Hunkpapa with support from Benjamin Smyth
Thursday 15th March 2018 – Limelight 2, Belfast
Armagh four-piece Hunkpapa have earned themselves an increasingly popular reputation in a short space of time. Establishing themselves over the past year, they’re headlining and selling out sizeable venues while racking up streams on some great tracks. Last Thursday saw Belfast’s Limelight 2 take its place as the latest setting for their live show.
Shortly after the doors opened, the support for the night took the stage. Another Armagh native, going by Benjamin Smyth tonight and perhaps better known as Ben of BRØR, is first on the mic. It’s a short opener from the songwriter, with songs that are honest and soulful. Playing through a collection of originals, there’s tracks including BRØR’s ‘We Won’t Remember’, reflective and sadness tinged, it’s typical of Smyth’s music tonight. Sadly, aside from pockets of attentive listeners, the excitement has gotten the better of most of the audience who don’t really tune into his set. To put it politely. Joined by brother and Hunkpapa’s Johno on drums for the last couple of songs, which seems to raise the tempo particularly for the final track which ascends to a rocker with the brothers in sync.
During and following this first set, the room has begun to fill with both revellers and anticipation. The tag of a local gig is instructive but can conjure the image of a typically smaller bar and crowd but with a 450 strong crowd awaiting Hunkpapa, tonight is far removed from that. The band leap into action from stage right, a vibrant image of red jackets, ponchos and tuxedos across the band’s front line. Opener ‘Lost in a Wild’ is a strong choice, with the band joined by Robocobra Quartet’s Chris Ryan on keys. By the time the track gets to its singalong ‘hey-ah’ refrain, the enthusiasm from both performers and crowd is huge. The track’s big beat and kinetic energy fans out through the full venue.
Blasting through big tune after big tune, the likes of ‘Baba’ race by in a flurry of singalong moments, smiles on stage and guitarist Johno Whittington’s flurry of hair. During freer moments, tonight’s honoury member Chris Ryan, usually confined to a drum kit, acts as an onstage cheerleader, his dancing image just visible in his corner of the stage. There’s little let up, even in the slightly smoother ‘Rodeos’ with its picture of the American west. Fuelled by frontman Weston Clendinning’s rhythmic acoustic guitar, it’s a reprieve from the faster paced moments but brimming with easygoing hooks, Whittington momentarily replacing his guitar with a pint. New release ‘Burlesque Warriors’ and its frenetic drumming and shouted choruses goes down as well as any.
While the band’s performance never wavers, the crowd’s attention does. The presence of a band on top form jars with a crowd who seem more like students on a big night out than gig lovers, something that can unfortunately mar an experience. From loud chattering to merch selfies, it adds a strange and not altogether endearing vibe to proceedings. That’s not to take away from Hunkpapa who are on their way to bigger heights.
With only a handful of tracks released, it’s no surprise to see a smattering of new ones amongst the well known songs. ‘Cappuccino’ may be the highlight of these, slotting in perfectly alongside the rest, a big number with energetic playing and catchy guitar lines. After introducing their ethos of just ‘enjoying life’, they play their only cover, ‘I’m Feeling It (In The Air)’, which they described on Across the Line as an ‘Irish club bang
‘Obstructive’ and its catchy as hell chorus brings with it audience jumping, ‘Half Alive’, begins at Clendinning’s request, with a hushed crowd before its Springsteen storytelling and singalong chorus kicks into play. One of Hunkpapa’s more melancholic efforts but no less exciting in a live setting. Shouts of one more tune were hardly likely to fall on deaf ears, with the band merely departing to the side of the stage. They return, first with Clendinning playing through the first chords of ‘Hunkpapa Dakota’ before the band join for a suitably exciting conclusion.
On a night when the band put in a big performance in front of a full crowd, with a few eejits, they’ve taken things to a new level. Releasing great tracks alongside putting in big live performances in bigger and bigger venues, there’s no signs of hesitation, merely supreme confidence. The band are enticing audiences in a similar way to Northern Ireland’s Brand New Friend who may offer them a blueprint of success to come.