A bustling, fruitful year on in NI music since last year’s Output guaranteed that this year’s would be unmissable. Though much of it, sadly, is to be missed. With twelve venues, forty-eight bands, and one evening, such is the nature of a densely overlapping showcase schedule. As someone who is terrible at time management yet simultaneously terrified of missing out on anything, I set out simply to take the night as it came.
Beginning at the Oh Yeah Centre with Joel Harkin’s evergreen melancholia, drenched in fuchsia lighting to match a fresh hot-pink restyle of his signature bowl cut. As first up in the same venue that had hosted the drinks reception, much of Harkin’s set was missed, at least by myself, due to unfinished discussions, though he, as always, held his own.
Slipping out and on to the Black Box, Gender Chores performed with an ominous, purposeful spirit. One of the tightest performances I’ve seen by the punk three-piece, they growled through their politically and socially in-tune takes on injustice, the anxiety-inducing fast-paced guitar parts of ‘Toast Sandwich’ mimicking the life under capitalism their lyrics outline. Both on bass and fronting the band, Sam McCann’s stage presence was poised and intentioned. Maybe she’s out of line writing songs about gender inequality and rape culture, because #NotAllMen. Maybe she’s perpetuating the problem, she muses. Or maybe, just maybe, “It’s about time the patriarchy got a taste of its own fucking medicine,” she contends.
Parked still at the Black Box, the wildest and most welcome surprise of the evening for myself came from 90s influenced alt-pop bunch Wynona Bleach. The band have been known to me in a personal sense, being dear friends of friends, though my only musical encounter with Wynona Bleach was fuzzily catching the tail end of their BBC Introducing set at The Speakeasy well over a year ago. Essentially, as I’ve discussed conspiracy theories over cans with the band more times than I’ve seen them play (3:1), the grunge-pop quartet’s live act had, until Output, slipped right past me. And the joke is well and truly on me, as much was clear from the moment Melyssa Shannon’s deftly ethereal vocal runs took hold, at once in a league of their own yet somehow still perfectly in place with her bandmates’ instrumentation. A fact that’s in itself quite a feat taking into account the impeccable and unmatched prowess of Jonny Woods on guitar, whose scuzzy riffs blazed marks through the venue. Two equally matched beasts, complimenting each other rather than competing. As the band jammed their way through the hits (namely the dangerously infectious, perhaps addictive ‘Sugar’) and new songs from the approaching LP, I spent much of the set wide-eyed and wondering how I’d make up for lost time with the band, and whether dyeing my hair fluorescent lime green would be a step too far.
A ceremonious close at the Ulster Sports Club saw Careerist play a painfully short but sickly sweet set to bring down the curtain to a full-feeling house. To attribute the volume of people accumulated in the USC to the afterparty rather than to Careerist’s own merit would be a disservice. The indie rockers gnarled their way from Hot Cops’ era ‘Dumbbo’ to last year’s pivotal debut LP ‘Weird Hill’ with immeasurable slacker charm. A masterful sonic display so characteristic of Careerist that I’d expect no less, nor be able to ask for more.
Year after year Output is proof that throwing a bunch of free gigs into a small part of town is a guarantee of a lively night. And this year’s was no different. Following on from a day full of panels and talks aimed at the industry professionals making their way to Belfast, possibly for the first time, and for the people looking to make their way in our own growing music industry, the showcases are the draw for the regular punter.
Joel Harkin in the Oh Yeah was my first port of call. A wash of hot pink contrasting with songs on the housing crisis, love and family, Harkin is fully at ease on stage. Asking the audience what sound an ocean makes (it’s sssh by the way), is one way to deal with the rowdy atmosphere free gigs can bring.
Then started my night of madness, trying to see as much as possible. There’s quick hop round to the Dirty Onion to witness the dying seconds (and I mean seconds) of Leo Miyagee‘s performance. Another time Leo! Then back in time to watch Sasha Samara light up the Oh Yeah centre. Her music career is still very much in its infancy but her bright stage chat and onstage demeanour has attracted many a follower. Equally adept opening her set on stage and solo with her ukulele, it’s a treat to witness the band fall in and propel her songs into bigger pop territory.
Over at the Chordblossom meets Stendhal stage outside The National, Reevah is no doubt winning hearts as well. Her showstopping cinematic number is going to be something to behold when it gets a release. Here, it’s the understated piano, drum swells and Reevah’s sumptuous vocals amongst some moody lighting that bring out the best in her and her band’s performance.
Junk Drawer open their set inside Bullitt with award winning song ‘Year of the Sofa’. Hypnotic, wrenching and relatable, its merely a warm-up in an instrument switching set that draws a good crowd. A band on form, readying for the release of a debut album. I manage to squeeze in a glimpse of Kyoto Love Hotel on the rooftop with their heading turning synth-pop before catching a bit of Wynona Bleach again proving why they’re such an incredible live act in the Black Box. Fears, back down in Bullitt, is a great draw and rightly so. One Constance Keane stands half in light, half in shadow with varying shapes and textures projected beyond her to the back wall. Songs like ‘Fabric’, performed here, have made Fears an artist to watch, with every release worth waiting for. The soft beats, scattered samples and synth lines flow with Keane pausing motionlessly between verses. An artful performance that could have so easily been lost in a busy Output atmosphere.
Witnessing a little of Problem Patterns, I realise as incredible as ‘Mediocre Man’ sounds, there’s no way I’m making it through a busy crowd to the front so I retreat to the Dirty Onion for Cherym. Who just happen to be my highlight of the night. Equal parts rip-roaring and fun, Cherym back the promise of their recent releases with a live show that never falters. Their Output set is especially good. The poor BBC may need to give the sweary stage chat a hefty edit, but the three-piece aren’t ones to care. ‘Abigail’ is delivered with particular verve, or maybe that’s just me enjoying our deserved single of the year. They tear through pop punk favourites including ‘Take It Back’ before bassist Nyree Porter jumps into the crowd swings her bass around and smashes it on the floor. A worthy end to a wonderful set and another celebratory Output.