’s events. Perhaps there was a rumour that this band were pretty good? They began their set with ‘The Devil is a Songbird’, a beautifully haunting song set to some rather interesting mobile phone work. If you haven’t seen them I won’t spoil it for you but safe to say it’s worth a watch! They went on to wow the audience with a superb cover of Moby’s ‘Why Does my Heart Feel So Bad?’ A great choice of song that won over those who weren’t already familiar with the band. As always PØRTS were superb. Their rapport with the crowd and the delivery of such technical and beautiful songs was a delightful end to a fantastic day. Roll on next year!
► Michael Madden
Exit Pursued by Bear, Autumns, Ships, Janet Devlin, Travis is a Tourist & PØRTS
From the more established names in the local scene like Best Boy Grip to relative newcomers The Clameens, the night left any doubters thoroughly reassured about the talent this region has to offer. On my own ventures through the city’s Cathedral Quarter I managed to experience a small fraction of the music on show.
First up was Exit Pursued By Bear, playing to a restrained crowd at Voodoo. The Limavady based band, mixing angst filled melodies with a Biffy Clyro soundscape, performed with the craft and chemistry of an act that’s had more live experience than their 2010 formation suggests. The clatter of cymbals and numbing bass greeted the crowd as it steadily filled the upper floor of the club. However, despite the novelty of guitarist Sean Mullan’s violin bow, the bands musical grasps at grandiosity were undermined by their reluctance to engage with the crowd. Likewise, lead singer Michael McMaken’s youthful appearance betrayed his competent vocals but befitted his quiet stage demeanour. It should be noted that this was at the night’s beginning with heaving rainfall battering and flooding parts of the city. With that in mind it’s understandable that the crowd needed some extra encouragement to move out from the shadows of their corner seats.
Upon my first few steps inside Black Box it was apparent that such encouragement had already occurred. I was greeted by end of set carnage from Derry band Autumns, with the crowd wrapped tightly around the on-stage excitement. By this point it was hard to tell what the white noise coming through the PA had sounded like before this climactic finish, but judging by the number of people on the floor, it was well appreciated.
Next up on stage was Dublin two-piece Ships playing their debut Belfast show. Contrary to the screeching jolts of feedback during sound-check, their waves of electronica billowed through the crowd as polished as a studio recording. The band’s professionalism was typified not just by guitarist/keyboardist Simon Cullen’s ability to create such a sonic space with his mammoth pedal board, but also by lead singer Sorca McGrath’s awareness to plug the bands LP. Clearly the day’s business showcases had some effect. Their set flew by with the band’s Berlin influenced sound, even endeavouring to cover a track by English Song-smith John Martyn.
If the local newspapers’ promotion for the showcase was anything to go by then the biggest name of the night was surely former X Factor finalist Janet Devlin. Of course that would not be the opinion of many of those in attendance, however many were still attracted to her set in the stylishly gauche Spaniard Bar. Whilst watching her and her acoustic accompaniment cut through new single ‘Creatures of the Night’ and The Cure’s ‘Friday, I’m in Love’ it’s apparent that the ‘X Factor finalist’ moniker which constantly precedes her is one which she is keen to ultimately escape. Any negativity aimed at her seems based purely upon her participation in the X Factor contagion and not on any specifically musical aggravations. Indeed she performed without fault and engaged in some bashful banter with the crowd. Her mainstream appeal may be lost on the lovers of more underground music, but she certainly did not seem out of place in this celebration of the Northern Irish scene.
After walking down the cobbled streets and past Bronagh Waugh, star of BBC’s The Fall, I gladly entered the candle lit warmth of the Oh Yeah Centre, which had, along with The MAC, been the epicenter for the daytime showcase. Playing was singer-songwriter Travis Gilbert’s vehicle band Travis is a Tourist. With the band rushing through a salvo of raucous indie, evoking The 1975’s tight jangle, the music was a contrast to the introspective folk I had initially expected. Gilbert’s voice was strong and he displayed a natural confidence in a live arena as he bounced from corner to corner looking like an image from Topman’s autumn/winter collection.
However this confidence did grate with the audience whenever he called those sitting at the back of the room to the empty space at the front, like a substitute teacher that every pupil hates. Gilbert, seemingly aware of this arrogant behavior, duly rectified the situation by later thanking the crowd and the organisers’ for including them in the night’s proceedings.
The final act I encountered was also the only one that I actively planned to see. County Derry band PØRTS demonstrated exactly why they were headlining the Small Town America/Electric Mainline residency in the Green Room. Over the course of the night I had heard so much talent, and missed out on plenty more but would still confidently declare them as the band on the Northern Irish Music Scene.
Beginning with Lead Singer/Bassist Steven McCool whistling into two iPhones, it was obvious that this band was a little bit different. Likewise when the swooning sound of this strangely concocted instrument hit our ears it was also obvious that this band is a little bit special. Their inspired cover of Moby’s ‘Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad’ furthered that feeling; McCool and guitarist Ryan Griffiths’ falsetto harmonies being particularly deserving of praise. Griffiths’ guitar work is also praiseworthy, with his presence being understated but technically vital.
With the exception of their set ender ‘The Few and the Far Between’, all traces of their Little Bear days were gone. And whilst it seems unthinkable to leave out songs as good as ‘The Night Dries Like Ink’, what appeared in its place was still euphoric (e.g. ‘In Summer’) and paved the way for what should be a brilliant debut album.
At this point I felt like I had heard as much as I wanted to hear, and although Oh Volcano beaconed from the Oh Yeah Centre, I was too tired, soaked, deaf and presumably broke from the price of the car parking in Victoria Square, to last the extra half hour. I’m not sure if it’s likely, in light of the budget cuts that the arts is facing, but I would like to suggest the Output showcase as an annual event in Belfast. An event like this can only help the bands, venues, fans, and ultimately the local industry in what could otherwise be a difficult few years. I’m sure that many of those in attendance last week would agree.