Belfast City Blues Festival – 23/25 June 2017 Print E-mail
Written by Mark Ashby and The Dark Queen   
Saturday, 01 July 2017 04:30

When you think about the travails it has undergone and some of the obstacles which have been placed in its path over the years, it’s pretty amazing that the Belfast City Blues Festival has made it as far as its ninth iteration. But, here it is – and all because to the dedication and determination of one man, director Seamie O’Neill, to make the event succeed, often against seemingly insurmountable odds. It’s something in the blood of us Belfast men: we just put our heads down, get on with the job in hand and bulldoze our way through to get to where we want to be…

 

So, here we are, almost a decade down the line, and we’re all still here… and ready for another weekend of some of the finest Belfast musicians – a group who can easily stand toe to nose with the best out there: after all, this is a city with a close affinity with the blues, and a city where it is still very much alive in its back streets and alley ways, as three days of around 50 gigs in 22 venues (predominently in the city’s historic and renascent Cathedral Quarter) once again proves.

 

The Steve Payne Trio 1

 

Fresh off the train from an all too infrequent overnight trip down to Dublin’s fair city, we head straight to Kelly’s Cellars, one of Belfast’s most historic (and, in its past, notorious) pubs, and better known for roots music of a different kind – i.e. that of the Irish traditional ilk. It’s three o’clock in the afternoon, a gentle breeze is dissipating the sun and the square outside (which itself is located between the rear of a Tesco store and a chapel) has been converted into a makeshift arena: it may seem an unusual setting to kick off a festival, but its symbolic of the energy of the people behind both the event and the city itself…

 

In between the tourists and the businessmen knocking off early on payday Friday, a healthy crowd of aficionados have gathered for the first show of the weekend, which sees Bristol roots guitarist Steve Payne (known for his work with the likes of Dylan and Loudon Wainwright III among many others), his Welsh sidekick and renowned “gun for hire” Paul Hobday and local harmonica virtuoso Billy Boy Miskimmin, who for this session is also doubling up as third guitarist in between tearing it up on the harp.

 

The Steve Payne Trio 2

 

It’s very much a relaxed collaboration, with the three musos interacting easily with each other and the largely attentive audience. Passing delivery trucks and roadsweepers serve as a minor distraction, but the easy grace of their performance, which is understandably punctuated by elongated individual workouts, especially from Hobday, shines through as the festival starts off in a genteel manner, accompanied by a couple of nice cold pints, setting the mood for the rest of the weekend.

 

SP3 had started a good two hours ahead of any of the other shows, so it is a quick stroll through the nearby shopping centre 9and an all-important stop at the cashpoint) to the Hudson Bar, another venue which emphasizes the entrepreneurship of Belfast folk… the bar itself is tiny, fronting onto a half-derelict street in the once vibrant Smithfield area (once the site of the city’s second market and throbbing with secondhand bookstores and pet shops, now characterized by tacky porn shops), but over the years has expanded into the adjacent mall, the abandoned shops converted into fast food outlets for hungry patrons and the main walkway now an attractive live space.

 

Belfast Bullfrogs 1

 

The sound of music as we arrive bodes well, but it transpires that the Belfast Bullfrogs have got off to something of a false start, as they’re only finishing off their soundcheck… ah well, time to check out the range of alcohol on offer, before settling for the old faithful of two pints of Magners. Twenty minutes later, with the GoPro cameras set up to record the session, we’re back in action with this inter-generational six-piece and their rather soothing brand of solid, harmonica-led southern-tinged blues rock. The result is a solid mix of original material and a few standards, with the atmosphere enhanced by the frontal trio combination of two comedians with a straight man in the middle, bringing some typical Belfast banter to the between song moments.

