I need to write this. I need to write this before I forget everything that’s happened, before it gets lost in a wave of July. And July has been A Lot. If you’re reading this and wondering why I’m not speaking about the Hammer & Tongue UK slam final and the recent Verve news, that’s because they are July things and belong in the next blog post, although the Verve news was confirmed behind the scenes before July. Confused?

Every month is A Lot at the moment. April was one of those months I just had to get through day-by-day because of massive fatigue. I was filling in several applications simultaneously when I found out that I’d been longlisted for the Saboteur Award for Best Spoken Word Performer along with several people I hugely admire. I’m never sure how I feel about public votes but honestly, that’s because I always do terribly in them. I don’t have people power. But… these people voted for me! These people recognised something in me that was working hard and was improving. That’s incredibly important to me. It felt at the time like one of the best things to ever happen to me, even though there was a dark shadow on it. Isn’t there always?

I’d been toying with plans for a while. Post-pandemic plans. Plans of living in a gorgeous community with like-minded folks when community meant anything again. When social could be social. My ideas were half-assed, as lockdown dreams tend to be. A city. A cool city. But then my ideas gradually began to take shape. A city with a university, to give me some institutional structure. A creative writing MA. Wasn’t I thinking about that last year? Hadn’t I vaguely explored the idea of doing it in Belfast? Belfast has an excellent MA, after all. But I wanted to try somewhere else. I badgered a friend for a reference and applied to Bath Spa and Birmingham then tried to forget about it.

Other things happened. My poems in Anti-Heroin Chic and Stone of Madness were published. Each poem contained a small typo. These typos were absolutely my own fault and come from using the same document to edit and submit. Let that be a lesson. But having poems published online meant I could start taking part in TopTweetTuesday on Twitter and you know, against all odds, people have begun liking my posts and following me. It’s the little things, isn’t it? I received my copy of the CAP anthology and got acceptances from Kissing Dynamite and Pink Plastic House (forthcoming in September). I feel I’m doing a lot better, acceptance-wise than I was last year. I also had a poem longlisted by The Rialto and along with my earlier longlisting for Butcher’s Dog I began to feel I was getting somewhere.

It’s roughly around then that Bath Spa got in touch and asked me to attend an online interview which, of course, happened the day before I started in my new part-time job, because nothing is ever simple. And the interview was good! They said my poems seemed like they were designed for the page, that they seemed mature. That… had I considered that I might be overqualified for their course? Yes, I had considered that, to be honest but I didn’t think they would agree. They agreed. I am pondering that.

I also had to reallocate some of my funding which I had earmarked for a trip to Leicester. The trip technically would still be on as the event is still happening but when Stobart Air went into liquidation and my flights got cancelled, it made it a lot trickier. Had I still been unemployed I feel I would have went for it but a new job and two trips and the Seamus Heaney Summer School in a month would have knocked me for six. I dropped out of the event. And, you know, I’m not sure the event really cared. I asked if I could defer my place until next year. They said no. Some of the reallocation is going towards books so I’ll have lots of reading material this summer.

What’s that you’re asking? What’s the Seamus Heaney Summer School? Well, it’s a week-long poetry course taught by the people behind the MA at QUB. I generally see this stuff as not for me and too expensive, but I had some more funds to reallocate because the Edinburgh Fringe looked unlikely to be happening in person, so I put the money towards the SHSS (and some sound equipment for live looping, but more about that in my next post). The SHSS consisted of editing workshops, 1-1s (with Padraig Regan, Manuela Moser, Dane Holt, Scott McKendry amongst others) and lectures on different aspects of poetry. I felt like a valuable member of the feedback-giving crew. I felt respected. I also felt exhausted, but, well, that’s life. I made notes on all the advice I was given and am slowly applying it to my WIPs.

Did I gig? I also gigged. I had a wonderful night at Incite (by Forum+) being spooky and exploring some new ideas/work about sexuality. I was a little less spooky at Lime Square Poets, but still mildly unsettling. I also open miced at Allographic, Dear Listener, Tonic, Yes We Can’t, Orchard Speakeasy, Studio 3 Arts, Grizzly Pear, Scribal Gathering… I attended several workshops (Red Sky Sessions, Mark Granier at Irish Writers’ Centre, Caroline Bird for Lyra Festival, Tina Sederholm, Safiya Kamaria Kinshasa) that honestly, were all very close together and I probably should have arranged my schedule a bit more wisely, but that’s life (again).

Chaotic post gets even more chaotic when I remember that my interview in BND Magazine was published and I received my copy of the magazine, my interview on David Ralph Lewis’s blog was put up. I had a photoshoot (technically three photoshoots with three photographers but I’m only really counting one) with Debbie Deboo and got some amazing shots from it! I shot a poetry film with Frontier Pictures and although I haven’t seen the finished product yet, the edits are very exciting.

I’ve majorly cut down on slams this year but I finished off my first weekend in work since March 2020 with the Belfast Book Festival slam, which I’ve competed in five times and placed second in twice. And I managed to win it for the first time! I haven’t received the trophy yet as the previous winner still has it, but I feel sure I’ll see it soon.

