Auspicious does not do justice. Culture Night in Belfast, one of the biggest nights of the calendar year, completes its first decade. As my head bobs against the window on my train, however, I am drawn to the faces around me, Irish and British, immigrant and local, and crack a small smile as physical proof of a matter materialises around me – Culture Night is about the culture of Belfast. This is not a celebration of Irish culture, but the hundreds of communities and families that make our port city such a thriving, unique cluster. As I depart Great Victoria Street station and slip into the masses, my theory is confirmed as humans of all shapes, sizes and orientations fill my vision. Truly a night to be proud of.
I head first past City Hall wherein I hear the unmistakable whine of police sirens. I raise my hands in mock/completely serious surrender before approaching the source of this distraction. A large stage has been set up by the Inter-Cultural Community Development Foundation, wherein everything from Afro-Funk to House is blaring behind a group of MCs. I pause to grab a pulled pork baguette as the Nigerian delegation take the stage, all colour, pomp and smiles. A sizeable crowd has gathered as I pause under a tree to watch, content in my observations, occasionally joining in with claps and approving head nods. I think to myself that a scene like this, a group of locals jamming out to Nigerian house music, probably wouldn’t have happened ten years ago. An example of how far we’ve come in such a short time.
As I head down Donegal Pass, closer to the centre of the city and my first beverage, it is impossible to ignore the blacked husk of the Bank Buildings. A looming cloud over what should be the happiest night of the year, it remains a stark reminder of one of the darkest spectacles of 2018. Harsher still is the cordoned maze that fences off much of one of Belfast’s busiest thoroughfares, as navigating it ensures that the skeletal remains never leave your sight. I head for the sound of music, eager to distract myself and find some laughter amongst the ashes. I decide on Kelly’s Cellars, an iconic watering hole that is packed to the gills at this, the late hour of 6 pm. Ever present however are the ruins behind us. Perhaps this is why the city is alight with activity so early, perhaps amidst the political nonsense and smouldering history, the city needs a night of laughter to heal. I finish two pints in quick succession, quaffing swigs to the beat of the boron section of the lively trad band in the corner, before making my way further into the city.
Strolling past Customs House Square, I make my way through the network of food trucks and Ska bands that have taken residence by the Big Fish and enter the bowels of The Barge, a decommissioned sea vessel with a performance area in the hull. As I descend the stairs, the croon of East Belfast resident John Andrews growls through the speakers. The depths of this venue are cloaked in a lavender shroud and adorned with twinkling lights, the exact opposite of the gravelly vocals and comforting acoustics of Andrews. Finger plucking his way through a set of covers and originals, he entertains our small crowd, accompanied occasionally by a harmonica player in the background, alone on stage apart from a lone photographer who stalks past the discarded carcass of a six-pack of Heineken. The show ends with a remix of Johnny Cash and Eminem, which elicits both laughs and claps from the crowd. You don’t get this kind of show in Voodoo, especially not a free one.
My lo-fi cravings satisfied, I make a beeline for the Cathedral Quarter, bracing myself for the hordes that await me. According to Belfast Live, over 100,000 people were in the city and they all seemed to have taken residence in the Dirty Onion, perhaps for the Father Ted pub quiz occurring. For minutes at a time, I stood immobile, trapped by my own designs, a sardine in my own streets. After a sweaty 15 minute shuffle, I arrive at 39 Gordon Street to see the entire avenue given way to parties, beer trucks and raves. The bar in question, named for its location, is the site of two stages tonight. I, however, am interested in the outdoor set up in particular. I settle down, a Clonmell in each paw, eyes on the bustling crowd in front of me. Buoyant and energetic (and seemingly populated entirely by men with moustaches), this crowd is wrapped in their own stories, content to sit and sing underneath the canopy of bunting and fairy lights. Laughs, shattered glasses and cheers soundtrack a night headlined by The Mannerly Hoods, Anto and The Echoes and Mosmo Strange. A festival atmosphere descends as people dance to heavy rock beats and chat/shout with friends, heroes of their own stories for the evening. The three acts are bombastic and heavy, with each set bringing something new to the table, be it blues, garage rock or groove.
By the time the music has ended, much of the town has emptied. I walk back through the city centre, a litany of revellers beside me sinking into a late night fried feast or desperately arranging transportation for their way home. As I turn the corner from Bridge Street onto High Street, I see a group of performers from earlier leant against the fence, the ruins of Primark behind them. As I approach, they become more clear: faces of all shapes and colours, different accents and dialects, all regaling in the stories and laughter of the night. Shoulders are clasped and wordless melodies sung, as people of all nationalities come together in the one tradition that permeates the new face of Belfast: Unity. If that’s not culture, I don’t know what is.