 

Rab McCullough 1

 

But, soon it’s time to move on – after all, there are six gigs running simultaneously, and we want to catch as much of the action as we can: and it’s going to be impossible to pop into every show, even if only for just a few minutes… So, with Beesting Braidner and The Rev Doc laying down the whole delta kit ‘n’ kaboodle (sic) to a packed and highly appreciative crowd in the cramped confines of The Spaniard and Otis And The Elevators invoking the spirit of The Blues Brothers to an equally rammed and roaring Cloth Ear, we head to catch the last half hour so of one of both Belfast’s and the festival’s hardest working artists (this is the first of five shows over the weekend!)…

 

Rab McCullough is in full flow as we elbow our way into the appropriately named Bootleggers… Belfast’s very own maestro of the slide guitar has changed the line up the band slightly since we last caught him, with the insanely talented young Terry McHugh having recently joined on bass and the man himself having a new sparring partner in South African émigré Cuan Boake on the harp – and, boy, can he blow up a storm! As we arrive, Rab decides to throw his new bassist a curve ball by calling out ‘Rollin’ And Tumblin’’, which they’ve obviousln not rehearsed – but, that’s the nature of the blues: it’s often all about improvisation. After an initial stumble or two, and a bit of help from drummer Marty McCloskey, he quickly picks it up slots right into the groove.

 

Rab McCullough 2

 

It’s the nature of McCullough: he’ll just improvise an intro and expect the band to know what the tune is and follow him… but, of course, he surrounds himself with nothing but the best musicians, and the combo possesses a both a tightness and a fluidity which only comes with people comfortable in each other’s company… and for us, with the hours behind us, it’s the perfect end to the first day.

 

The second day is dominated by a tribute to Rory Gallagher, headlined by one of the great man’s natural successor’s Pat McManus. We’d been advised to get there early, and we’re glad we heeded those sage words, as we arrive the venue rammed to the doors – and it’s only just approaching 1.30pm!

 

Willie Byrne 3

 

Blackwood are already in full swing, with a solid set dominated by faithful renditions of many Gallagher/Taste standards - nothing too adventurous but more than enough to set the mood – before Willie Byrne delivers a virtuoso performance of high energy blues rock, with a good mix of his own tunes intermingled with the expected Rory tributes, including a fiery ‘Walking By Myself’ (which he also dedicated to Belfast’s own Gary Moore).

 

As the weekend proves on more than one occasion, many blues musicians have a fairly laissez-faire attitude to things like set times and lengths: but, the venue have other ideas, as there is another event on later in the evening, and so a the tightest of schedules is being adhered to, virtually to the second, and so ‘The Professor’ and his band take to the stage at exactly the unearthly time of 3.45 for a succinct 75 minute set.

 

The Pat McManus Band 4

 

“We’re gonna start with a few tunes and take it from there,” he says, with his typical cheeky smile, before taking the unusual step of kicking off with a traditional-style lament (reflecting, not for the last time, his own folk music heritage), which feels like it is personally addressed to each and every person in the room. ‘Smoke And Whiskey’ rocks things up a bit, before Pat introduces another twist – two instrumentals back to back: but, this is a celebration of the art of the guitar, so why not.

 

As he blasts through the rowdy ‘Straight Forward’, a quick glance around the room shows that the audience seem to be divided in two: while there are plenty of McManus diehards present, there are nearly as many who look confused, standing with their arms folded, as if befuddled by the fact that he hasn’t played any Gallagher covers… his own tribute comes later in the set, with the uplifting yet regretful ‘Return Of The G Man’: but, Rory is probably looking down on him, encouraging him to pay homage to his legacy by ploughing his own furrow and sticking to a repertoire of original songs – and of those he has plenty… although, just when you least expect it, he drops a rowdy version of ‘Messin’ With The Kid’ into the latter section of the set.

 

The Pat McManus Band 7

 

As that dreaded curfew looms, Pat picks up a borrowed signature Gary Moore Les Paul for his personal tribute to the ‘Belfast Boy’ born just on the other side of the river. And there’s just time for an encore, and it only can be ‘Needle In The Groove’…

 

But, all too soon it’s time to think about hitting the road home – but not before we swing past the Kelly’s Cellars, where The Red Hot Roosters really have the party going, with bassist Ray Haller standing on a table and drummer Davy Bates obviously enjoying being back behind a kit again: so, time for a pint and a natter with these old friends before hitting the road home, tired but happy.