As for the University of Birmingham? They didn’t invite me to interview. No, they just made me an unconditional offer. I have a decision to make…

Hello! It’s time to remind you all/myself of what happened between January 1st-March 31st in my creative world before my brain swallows all the accomplishments and convinces me I imagined them. I generally write these as status updates but now that I have a website designed by Ellie Rose McKee I figure there’s no harm putting them on the blog and tying the blog to the website, or getting Ellie to do that because I have no idea how to. The overall answer to what’s been happening is ‘not a huge amount’ because I’ve been resting, writing and reevaluating some stuff but I guess I can chat about that?

I’ve cut down on open mics again, being more specific about which ones I attend, choosing ones that I find welcoming and emotionally nourishing and that preferably have slots of more than three minutes. Trying to fit my poems into three minute slots is actually beginning to make me genuinely unhappy, which is a strange thing to realise, but there it is. Who wants to be racing a stopwatch all the time?

I got some funding! I was awarded a D/deaf & Disabled Artist Support Award from the University of Atypical which I’m putting towards several things, including my new website! I was also awarded funding by the Individual Emergency Resilience Programme fund from ACNI, which will help with housing/living costs that this past year has racked up. I also was granted a free year’s professional membership at the Irish Writers’ Centre which means that they consider me ‘professional’ according to their criteria? Wild.

I am absolutely cutting down on slams (I think I did 25 last year!) but I managed to win a heat of Hammer & Tongue Cambridge slam, qualifying me for their 2021 regional final. I’m trying to aim more for feature slots though and featured at Allographic, Word Central Manchester, Imagine Festival, First Fortnight Festival and the aforementioned Hammer & Tongue Cambridge supporting Sam J. Grudgings. At the last gig I brought out a few new pieces that I had deemed to be ‘too weird’ to do anywhere else and honestly, the audience response was so kind and (I believe) genuinely enthusiastic. One of those really nice gigs, you know? But it makes me realise that I hold myself back at some other places, doing the ‘normal set’. Obviously sometimes that’s the right choice. But maybe not always? Although… what is a normal set anyway? Is this the year in which everyone finally starts to be themselves? Is this the year in which we escape the people who hold us back?

I’m also working on my workshop experience, teaching a workshop at Allographic and honestly, really enjoying it. It wasn’t perfect, but I’ve spotted a few things that I could do better next time. It’s all progress!

In terms of submissions, I’m still submitting to places. I think my work is improving and tiered rejections seem to be backing this theory up. I have a poem in the Northern Irish CAP anthology which was launched a few days ago, as well as work forthcoming in Stone of Madness and Anti-Heroin Chic. I was poem of the week on Bella Caledonia a couple of weeks ago. I also have a poem longlisted for Butcher’s Dog which I’m told is a HUGE deal! I’m in a couple of feedback groups and while it’s a bit of an alien environment to me and I feel like the sad, strange weak link, I’m finding it interesting enough to keep going.

Future plans are to keep submitting and keep editing. Keep reading and performing. I have a headline slot with Lime Square Poets on 29th April and a little interview coming out probably before then. I was offered an overseas gig this summer but it was sadly cancelled. Still, it was lovely to be considered! Will I do NaPoWriMo? Probably a little, but not get obsessed with it. I have a few other things to do this month which will get in the way. No, I SWEAR I won’t get obsessed with it.

First published on Giggingni.com

Canada’s Bryan Adams last sold out Belfast’s SSE Arena in May 2016 and by the looks of the car park queues, streams of people waiting to get their bags searched and Glider drivers telling people it would be quicker to get out and walk than wait for the traffic to clear over the Queen’s Bridge; enthusiasm for him hasn’t waned in the interim. It’s the first night of his Shine A Light tour; his fourteenth studio album that he’s releasing on 1st March and he can’t wait. “We could be here a long time,” he jokes, “I have fourteen albums! Well… thirteen, but fourteen in a week.” We don’t split hairs here; we let him have the larger number. We’re just glad to see him starting his tour here.

And it starts with a roar. Specifically, the visuals of his face in profile swing around to reveal Adams full-faced, red and roaring at us and then he’s onstage suddenly, with ‘Ultimate Love’ from the 2017 album Ultimate. Newspaper headline visuals hit us as the song pounds on. Only being of a 2017 vintage, it’s never going to really get the crowd going though. ‘Can’t Stop This Thing We Started’ produces a singalong although Adams relies on a call-and-response that no-one necessarily knows… but they try. ‘Run To You’ feels a bit thin instrumentally until lead guitarist Keith Scott brings out the electric and the song soars, Adams pointing at us and saying “I’m gonna run to YOU!”

The upbeat rock atmosphere is broken by the opening chords of ‘Heaven’. Adams doesn’t even need to sing the opening verse as hen parties all over the arena explode. He comes in at the chorus with no backing singers; just us and we do him proud. There’s a huge thank you owed to DJ Sammy’s 2002 cover version of the song for familiarising a post-1984 audience.

