Spectrum Festival 2015 – The Emerald Armada, Joshua Burnside, New Ancestors, Loris, Hot Cops, R51, In An Instant & Echo Raptors
Friday 3rd July 2015 – Mandela Hall, Belfast
The summer months in Belfast bring in a quiet spell for the local scene. Students head home, others jet off on holiday and of course the Twelfth looms. All this can lead to a dearth of gigs. Spectrum Festival however has been a notable exception to the rule, outside of the usual summer festivals around the country. This year, in the Mandela Hall, it was another line-up filled back to front with some of the best musical talent from Belfast and beyond.
First on the eight act bill is Belfast rock & rollers Echo Raptors. With an extensive line-up ahead of us it is an early start for the band, taking to the stage not too long after the Mandela Hall’s doors open about 6.30pm. Understandably there’s not a huge audience to play to, but those in attendance certainly give the four piece their attention. The band’s own brand of rock & roll takes its lead from the likes of britpop such as Oasis. The band work through tracks fast and slow including ‘She’s so Free’ with plenty of confidence. When lively frontman Philip Rainey unburdens himself from his guitar, that confidence turns to swagger. The band ends their set with a lengthy powerhouse of a tune. With the track swerving through varying tempos and volumes, at times bringing a tinge of psychedelia and at times a bit of funk. Think Stone Roses. It’s a loud and proud way to end a set that would have gone down very well with a bigger crowd.
At large scale events like this there is always bound to be technical problems and unluckily for In An Instant they were the unfortunate victims. Despite the half hour delay the sheen is still well and truly there. As expected it is a typically empowering performance by the band who have been remarkably quiet of late. The bold stadium-esque vibes are typified by a resounding performance of ‘Something Right And Real’ fronted by the dramatic Mark Hegan.
Next up is a band that have been talked up by anyone who has witnessed them live. R51 released their much anticipated debut EP ‘Pillow Talk’ in March to plenty of praise, not least from us here at Chordblossom. The band open their quickfire set up with ‘Pillow Talk’ from their EP of the same name. It’s a great introduction to the band. The quieter verses and bridges boosted by the strong chorus and an alternative rock sound that’s both accessible and inward-facing, with the band happy to indulge their own dreamy sonic leanings. Their set explores a range of sounds including a couple of injections of heaviness such as ‘I Hate That Too’ which without doubt showcases their love of the Smashing Pumpkins. Sadly their set is criminally short due to the earlier technical problems.
Another young band making waves is Hot Cops. The highlight of a great year so far for the band has got to be their performance at BBC Radio 1’s Big Weekend in Norwich in May. Tonight they take to the stage after R51. It’s not hard to grasp where the band come from musically and aesthetically, think the likes of Nirvana or Pavement. Their slacker vibe, for better or worse, is emphasised by their set which is as close to a garage rock jam as we get all evening. The standouts are ‘Fallout’, with that memorable bass intro, and ‘Six’ which is leading the charge for the best track in their arsenal. Bassist Chris Ryan repeating the mantra “Oh baby twenty feet tall” while Carl Eccles makes a noisy racket of feedback is an aural pleasure.
LORIS are now a different kettle of fish from the band that launched their debut EP at the end of 2015. Gone is the double instrumentation and perhaps crucially Michael Mormecha (Mojo Fury) has joined the ranks. That addition is most keenly felt on ‘Rush’ where it sounds like Frances has become the lead vocalist of Mojo Fur or ‘Fire’ which is tantalising cross over.. Free to express themselves, even older tracks like ‘Yeah’ and ‘Crazy’ take on a more energised feel with the latter nearly converted into a floor filler of dance anthem. A slick set is rounded out by a switch of personnel and equipment as Chris swaps the drums for Mike’s keys/synths for new song ‘Let’s Get Busy’. Their live show warrants the four piece’s reputation for being one of the hottest bands in Northern Ireland right now and the prospect of new music is tantalising.
Like LORIS before them, New Ancestors have also transformed their line-up recently and have become a fully-fledged four piece. As well as the cosmetic change, there is also a sonic one with the band moving away from their soft alternative folk roots to a more rocky sound. To emphasise that point there is not an acoustic guitar in sight at spectrum. Many will feel that the move is a step in the right direction for the band citing latest single ‘Annabelle’ as an example (surprisingly absent from the set) but the odd stripped back moment would work wonders for their live showing. That being said ‘If You Let Me’ sounds great regardless of format and perhaps if their set hadn’t been cut back we would have been treated to that killer new single.
In the talented songwriter department Northern Ireland can scarcely get better than the penultimate artist of the night, making his return to Belfast. Over the course of a few releases Joshua Burnside has displayed mastery of the songwriting craft, with clever lyrics that espouse both traditional folk and Burnside’s alternative twists, plus music that incorporates a range of instrumentation. Tonight Joshua, on a borrowed guitar, is joined solely by his brother Conor on drums. While his studio releases make full use of various instruments Burnside seems completely at ease with this potentially limited set-up. Burnside uses the set to explore new songs, with the possibly controversial opener warning “don’t paint my pavement red, white and blue”. There’s some great new tracks here, all with his familiar alt-folk sound. ‘Old Red Eyes’ harkens back to childhood, and indeed the two brothers show childlike playfulness as their jam out on instrumental sections. It’s a real testament to Burnside’s talent and popularity that ‘Black Dog Sin’ is sung right back to him, prompting a friend next to me to ask if it’s a cover. Not many local acts can assert such a presence on stage, though if any were in that bracket, it would surely be tonight’s headliners.
The Mandela Hall is a big stage for any band to conquer yet there was no apprehension or fear towards The Emerald Armada being up for the challenge. They literally shook the foundation of the Empire on St. Patrick’s Day so this was the next natural step for them. The extended opening of ‘Sons Of’ is the perfect opening, with its long instrumental parts giving the audience plenty of time to show their adoration. ‘Glasses Raised’ provides the an opportunity for some bouncing on the stage from bassist Gary Lynas, however the opening notes of ‘Strangers’ cause the first real sense of euphoria of the evening. It seems there are very few who aren’t familiar with the lyrics and Neil Allen is expertly serenaded.
New single ‘This House’ sounds even more epic live and really encapsulates the bands folkish tendencies against their knack for writing catchy choruses that only encourage you to stomp your feet. There is real adulation in particular towards Tony McHugh who manages to produce epic guitar solos that never feel out of place with the rest of the band. The final song before the encore is the nearly chill inducing ‘I’m Coming Home’, inspiring a mighty hoe-down for the those seeing the evening through to its conclusion. After the shortest of escapes off stage, the Armada return with ‘Everyone’ and in a rather fitting manner invite members of the other bands on the bill to join them in what is an engaging if messy finale. Fair play to Spectrum for offering EA the chance to take on a such a significant headline slot, they well and truly grasped their opportunity and one can only hope we will be seeing them in the Ulster Hall next…