Katharine Philippa, R51, Sister Ghost & Vokxen
Thursday 17th November 2016 – Loophole, Berlin
When I was fifteen or so, I saw Sunset Boulevard in the Grand Opera House, Belfast. Clinging to the male lead’s leg, the tragic silent movie star, Norma is dragged screaming across the stage. It’s a scene fraught with tension. The audience is very, very quiet. Then from somewhere in the stalls a thick Belfast accent shouts, ‘Typical bloody woman!’ The audience erupts. The tension is broken. The play goes on but people are smiling and shaking their heads. ‘That’s a cracker.’
It was, I would later learn, a very Belfast moment.
Last Thursday four Northern Irish acts flew to Berlin to play in the Oh Yeah! x LOLA event, ‘Belfast to Berlin’ at Neukölln’s Loophole. They weren’t the only sons and daughters of the ‘Old Smoke’ to make the trip. Northern Irish accents abounded, and you couldn’t throw a Moy Park chicken nugget without hitting someone who was a friend of a friend back home. Evidence of the iron will of the Irish ex-pat to support any goodness that comes out of our small, rainy rock.
I’d forgotten how chatty Belfast crowds were, how familiar. Melyssa Shannon of R51 compared the venue’s crusty interior to the front room at a university party, and the gig-goers seemed to agree as they bantered easily with each band. A broken guitar strap during Sister Ghost’s set prompted R51’s Johnny to jump on stage and reattach it. When his set was then cut short by the arrival of the police, there was a round of metaphorical back-pats and calls to play on. They did. We ain’t afraid of no Po’s.
The first band up was Vokxen. This vocal-strong four-piece brought dark pop stylings with danceable disco beats by drummer, Jayne. ‘We’re pop and we’re proud,’ said keyboardist/lead vocalist, Claire McCartney when we chatted outside in the surprisingly mild Berlin night. They should be proud. Their vocal harmonies are sublime; the songs well-crafted. The bite of Debbie McCormack’s guitar fills out Vokxen’s sound and adds some necessary grit. It’ll be interesting to catch them in another year or so when the gloss of being a relatively new act has come off and they get a little wilder on stage. Synth player, Kat Hepworth summed up the expectations of the band when asked how it felt to play in Europe’s sexiest broke city. ‘I was hoping it would be exactly like this. Proper underground Berlin.’
Sister Ghost was next up. Shannon Delores O’Neill is a masterful frontwoman, with an impressive mid-shred back bend and vocals that would have stripped the paint off the walls. If there was any. The four-piece smashed out their flavour of 90s inspired indie rock, sounding every bit influenced by Shannon’s heroes such as The Breeders, Veruca Salt, Sonic Youth and Mia Zapata. ‘I find it really humbling when people tell me they like my voice,’ Shannon told me. She had better get used to it.
R51 took to the stage after direction from LOLA’s Jonny Tiernan for the ‘fastest turnaround of all time’. Berlin has strict noise pollution laws with hefty fines for venues that breach the ten o’clock limit. For a five-piece, R51 did admirably and were soon set up and ready to rock Loophole’s cosy backroom. R51’s truncated set was exceedingly tight, with a rhythm section that didn’t drop a beat. Before they went up, Melyssa Shannon talked to me about confidence issues on stage. ‘I find it really hard to be a front-person.’ Her reservations were invisible when she took the mic however. Clear, open vocals and a closed-eyed, energetic performance make her a natural frontwoman. Alas, their set was brief due to the arrival of the police, but they did manage to squeeze a few more songs out and satisfy the baying of the assembled Belfast-heads.
Perhaps the most seasoned performer on the line-up, Katharine Philippa was the last act of the night. Her set-up is part Regina Spektor, part curiosity shop. The keys sounded gorgeous under her deft instruction, while her hands danced ‒ magician-like ‒ from floor tom, to FM radio, to miniature cymbal. She is a confident performer and took her set at her own pace, pausing once to restart a loop when she thought she was out of tune. She told me touring was ‘emotion driven and energy driven’ and that a busier schedule could result in burn-out for her. I can see why. Her set was charged and strangely private, with a collective lean-in from the audience trying to get closer to the alchemy happening before them. When she broke the fourth wall after her final song and thanked the audience, you realised she had been talking to you all along. ‘Human minds with other human minds, and it just so happens this communication is through song.’
During Belfast to Berlin and afterwards when I watched the bands and crowd mill around with unselfconscious smiles and calls for where the next drinking spot was, I thought back to Sunset Boulevard’s Norma and the Belfast-bred wiseguy in the audience. It’s been over five years since I’ve lived in Northern Ireland, but the warmth, talent and humour of the place travels as well as it ages.
And it’s generous: the event was generous, the bands joyful and the audience open-armed. Whatever the opposite of Tall Poppy Syndrome is, Belfast seems to have it. We so want each other to do well. The Oh Yeah! Centre is of course a huge part of that, with Charlotte Dryden receiving call-outs constantly from the stage. R51’s Melyssa Shannon says of the centre, ‘They’ve done so much for us. So many opportunities have come through it. It’s good to have them on our side.’ Oh Yeah! in many ways has tapped into the scrappy Northern Irish hunger for brighter, bigger things. And weren’t we blow-in Berliners lucky to share in it for just one night?
All photos by Shane Pilon, courtesy of LOLA
Maggie Devlin is the Northern Irish frontwoman of Berlin based band Party Fears