We know there’ll be an obligatory section focusing on the new album and the title track ‘Shine A Light’ goes by relatively painlessly. ‘It’s Only Love’ introduces Tina Turner, who… sadly can’t be with us this evening. “But we’ve got Keith!” who – along with drummer Mickey Curry having been with the band since 1983 – treats us to some superior noodling, and some unexpected bum-wriggling during ‘You Belong To Me’ after Adams tells us to shake any part of our body. The band really did owe it to us to show us that’s okay, and show us they do: those that can come to the front join Adams and turn their backs to us, lifting jackets to show some suit-clad buttocks.

If there was a song this crowd wouldn’t need the lyrics to, it would probably be ‘Summer Of ’69’. But the lyrics are resplendent on the screen, tattoos on a naked body with nipple shots adding to the risque mystique surrounding the song’s subject matter, a long-running internet debate. It’s the turn of Gary Breit on piano to shine as the rest of the band is quiet and only Adams plays acoustic guitar for ‘Here I Am’ leading into an acoustic ‘When You’re Gone’ minus the Mel C and the earlier-than-expected ‘(Everything I Do) I Do It for You’. You can just feel the crowd welling-up, apart from the crowd-member who decides to quiz his girlfriend throughout, asking “Which film is this song from? Who played the Sheriff? I’ll give you a clue, he died last year,” in maximum neighbour-annoying fashion. Adams is blessedly out of earshot and takes his time over the song finale, simply because he can. Applause dies away to become ground shaking foot-applause; some of these people have waited since 1991 to hear this song live.

‘Somebody’ is a driving force, clearing away the emotional cobwebs, “Somebody like you!” is an arrow Adams aims towards us and we lap it up, loving that so many of his song lyrics can be directed at us. Scott disappears and returns with a classical guitar which he makes sing in the Spanish-tinged ‘Have You Ever Really Loved A Woman?’ with – thank goodness – film trivia person not having seen Don Juan DeMarco.

We’ll admit it: large portions of this evening are very middle-of-the-road. ‘The Only Thing That Looks Good On Me Is You’ grouped so closely with ‘Cuts Like A Knife’ and ’18 ’til I Die’ are MOR rock heaven, but Adams has his fair share of MOR fans and they’re not complaining at the slightly-too-similar songs blending into each other. Still, we respond thankfully to the pace-change of ‘Please Forgive Me’, Adams beginning acoustically. Gradually the band join, then all of us producing an eerie pre-echo, more than 10,000 people singing the lines slightly before the band perform them. Classic Belfast timing. The Springsteen-esque ‘Brand New Day’ gives us a chance to dance our thanks to these five suited and booted chaps, before they all disappear off stage, and only one returns for the encore.

A six-song solo acoustic encore is a brave step for someone who has had his band behind him up until now and it’s braver still to sing ‘Whiskey In The Jar’ to an Irish audience, first whetting our appetites by telling us about the wonderful Irish song he’s going to play as he clips on his harmonica. There’s a slight unease; a trepidation as a Belfast audience hopes this legend hasn’t horribly misunderstood our identity and when the song begins, the tension is released wildly. He dedicates ‘Straight From The Heart’ to his parents – his Father having sadly passed away- with a touching speech about how they’ve supported him through the decades and afterwards gets the stage crew to switch off all lights, relying on our mobile phone torches. We light the room ourselves and gaze at each other in wonder at how bright it is as ‘Remember’ plays us out… Nearly. We think it’s time to go but there’s time for a definite surprise: ‘All For Love’; the 1993 collaboration with Rod Stewart and Sting with Adams, of course, singing it alone tonight. Except for us. Always with us. Oh, and audience dude? That one’s from The Three Musketeers (1993) soundtrack.

First published on Giggingni.com

The Luas (Dublin’s cross-city tram) is packed this evening and as it gets closer to the 3Arena, tightly-packed arms and faces have no choice but to rest uncomfortably in the back of someone’s anorak. The odd few who want to get off before the final stop fight their way tooth and claw through eager Tears For Fears fans who are quite early tonight, given that the main act won’t take to the stage until 8:30pm at the earliest. We’re sardined here at 7pm and in all likelihood it’s because the support act is as famous as Tears For Fears.

Alison Moyet takes to the stage amid vertical blue beams of light which illustrate powerfully electronic set-starter ‘I Germinate’. Then chattily thanks us “for coming to this part of the set”, shattering the intimidating illusion she creates. She introduces ‘Nobody’s Diary’ as a song she wrote when she was 16 and it holds up incredibly, compared to most teenage efforts. The cacophonous snarl of ‘Beautiful Gun’ breaks things up a little but this audience become more emotional the more familiar a song is. ‘All Cried Out’ creates a murmur of approval. The slick choreography takes a break during ‘Only You’ where Moyet is an arm-swinging schoolgirl again. ‘The Rarest Birds’ from latest album ‘Other’ is anthemic and the audience know they’ve seen something special: how often does an audience shout “We love you!” to a support act? She stands cold and defiant for ‘Love Resurrection’ but knows she has us, her grin as wide as the spotlight she stands in.

