As festival season swings around for its annual stop in our collective minds, tonight saw the inaugural performances of one of Belfast’s more beloved gatherings. Women’s Work, which doubles as a celebration of women in arts and music, as well as providing guidance and inspiration for those that need it, begins tonight. The Empire Music Hall plays host to four acts to kick off the week’s proceedings, with some of the best in the north taking to the stage to ensure that the celebrations start off correctly.
First to grace the crowd is singer and BIMM graduate Gemma Bradley. A rarity in a scene dominated by indie rock quartets and techno heads, Bradley is as comfortable performing solo in The Empire as any act I have seen. A fluid performer, with R&B, pop and soul-infused vocals, there is a raw authenticity to her sound. Lingering in a lounge constructed from jazz and pop templates, it is almost frightening how good her voice sounds in a live setting, emphasised as it is by her electro-acoustic accompaniment. Her velvet sway has a magnetic quality to it, with every eye in the room glued squarely on her performance (I’m only aware of this by the virtue of the few seconds I allow myself to look at my notepad, afraid as I am of scribbling like a maniac), transfixed by her performance. With skills that already demand a the rooms total attention, reggae-tinged intonation and a sublime flow, it is hard to not to see the innate star-power of Bradley. Truly one of the best talents on the island.
Next on stage is noise collective blxxd, led as always by their impish god of mischief Syeva Bondarenko. The brainchild of the former Little Arcadia member, the group have become known for their propensity for pushing boundaries and using experimental electronic methods during their performances. Tonight is no different, opening with a tune racked by big noise, electronic pulses and heavy riffage. What begins as a mini Prodigy concert quickly retreats back into the liquid aural colourfest (see ‘Silk’ for examples). Bondarenko’s unique brand of self-described “pretty” colloid beats, wavey electronica and spacey guitar hooks have earned him a cult following amongst both musos and normies alike. A Chinese puzzle box of interlocking influences and rhythms that fit together to paint a seamless picture of vibrant instrumentation, blxxd switch smoothly between cavernous barrages, sub-nautical pop and claustrophobic bursts of pop rock. A cacophony of noise, some natural, some found, some created, that is an exhilarating thing of beauty when unleashed live.
Next on the list in rising alt-pop star ROE. Fresh off a number of festival performances (including one in which this humble writer believe she blew everyone bar Lightbody & co. off stage at Ward Park 3), the Derry-based talent brought her one-woman show to the stage with masterful results. Taking to each song with a confidence as loud as her percussion, each dark lick is sodden with drama and tension. Her set feels like a constant crescendo, a hulking gorgeous monster of alt-pop explosions, neo-soul vocals and pop rock stomps, that has the crowd balanced on the balls of their feet. The maturity of her composition comes through in a variety of ways, be it the ironic, playful sneer of ‘Hey Thomas’ or the anthemic honesty of ‘Down Days’ (which was her newest song until last Friday’s ‘Girls’), all of which ring out from her cherry red guitar with a vital bounce. Her dexterous navigation through soaring choruses and witty lyricism is a true treat, and it was no different tonight.
Finally comes the main event. Jealous Of The Bird’s seem to have all the making of Irelands next great musical act: the look the sound, the universal appeal (“They are fucking class” – Help Musicians NI source who wishes to remain unnamed), the birds are every bit as good as you’ve heard and then some. Few can combine their menagerie of alternative funk and flair, riotous riffs and headbang-inducing harmonies. Their set tonight doubles as a sunshine and smile generator, showing flair (as always) for the dramatic and an indelible charm. The driving bass and limb jerking percussion of ‘Blue Eyes’, the indie-folk sway of ‘Marrow’ and warm rock of ‘I Feel Like Kafka’ feels both nostalgic and groundbreaking, with each deserving its own unique kernel of attention. It is with genuine annoyance I find myself taking notes, as it forces me away from the action itself, nearly missing lead guitarist Danny McLelland saunter around the stage, like a tiger who has spotted the fattest gazelle that has ever walked the earth, before tearing into another blinding breakdown.
I feel confident in making a hill on which to die: if you don’t like what you hear, then you simply don’t like music. They make it that simple for you. Hits and fan favourites rattle off like old friends, pulling at heartstrings and pressing all the correct buttons, with the low croon of frontwoman Naomi Hamilton directing you gently down the path to a goji berry scented nirvana. Bringing their set to a close with a rendition of ‘Plastic Skeletons,’ which is guaranteed to have 45 of the best seconds of any night it is played at, the group exit to a chorus of applause and cries for more. The only way in which the festival should have been kicked off, all four acts set the tone early for those who follow.