Heading into the darkened Belfast evening for Culture Night for 8 pm, first on the agenda was the unusual spot of Riddel’s Warehouse. Located on Ann Street, and populated downstairs with an art exhibition, the main event was a performance by the Irish Video Game Orchestra. A dark and slightly dilapidated warehouse may seem like no place for an orchestra but on Culture Night some rules go out the window. Due to a long queue to get in and a big crowd upstairs, I sadly stayed only for a short while. Familiar sounding (but sadly unrecognisable to this writer) themes filled the space to an appreciative crowd, with few at the front willing to give up their prime spots too quickly. The wonderful sounds emanating from the Irish Video Game Orchestra in this unique setting was a good start.
From here, I made my way through the Cathedral Quarter crowds and snaked my way over to Kent Street, where the likes of Junk Drawer and Ghost Office were putting on an off-the-guide and off-the-radar show of their own. With the soundman in the back of a van and a tarp overhead, Wynona Bleach were doing their best to bring in those passing by on Royal Avenue with a typically blistering set. The last I saw the band formerly known as R51 was on stage at the Limelight, and here they are sounding just as at home. But, anyway here’s to the DIY spirit.
Again working my way through the crowds, my trip to the Oh Yeah Centre was interrupted by Dandelion Tea in a car park (naturally). The band, now seemingly firmly a three-piece, debuted their new single ‘Tin Man’. Appearing on the aptly named Groove Stage, they’ve still got the chops, most notably Mary Ann Farenden’s powerhouse vocals but the lack of percussion is a little bit of a dampener.
Beauty Sleep, by contrast, have indeed got a drummer of their own, with Ross Bickerstaff added to the ranks this year. The band sound as good as ever in a lively Oh Yeah Centre. Keeping with my usual Culture Night theme, it’s a fleeting visit with just enough time to enjoy cuts like ‘All In’. Happy vibes and Belfast’s only keytar (to my knowledge), they rarely disappoint.
The increasing size of the crowds and with it the prevalence of uninterested street drinkers this year prove to be a bit of a pain. Struggling to get into the Black Box to check out New Pagans isn’t fantastic but not the worst thing in the world. Earlier in the night, I was taken aback by the light show projected across the front of Saint Anne’s Cathedral. Yes, the changing lights all looked well but what left a bad taste were the three (!) Power NI logos that took up most of the scene. I understand in a world of arts funding cuts this is going to become a more frequent and probably necessary occurrence but surely the corporate branding could be scaled back.
If the corporate logos plastered over Saint Anne’s left a taste equivalent to Limelight’s chocolate tequila, what stood in Hill Street near Black Box was more like the taste of the shot on its way back up. Where street performers including magicians and choirs once stood in previous years, 2018 was the year of the luxury car showroom. I’ll take my cue from the brilliant Save CQ and not name the brand behind the promotional stunt, but it’s a reminder that as CNB continues to grow, more brands will latch on. The more selflessly minded venues, hosts and artists will likely be forced to rub shoulders with this sort of thing more and more. For what it’s worth, Save CQ have pointed out that the Hill Street spot was private land and therefore there’s surely little that could be done by Culture Night’s organisers.
I had some time for another wander before heading back to the Oh Yeah to check out Arvo Party for the first time. Making electronic music that is hugely enjoyable live while hard to pin down, Arvo Party attracts, and holds, a big crowd in the venue. Beats and layered sounds emanate from the low key one-man machine hunched on stage.
While Belfast was quite probably buzzing in venues all over (Rebekah Fitch in a surely still packed out Black Box?), I tried my luck at the full capacity Voodoo. Getting upstairs just in time to hear the last few tracks from Hiva Oa supporting heavy weights Girls Names. Hiva Oa are proving big hitters in their own right, and witnessing them amongst a big and lively crowd is an experience. The band delivered the goods, taking in the crowd’s energy and sending it back out multiplied by their own live enthusiasm.
I’ve seen Girls Names a number of times in the last months, from their BBC in-studio performance to their album launch in the Black Box and their 12th July (kulture nite?) show in… the Black Box. The crowd in Voodoo was unmatched in any of the shows and like Hiva Oa before them, they rose to it. Performing tracks from across their history, they didn’t put a foot wrong. Guitar based classics like ‘The New Life’ and ‘A Hunger Artist’ all prove to be highlights but equally tracks from their latest album are starting to find a home and an audience. A high energy set from one of Northern Ireland’s best current bands is a fabulous way to celebrate Belfast art and see in another decent Culture Night.