An ominous building synth, a snap and darkness. Lorde’s pouting voice fills the arena; it’s her cover of ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World’. There’s an amused ripple of recognition and at this stage, there’s only one song Tears For Fears can start with. It’s met with joy, but fairweather fans feel the nerves that the band they’re here to see just played their biggest hit first. The nerves are unfounded: it’s a night of half-remembered melodies and joyous reunions with old favourites, especially as the band haven’t been to Ireland since 2005. ‘Sowing The Seeds Of Love’ proceeds through all its movements, a strong vein of ‘Mr. Blue Sky’ running through. Bassist and vocalist Curt Smith announces that they’re going to dedicate a section to their first album – 1983’s The Hurting – and there’s an audible thankful sigh from the crowd. ‘Change’ brightly twangs as the on-screen visuals are a mess of scribbles and letters. The familiar clonk of ‘Mad World’ beginning brings a special moment, the keys providing the heightened drama on the red lit stage. Although Smith perhaps doesn’t have the charisma for an arms-outstretched Jesus pose at the end, the song does.

They do talk between the songs, of course: “We’ve been lucky. A lot of young artists have came along and covered out songs, probably improving them,” to which of course, the audience boos loudly. Improving? Never! But it’s a nice segue into them covering Radiohead’s ‘Creep’, atmospherically lit in green. A gentle lullaby, with none of the crunching guitars of the original. But it shows off guitarist and vocalist Roland Orzabal’s voice, and the voices of the audience, who try as they might, aren’t quite skilled enough at singing along to the jazz-prog fusion that ends a lot of the other songs. This is their chance to let loose and it’s a uniting moment. ‘Advice For The Young At Heart’ bobs along like a hazy summer day with Smith’s gentler vocals perfect for the wistfulness. ‘Bad Man’s Song’ is a marked change into blues and gives backing singer Katrina a chance to really shine, although her mic is a little muffled. There’s extended breakdown in the middle which is only for the hardiest but Orzabal brings the attention back with a little a capella falsetto. The opening chimes of ‘Head Over Heels’ bring back any lost audience attention, the entire crowd fully present and it’s like we’re in every ’80s movie ever.

For the encore, an audience who know what’s coming start to sing ‘Shout’ to the band, who break into ‘Woman In Chains’ instead. Nothing like a little red herring. But we all know what they’ll end with and they shout at us as we shout back, audience fists raised as the visuals are a screaming red mouth and the word ‘Shout’ in capital letters, as if we don’t know what to do. We know.

First published on Giggingni.com

It’s rare you see the phrase “Northern Irish singer and actress”, well, anywhere that isn’t Northern Ireland. Hearing it in Hollywood is almost unheard of. Bronagh Gallagher broke this mould though. She first tasted success at 17, passing an audition for the film of the Roddy Doyle novel The Commitments with no prior acting experience. Roles in Pulp Fiction and Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace followed, along with appearances on the West End stage. As talented as she is in interpreting a script though, we feel she’s happiest being herself, telling her own stories and singing her own songs. A representative of Out To Lunch Festival welcomes her on stage for the second time that day – the second of two sold out shows – for three reasons: her tight band, her amazing voice and her stacks of charisma. She makes her way up the central aisle of The Black Box like a prize fighter, audience members turning round to see and to greet her. This audience are definitely ready for some soul.

Beginning with the plaintive ‘Stranger’ from the Gather Your Greatness album, the band move through the first few songs in quick succession, ‘Make It Easier’ being an early highlight. Gallagher tells us there’ll be no real focus on any particular album, they’ll be playing a mixture of old and new songs. With a Bronagh Gallagher gig though, it’s only half about the music. And after a start that would seem confident for anyone else but is almost troublingly low-key for her, the floodgates open. It’s maybe thanks to a new song ‘What It Feels Like’ which is as close to punk as we’re going to get this evening. Gallagher tells us it’s about us, where we come from and maybe she’s just put the idea in our heads but we think we hear our Troubled past. It’s melodic punk of course, some Elton John flourishes on the keys and a triumphant turn from Gallagher who clearly relishes the chance to let loose without the background sadness that underpins some soul. She’s ferocious; she has the attitude for this.

After this, it’s all go. Stories out of context add warmth to the evening. Tales of long-ago teeth-rotting poitín, a DNA swab revealing Mexican heritage (“That’s why I’m the spit of Salma Hayek. You’re not meant to laugh at that…”) and a person who is revealed to be 100% Banbridge. We move into ‘Lonely Girls’ and Gallagher makes full use of the thigh-high split in her ankle-length sequinned skirt, leaning into the split as she rocks back and forth to the divine proggy guitar solo in the middle of this Irish country-tinged song. ‘Every Place’ is a rollicking, Springsteen-esque number. ‘Shortcut’ is dedicated to Orla and Stan who provided overnight accommodation for her first ever Dublin audition and thereby started her career. Orla wipes away a tear during the impassioned story and is one of the first on their feet when Gallagher starts to encourage the audience to get up on their feet and dance.

