Blues On The Hill Festival
Saturday 23rd July 2016 – Dungannon
The Hill of the O’Neill’s unique position in Mid Ulster, which saw it used by the O’Neill clan to keep watch over the province since the 13th century, made it a sight of huge strategic, cultural and historical importance. It also made a fittingly regal setting for celebration of local guitar legends that featured in the Blues On The Hill Festival. The Dungannon event has brought top class rock and blues acts to the town for the past three years, although this year’s lineup was it’s most prestigious yet by some distance.
The organisers truly do their best to keep excitement bubbling over all day, with a record fair and the excellent ‘In Your Town’ Rory Gallagher exhibition making a return to this year’s programme, with local singer David McCrory performing an early afternoon set in Ranfurly House’s café. Kicking things off on the festival stage was five-piece Americana outfit Wookalily, fresh from their appearance the BBC’s The UK’s Best Part Time Band. Following them was local boy done good Denver McCord. Alongside backing band The Confessions, McCord delivered a set drawn from debut album ‘Confessions Questions and Tales’, released last winter.
Ronnie Greer is a true veteran of the Belfast blues scene, who has been turning in top quality blues and jazz performances across the country for several decades. Since retiring from his day job in the Belfast steel industry several years ago, his gigging has become more prolific, and the Dungannon audience were treated to a typically world class set from a band in fine form. Greer only got around to recording his first album in 2013, so his set was understandably reliant on covers for the most part, adding his own unique spin to standards from the likes of JJ Cale. Greer’s fluid playing style compliments the West-coast influenced playing of bandmate Anthony Toner nicely, with the experienced rhythm section of Alan Hunter and Colm Fitzpatrick providing a classy backbeat. The set was livened up when Greer was joined by frequent collaborator Grainne Duffy, who lent her understated guitar work and sultry vocals to several songs. Clearly they enjoy playing together, her powerful delivery complimenting well with Greer’s more wizened singing voice, with her staying on stage to the final performance of BB King classic ‘Rock Me Baby.’
Eric Bell might be best known for his Celtic-rock heroics as part of the original line-up of Thin Lizzy, but fans needn’t have worried about his pedigree within the blues world: a member of Van Morrison’s Belfast RnB outfit Them, as well as former Jimi Hendrix Experience bassist Noel Redding’s band. With the threat of a rain storm passing, Bell used his hour long stage time to display his full box of blues guitar tricks (raising his guitar above his head, tilting it so his slide would roll down the fretboard, was a particular highlight). Bell was in chatty form throughout, telling anecdotes from his time in Thin Lizzy. ‘I suppose it’s time to play my hit…’ he teased, before playing the unmistakable intro to ‘Whiskey In The Jar’. Even if Bell had never recorded another song, his guitar heroics on the 1973 hit would have ensured his place in rock n roll history forever. The evergreen standard brought much of the crowd to it’s feet, with the rest singing back every word. Bell showcased his mastery of slow blues in the number that were left, and although there was some disappointment that early Lizzy classic ‘The Rocker’ didn’t get an airing, the crowd that gathered round for photos with Bell after didn’t seem especially bothered.
Festival compere Ralph McLean may have extolled Eric Bell as the ‘finest Celtic rock guitarist of all time’, which despite being a great compliment simply isn’t true, especially when your set is followed by Johnny Fean. The lead guitarist and frequent lead vocalist of 70s traditional rock behemoths Horslips , Fean’s band (featuring Miami Showband bassist Stephen Travers) jaunted through Fean’s sizeable back catalogue as well as well as a number of classic rock covers. Fean’s opening run through traditional standard ‘King of the Fairies’ with blistering rock guitar was as exhilarating as ever, as were the ringing arpeggios of ‘Sword of Light.’ Some of Fean’s covers fared better than others: Johnny Kidd’s classic ‘Shakin All Over’ was absolutely electrifying, but ‘You Really Got Me’ felt overly blunt.
When you’ve written anthems like ‘Trouble With A Capital T’ it hardly matters, but Fean also found room to show off his bluesman credentials with a mesmerizing take on Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Black Magic Woman’ and Cream’s ‘Crossroads’. If Horslips had one defining moment, it was the centrepiece of prog-rock masterpiece The Tain, ‘Dearg Doom’. Its immortal riff is one for the ages, and couldn’t have been played in a better setting: based on an ancient O’Neill clan cavalry march, it’s was given a homecoming of sorts to a crowd on it’s feet, providing a fitting end to a festival that only continues to grow.