Across the Line 30th Birthday
Therapy?, Villagers, The 4 of Us, R51, The Divine Comedy, Saint Sister & SOAK
Monday 5th September 2016 – Ulster Hall, Belfast
Across the Line has become a bit of an institution. No longer a rebellious teen listening to Therapy? in his bedroom. At 30 years old, the show has been around longer than most of musicians who appear week in week out. Of course, current presenters Stuart Bailie and Rigsy were hardly going to let the occasion pass without fanfare, and thankfully a number of weeks ago a special one-off free show in the Ulster Hall was announced. With limited tickets and a guestlist packed out with plenty of important figures from the show’s history, those in attendance will have felt they were in for a treat. With the gig going out live on the show’s usual Monday night slot and being filmed for TV, it was certainly a big occasion.
Fast forward to the night itself, and one of Northern Ireland’s, maybe even all of Ireland’s, best venues was the host. The crowd fanned into the Ulster Hall in the build up to 8pm, with the tiered seating filled out with friends, family and previous contributors, presenters and producers. With a little bit of an introduction by Rigsy, and a probably unnecessary cheering prompt, the crowd waited in anticipation.
With introductions out of the way it was time for the first act of the evening, the frankly unmissable SOAK. Bridie Monds-Watson made quite a go of 2015, with her debut album Before We Forgot How To Dream nominated for the Mercury Music Prize and winning Ireland’s Choice Music Prize earlier this year. Tonight the packed schedule allows us only a short and sweet three song set from each artist. Backed by a drummer and guitarist, SOAK treats us to a one-two of ‘Blud’ and ‘B a noBody’. SOAK’s distinctly Derry tinged vocals float over acoustic guitar on the former, while ‘B a noBody’, aided by dual electric guitars in the mix builds to a big finish. The beautiful Ulster Hall is a fitting venue for SOAK’s music, providing a stunning but intimate setting. With a short chat to Bailie, SOAK introduces her cover song choice, Rainy Boy Sleep’s ‘Shopping Centre Song’. It’s a stirring and beautiful rendition, and a touching tribute to the personality and talents of fellow Derry songwriter, the late Stevie Martin.
After a short video message from Ash’s Tim Wheeler and some archived footage while some stage set-up takes place, the atmospheric folk two-piece Saint Sister make their way onstage. Consisting of Gemma Doherty and Morgan MacIntyre, the Dublin based duo utilise harp, the odd electronic flourish and the pair’s impressive vocals for their melancholic and enthralling set. Beginning with ‘Castles’, Saint Sister stripped back music is brought to life by the pair’s intertwining voices, with MacIntyre’s hand gestures and movements illuminating the song’s flow. The rather dark imagery of ‘Corpses’ is next before the band end on a tribute to The Divine Comedy. The beautifully reworked ‘Songs of Love’ was chosen by the pair before they found out that Neil Hannon himself would be following them on stage.
The melancholic elements of the first two acts are done away with for a time as The Divine Comedy‘s Neil Hannon brings a lighter atmosphere. Latest single and opener ‘Catherine the Great’ is typical; fully suited and perched impeccably at the grand piano, Hannon is in playful form. This carries over into his chosen cover, ‘Gloria’ by the oft-forgotten Them, the band that launched Northern Ireland’s own Van Morrison. A combination of audience participation on backing vocals and a performance dotted with humour leads to an unforgettable moment before ending with Rigsy favourite ‘Charmed Life’.
Much like SOAK and Saint Sister, R51‘s members were certainly not around 30 years ago as Across the Line began. The band are days away from the release of their second EP, and absolutely warrant their place on tonight’s impressive bill. Beginning with the monster ‘Pillow Talk’ from the debut EP of the same name, the band don’t look at all phased by the occasion. Their bombastic sound fills the Ulster Hall in a way the stripped back acts simply cannot, appealing to the younger side of the audience, a number of whom should know them already. The band opts for an unexpected but absolutely rocking cover of Damien Rice’s ‘Volcano’, with frontwoman Melyssa Shannon showcasing some impressive pipes while Matt Killen absolutely lets rip on the drums. The third and final song of their set is the first release from the upcoming No Chill EP ‘Elephant’, a typically heavy, layered track that will slot into their future sets with ease.
It’s another change of pace as Northern Irish two-piece The 4 Of Us prepare themselves. With the band’s closer to ATL’s beginnings than today, the duo are of a different generation to the new blood on show. With brothers Brendan and Declan Murphy both donning acoustic guitars they start us off with the quiet folk of ‘Sunlight’ before the second tribute of the evening. The brothers’ choice of cover is ‘Walk With Me’ by the north coast’s Henry McCullough who sadly passed away in June. It’s another sentimental moment on the night. The 4 Of Us end on the more up-tempo, foot-tapper ‘Mary’.
According to Rigsy, if he and his radio partner Stuart Bailie were to pick a wedding song for the two of them, it would likely come from the next act on stage, the rightfully highly-praised Villagers. Tonight it’s a solo acoustic performance by Conor O’Brien. Cutting a quiet figure on stage, O’Brien’s gorgeously unassuming rendition of ‘That Day’ has much of the crowd hanging on every word. Following it up with the soft-rolling ‘Courage’ is another triumph. Finally O’Brien ends his set with a song he wished he’d written, Van Morrison’s ‘And It Stoned Me’. Where Morrison’s powerful vocals often storm through the song, O’Brien’s gives us the most intimate moments of the evening. A single, isolated figure singing out to a big room with a close, attentive crowd.
Final tributes are delivered before our final performers. The number of people to thank after 30 years is of course long, but it truly is an impressive achievement by all involved to keep a radio show celebrating the best in Irish music going for so long. Plenty of cheers and applause greet the various names called out, and bands name checked. Finally it’s left to the legendary Therapy? to play us out. Relentless renditions of ‘Still Hurts’ and ‘Screamager’ bookend a cover of Ash’s ‘Kung Fu’. The band hold an important place in Northern Irish musical history, a point made well clear in their introduction by Mike Edgar, and it’s no surprise their short set gives a final boost of energy to many in the crowd.
With the end of the radio show’s two hour slot comes the end of tonight’s performance. The night was an apt celebration of 30 years of Across the Line, with performers ranging from the young blood of R51, to the critically acclaimed in Villagers and the legends such as The Divine Comedy and Therapy?. No doubt for those involved, the celebrations will not end here. Here’s to 30 more.
The full show is available for viewing through the Across the Line website.