Songs slide by like butter. Maybe no single song is that memorable but they’re easy listening and we don’t mean that as an insult. They’re so easy to bob a head to and hum along it would be simple to say we’re really here for the stories and the music is just a filler. But the stronger songs are being saved for the second half, the sultry ‘Crimes’ and the hooting, growling funk of ‘Radio’ signal audience dancing en masse as the party takes hold and the stories between songs get shorter and heightened by the atmosphere. Gallagher talks of a youth listening to Aretha Franklin live albums and wondering why she couldn’t go to Franklin’s church, with the gospel and the audience roars of approval. Well, we’re in Gallagher’s church right now with a raucous Belfast audience who are full-throated in their shouting of “I believe!” Can you quieten down such a crowd? It seems you can, effortlessly, with a mention of Seamus Heaney. Specifically, seeing her father weep on seeing Heaney on TV with the Taoiseach and the Queen. She calls Heaney a true King of Ulster and dedicates ‘A Sailor Like You’ to him. Her speech has set us up perfectly for this shivers-down-the-spine moment as her voice soars and the cymbals subtly “shhhh” us. We do shush.

We’re on the last two songs at this point and a wit calls for ‘Mustang Sally’ from The Commitments. “We write our own songs”, Gallagher reminds us. “This is our second gig today and these guys have to drive back to Dublin tomorrow. We’ve worked damn hard on these songs,” and by heck, they are going to play them. For the most part we don’t even notice the band and she knows this, because if something is like a second skin, you don’t feel it. So just before they finally do end on ‘Johnny Eagle’ she introduces them and compares them to the Cash, Nelson, Kristofferson and Jennings supergroup The Highwaymen and calls them “The best there is”. After one last arm-in-arm bow, the five-piece leave the stage. The mostly middle-aged audience filter out and maybe she’s right: maybe they will all be at the osteopath tomorrow after their dancing efforts, but I think they’ll agree it was worth it.

First published on Giggingni.com

Belfast’s Out To Lunch Festival walks a very narrow tightrope: that balance of giving a culture-thirsty city something – anything – to do in January but knowingly taking the risk that after the excesses of the festive season their potential audience might be content to stay at home with hungover sore heads, chocolate-sore tummies and sore wallets. Tonight’s event is doubly difficult. It’s the 5th January, anyone who was anyone partied late on Monday and given that King Kong Company tend to mostly attract party animals, we wonder if there’ll be enough party left in them for the first Saturday night of 2019.

We needn’t have worried. The festival’s first Saturday is off to a flying start with two sold out gigs. The Henry Girls treated us to some sibling folk this afternoon and tonight, Waterford’s King Kong Company bring the rave. Keith Connolly treats us to a suitably spangly DJ set that gets progressively bassier as the audience filter in, finding their people, knowing them by the inordinate amount of tie-dye and leopardprint on show. As yet, no-one is wearing a cardboard box on their head. On the backdrop, a gorilla shoots red lasers out of red eyes, white palms welcoming us in. One reveller attempts to make shadow puppets in the spotlight closest to the edge of the stage. Like we said: spangly.

By the time the first masked adventurer takes to the stage he gets cheered wildly, even though he’s just testing levels. The rest of the band follow and the opening chords of The Rolling Stones’ ‘Paint It Black’ begin to roars of recognition before they are looped and twisted, again and again. A dancer in a full-length leather coat appears wearing a unnervingly pointed plague doctor mask and proceeds to dance, bird-like to the twisted beats, wielding a ball and chain while a stony-faced gorilla folds his arms and eyes us, bouncer-like. It all builds so much tension leading into the breakdown that we feel we have to steel ourselves for the onslaught and it breaks, as tops are whipped off by a group of men dancing near the front of the stage. There’s a moment of blackness and the moment of blackness extends uncomfortably. Looking behind us, frantic sound men locate torches in the sound booth and we realise there’s a power cut one song in. Luckily, vocalist Mark Graham has just the object and brings out his trusty megaphone: “Does anyone have a fucking fuse on them?” Nobody can casually ignore a blackout with fire alarm like a Belfast audience and a crowd rendition of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ begins, possibly started by the topless men with Graham occasionally keeping spirits up by communicating with us via megaphone.

Electric restored, ‘IPop’ brings our adrenaline levels up again, the skittering electronic harshness just what we’re wanting from the evening. Vocalist and trumpet-player Susan O’Neill Joplin-rasps to us about revolution and… the power once again cuts out. Graham gamely steps up to entertain again, saying “If I get electrocuted, you’re all allowed to say ‘He’s getting nothin’ off that’!” – a reference to the punchline of their song ‘Donkey Jaw’ – and we laugh, but we’re beginning to worry the whole thing will be postponed when they resurrect the lights once again.