 

The first two days had presented major problems in terms of clashes: on the Friday, no fewer than six gigs were running parallel to one another, with the majority of Saturday’s shows coinciding with the Rory G tribute. The Sunday bill seemed easier to find its way around, with staggered start times throughout the afternoon – but, then, we were relying on all the bands actually starting at the advertised times, weren’t we?

 

Red Hot Roosters at John Hewitt 4

 

With the Cormac Neeson-fronted Unholy Gospel Choir delivering their mix of soul and blues covers in the Aether & Echo, and The Red Hot Roosters are rocking through their second, impromptu gig of the weekend, this time in the more intimate John Hewitt (the stage is so small that onld Bash’s kit fits on it, so Ray and Rob are out among the crowd, who are lapping it all up), we head back to Bootleggers, for the down south traditional delta-meets-old school rock ‘n’ roll of Rev Doc And Fat Lip.

 

The Rev Doc 1

 

One thing this year’s festival has highlighted is the number of supremely talented harp players we have in this corner of the Überverse: Rev Doc is yet another example, one of the vanguard of its proponents, and a player who can make his instrument take over from the guitar for solo spots so sublime you wonder why he even bothers having a six-stringer in the band! Doubling up on vocals, he also possesses a charisma and easy charm which even wins over who didn’t even realize there was a blues gig interrupting their Sunday afternoon pint, and the band are tight and expert at what they do…

 

With Lee Hedley doing his thang – with the harmonica once more to the fore – in The Cloth Ear and Ken Haddock perched in a corner of the courtyard across the road strumming his acoustic and entertainin the tapas eaters, we plunge back into the Cathedral Quarter and to the historic Duke Of York for what turns out to be one of the highlights of the weekend…

 

Kick The Bucket 1

 

It’s hard to believe, given the amount of incredible female singers there are on the blues scene, but it has taken us almost a full three days to find our first, and only, one of this year’s festival – but, boy, is Kick The Bucket’s Linda McLaughlin worth the wait… This young lady is a true talent, with a rich, deep voice which matches the band’s soul-fuelled southern-fried blues rock, with its vibrant guitars and punchy rhythms. The bar’s back room is filled with respectful and admiring fans, who hang on McLaughlin’s every word and the band’s every note. One of the few bands of the weekend to also sprinkle their set with a healthy smattering of their own tunes, KTB are a band we’ll definitely be checking out again in the not too distant future.

 

DD and The Delta Boys 4

 

But soon is off on our travels again, this time to the end of the entry and across the street to the Harp Bar, where our final gig of the weekend highlights the one small quibble I have about this weekend… and that is the fact that many of the gigs are held in public bars, which inevitably leads to crowds which are more interested in how much alcohol they can ram down their necks than the music itself. Fortunately, this is one of the few were this is the case…

 

DD & The Delta Boys definitely earn the title of the hardest working band of the weekend, this being their fourth show over the three days – and their third in less than 24 hours! Now, there’s no doubt that Dermot Donohue is a charismatic frontman, and knows how to work a crowd (albeit one made up primarily of stag and hen parties content to pay some of the most expensive bar prices in the city). But, maybe its tiredness on their part (or ours) but overall they are little more than a pedestrian pub band, and though tighter than a nun’s fanny it’s something of a comedown after some of the true quality acts we have seen over the weekend. Having said that, and wishing to end on a positive note, I wouldn’t mind seeing these guys in more amenable circumstances, as it could be a fun night out…

 

Otis And The Elevators 2

 

In summary, another great – if exhausting, especially in terms of running between the various venues – weekend, with some quality talent on display… Roll on next year’s tenth anniversary: should be some party!

 

PHOTO CREDIT: All photos © The Dark Queen/ Über Rock. View our full gallery of photos HERE.

 

All content © Über Rock. Not to be reproduced in part or in whole without the express written permission of Über Rock.