Momentum gained and lost twice, it’s an uphill battle to bring the mood back in the room, even if the room really wants it back. The background visuals are gone and most band members have abandoned their masks in the hunt for a fuse. But crowd surfers launch themselves into the arms of strangers nevertheless, as the funk-twisted brass section of ‘Scarity Dan’ sunset serenades us over oscillating synths which segue into The Human League’s ‘Don’t You Want Me?’ with lyrics downgraded from a cocktail bar to Ladbrokes. Sesh anthem ‘Donkey Jaw’ lets Mark Graham espouse the benefits of so-called social lubricants in a stream-of-consciousness style rant, altered to include a dubious mention of Belfast’s Victoria Square. O’Neill breaks into MIA’s ‘Paper Planes’ and we’re giddy with it. It floats, and we float with it; the topless men sweating like pigs. A percussion-heavy version of The Cure’s ‘A Forest’ begins and O’Neill’s hair whips while she sings, judging exactly what the song needs. It’s this that the band are best at. Picking the unlikely combinations, rescuing the hidden, melding genres; the brass section elevating the song to a level Robert Smith never considered. Graham’s force of nature is the perfect foil for O’Neill – even with both baseball cap on and hood up – with his brass and his bongo playing, his public service broadcasts and catchphrases. He drums like a demon on dub-inspired ‘I Said Posse!’ with its trumpets so close to siren wails.

We think it’s over with a single mournful trumpet slowly fading out as Graham’s already said goodbye and thanked us twice already but the futuristic blasts of ‘Spacehopper’ assault our senses and he tells us we are fucking deadly. Are we fucking deadly? We begin to believe it and stand up a little straighter while melting sideways at the same time.

Is it their best gig ever? Probably not. We’ll save that title for another one. One in a muddy field, perhaps. One with more of O’Neill’s vocals, more Trish Murphy dancing in costume, more cardboard boxes and a hint more playfulness that was perhaps knocked out of the band by the two power cuts early in the set. But is it a near-perfect way to ward off the January blues with one of Belfast’s most consistent festivals? Safe to say everyone here got somethin’ off that.

Worthy

October 25, 2018

A poem, or a blog, or a story about a writing retreat I attended last week, and what happens when I feel sad on my birthday and make myself write.

“Order something different. I don’t want something different.”
He says it several times during the course of the afternoon and each time he says it with a kind of glee, glee which I have created because I wrote the words in question in a writing workshop where we had to write the inner monologue of Callum, a fictional hairdresser in his 30s who has salmon every Sunday brunch and the waitress has started calling it his usual which drives him fucking mad because he may be predictable, yeah, but there’s no need to patronise him. Callum didn’t exist before the start of this workshop and he was created in a five minute spider diagram brainstorm scrawled all over an A4 page and unreadable to anyone except the writer.

That’s Polarbear. Except don’t call him that, because he’ll be mildly embarrassed about the name he chose years ago for his gigging. He doesn’t gig much anymore anyway; he’s much happier creating for school workshops, or writing a novel or an art form he probably hasn’t even considered yet. “Steven” he says “Call me Steven”. So Steven tells us about the time he was in a wardrobe with a girl and we’re not sure if he was really in a wardrobe with a girl or if one of his spider diagram creations was in a wardrobe with a girl but we get that there’s a wardrobe and a person and a story and he asks us about our stories. In mine I was almost outside of the school grounds. Almost in safe, neutral territory and he makes the “almost” squawk. The squawk you make when you’re almost clear and you’re dragged back by the hook of a crook, like a shit comedian being removed from a stage in the Vaudeville era. “Almost!” he exclaims again ten minutes later, apropos of nothing.

And there’s a lot of apropos of nothing here. Some brains move fast and his leaps from holes in socks to Busted to the naming of 25 Neon Tetra on a sleepy Sunday afternoon until we all, one by one, are singled out with an exclamation and we all feel a little more special than we did that morning. “Order something different. I don’t want something different” becomes like a mantra by this point, I read it out twice at his insistence and he keeps coming back to it and back to it and back to the fig tree [which he calls an olive tree but his brain is fast, like I said and if he sped past fig to get to olive, well, what harm?] and back to the neon tetra until they are woven into the fabric of the afternoon as if Arachne had done it: timeless and permanent and no Athena to tear it asunder.

There’s a sickness here. An excited, edge-of-your-seat, butterfly stomach sickness and everyone else must feel it too as these Bristol/Bath/London people are constantly sick. “That’s sick!”, “Sick mate,”, “I can’t believe, that, that’s sick”, “Man that’s sick”, “Sick!”
These people receive. They receive and enthuse and make ooh and aah noise and believe. They believe. We believe in each other.
And we might have had to drive for five hours to get here. We might have to take planes and trains and one automobile where you actually are nearly sick and not “That’s so sick man!” but physically sick and the kindly driver pulls down a back lane [amusingly called Back Lane; you notice this in your light-headed haze] and you regain your sense of stomach.
We might have had vomiting near-misses and some tears and naps and “I should have brought my slippers! Everyone else has slippers!” but we all write. Notebooks from Paperchase right down to Poundland but enthusiasm in spades and clubs and diamonds and hearts. Most of all in hearts.
As we make a start as we each make a part of this weekend-long game of Consequences.

I could go on. And on and on. 3 minute slams aren’t my natural state I’m a long-form princess, mate.
And everyone deserves a shout out.
As we all take off our shoes in the hall, as Adam encourages those who feel small to make themselves big, to get out of his pub,
As Zena tells us to select cards with care and consider and write about what we find there. And contact her later. Her writer friend wants to know what our writer-friend-lover does when she’s running the show.
There’s a group of us huddled round a table nearby while Beth explains what she does and how we can fly with a typewriter and some careful questions which can unlock the gates to our wider perception.
And if we’re quiet at the end of the day, Danny will come up and check we’re okay cos that’s what he does. He raps and he loves. It was all his idea. He deserves this mention as he’s why we’re here.

It’s four days later and I’m crying in my room as I’m desperately lonely and I’ve no-one here to talk to.
I’m not worth anything and I never have been. If other people taught me anything it’s that I shouldn’t be trying.
But there’s a benefit in being productive and so I come on here. Read over what I’ve written and attempt to write a clear
Ending
Tie up these loose threads but my head’s not in the right space
I read though. I read and I find that a week ago
People thought that I had value and those people told me so.
These are the things we all need to write down
Because these are the things that don’t stick around
When your memory plays tricks on you
Which memories are wont to do
So I do this show and tell to show myself, too
Because there’s poetry in my woodwork
I feel it in my skeleton bones
And it’s okay that there’s no-one here
As it comes out when I’m most alone
I’ll write myself a world of parties
I’ll write myself a world of songs
I’ll live and I’ll be
As all the people who ever told me that I had a life worth living…
Can’t be wrong

First published on Giggingni.com:

There’s no queue outside the Ulster Hall as our support act this evening take to the stage. Only one of the venue’s bars are open – the sign of a quiet night – and even that is eerily subdued. Tickets aren’t sold out but an eager few are paying at the door and the number increases as the night progresses. Still, right now it’s 8pm and a sparse crowd greets Cork band Talos who fill the space sonically, if not literally. Skipping trip-hop rhythms and shoegaze soundscapes meet a singer of the Irish folk ilk seemingly mourning his lost love, or the “weight of the world”. Yes, that’s one of their lyrics. It’s spectacularly-moustached slow-motion hipsterdom but more than that: blending waves of oscillating sound produce a kind of danger with two percussionists (one sporting the aforementioned moustache) creating a heartbeat thud which thunders in ‘Your Love Is An Island’ as it builds and builds… and then ends, on just the right side of chaos.

On 12th October Editors cancelled their Aberdeen show because lead singer Tom Smith had lost his voice as a result of a bad cold. Fans with tickets for the next few shows waited with bated breath to see how Glasgow would fare on the 13th and it went ahead, if a little hoarsely. This is the 15th and the rest the previous day seems to have done Smith the world of good. Editors are here to promote their sixth album Violence, the imposing stage backdrop displays the album cover image showing two men and a woman naked, entwined in a struggle. Although they begin with the pensive ‘The Boxer’ from 2010’s In This Light And On This Evening. For this, Smith has no guitar and he takes full advantage of the situation, casting his eyes ceilingward, graceful hands winding the mic cord round his wrists as if spellcasting. Next, the rhythmic one-two punch of ‘Sugar’ kicks in and he slinks along, propelling himself with shoulder action. ‘Hallelujah (So Low)’ is the first song from Violence here and its sharp defiance leads us neatly into 2006 single ‘All Sparks’ and 2007’s ‘An End Has A Start’, buoying the crowd with the searing familiarity, songs tumbling after each other like a cart speeding up, careering out of control on a track but as part of a completely controlled set, the audience lapping up the tempo. ‘Darkness At The Door’ once again reveals the showman, all theatre, bowing like a crouching crucified Jesus; arms and mouth spread wide. “I know we make miserable music but we want you to have a good time!” calls Smith and indeed, it’s one of the most joyous post-punk influenced evenings we’ve seen.

‘A Ton Of Love’ seems to floor Smith with every word yet ‘Nothingness’ displays just how un-floored he really is, the audience yelping in their excitement to hear this song off the new album which hugs the rounded tones of his baritone. A pinprick lightshow adds to the temporary lull of ‘Ocean Of Night’, the only song from the 2015 album In Dreams, guitarist and keys player Elliott Williams sitting at the piano to create a hymn-like feel complete with gospel chorus, Smith adding the synthy chimes. He takes to the piano himself to play a slow refrain, sped up to become the storming ‘Papillon’ and the audience reacts in kind, energetically feeding back to him as the band force waves of percussive electronica on us. ‘Belong’ is played on acoustic allowing everyone to catch their breath, guitarist Justin Lockley joining on electric, which he bows with a drumstick as the song builds to something akin to a crashing rock opera. A short interval follows ‘Magazine’, barely long enough for the crowd to get through one chorus of “Ole, Ole…” and the expected encore occurs, with one last nod to the new album with opening track ‘Cold’ and everything the crowd hasn’t yet heard that they’re desperate to hear, notably ‘Smokers Outside The Hospital Doors’ and ending, finally, on ‘Munich’ their first UK top 25 single and likely, the first introduction most audience members here had to them. Music finished, the five piece gather at the front and take a group bow, the audience making sure they know that no, it’s not a sold out night. But it’s a resounding success.

Flo & Joan

September 22, 2018

First published by Culture Hub magazine:

Flo & Joan | Review

The MAC, Belfast • 20 September ’18

By Elizabeth McGeown

Stop the presses! Flo & Joan are not actually called Flo and Joan; they are Nicola and Rosie Dempsey. We breathe a sigh of relief when we find out they are real sisters though, choosing their stage names by mining the family tree for a Flo and a Joan, one reachable via landline, one only contactable with a ouija board. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. We’re in the illustrious surrounding’s of The MAC’s Luminaire Club with its cabaret seating, table service, drinks menu and stage softly purple lit with gradually decreasing semicircles festooned with lightbulbs creating a domed effect. Rebekah Fitch is in the centre of the dome, transfixing an audience who, let’s be honest, are here mainly to see comedy and she’s anything but. Fitch is a complex songwriter. Layers upon layers of before-our-eyes programmed loops underscore synths and live drumpad beating with the cherry on top being vocals that have the dexterity and clarity of an X Factor finalist. Perhaps the only wrong note is when she refers to our headline act as Flo and Jane, but we’ll forgive her.

There is shuffling about on a pitch black stage and the lights go up, suddenly, dramatically to reveal Flo and Joan in their poster campaign poses: dark-haired Flo on a low chair at a keyboard, stern-faced and blonde Joan on a slightly higher chair, equally stony-faced and raising a small percussive shaker above her head as if about to go into battle with it. They begin with a musical welcome, gradually listing all the people who are not welcome including: paedophiles, the KKK, Eamonn Holmes and crocs wearers. When paedophilia is mentioned this early on in an evening, we know the night will be close to the bone. The sharpest barbs are hidden in the most pleasant-sounding songs: A plan by Doritos to release crisps for women that don’t crunch as loudly lest a lady embarrass herself with loudness leads to a song about the glass ceiling because if lady crisps cannot be loud, surely the implication is that women should not be loud in general? A dramatic tango with a change from shaker to castanets for Joan tells the story of a sex robot who is programmed to do household chores, tell bedtime stories to your children and do nearly everything… except say no.

Not all lyrics are profound though. Carol the cracker packer packs a cracking pack of crackers (and then explodes) and can you say that three times fast? These two can. Repeatedly. The audience fail in their attempt and Joan grins and simply picks up the tempo, telling us we are the worst at tongue twisters of the entire tour so far. We believe it. ‘Lady In The Woods’ starts with a foot-thumping, atonal a capella and a lady who with each verse is gradually revealed to be low-brow, lizard-loving, legless and long-haired, to name but a few. Each L-word is revealed to much laughter from the audience who are frantically trying to guess the punchlines before the are revealed… and they are inevitably wrong. There’s musicality in spades with fine-tuned harmonies and some jazz and funk recorder solos from Flo.

Between songs they treat us to their as-yet-unwritten responses to Facebook messages from fans and very much not-fans. It’s a unique insight into the trolling that people in the public eye have to face and they deal with the death threats they have received in song form, writing to the pre-teen children of one of the worst internet trolls bringing the realisation to us that toxic masculinity doesn’t exist in a vacuum, that internet actions can affect the real world. ‘Dear Little Flo And Little Joan’ ends the night and it’s a lovely way to finish. The idea of writing a letter to your childhood self isn’t a new one but it brings all the themes of the night back – saying no, saying yes, being kind – and ties them together with a big bow. We’re all heartwarmed as we head back out into the rain, repeating quietly to ourselves “Carol cracker packer packs a cracking pack of crackers”!

Jersey Boys | THEATRE REVIEW

September 12, 2018

First published by Culture Hub magazine:

Jersey Boys | Theatre Review

Grand Opera House, Belfast • Runs until Saturday 22 September ’18

By Elizabeth McGeown

Jersey Boys has won four Tony awards, an Olivier award, ran for twelve years on Broadway and piqued the interest of Clint Eastwood enough for him to direct the 2014 film version. But it has never been to Belfast. At least thirteen years of waiting means that our as-good-as-sold-out audience expect a lot tonight. They expect the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons using the medium of songs, matching suits, a faultless falsetto from Michael Watson (our Frankie Valli tonight), humour, nostalgia and an encore we can all join in with. We know the musical theatre drill. But we’re not expecting quite so much of  Grease-meets-Goodfellas as we get. Signs posted all over the Grand Opera House warn us to expect somewhat ripe New Jersey language so when a hint of ‘Joisey’ takes us on a whistle-stop tour of petty crime via social brushes with the Mafia, we shouldn’t really be too surprised. We’re in Frank Sinatra territory here; that singer being born in Hoboken, New Jersey. As Tommy DeVito tells us, there are three ways to get out of Jersey: going to jail, joining the Mob, or becoming a star. DeVito opts for the latter. Born in 1934 in a public housing project built atop a dump, is it any wonder our Francesco Castelluccio tried all three?

Simon Bailey’s Tommy tells us a lot. He’s our first narrator this evening with an abrasive, cartoonish style which is an acquired taste. He takes us through the early days; educating young Frankie about the ways of “ballbusting dames” and, rather more usefully, recruiting him for the band in the first place. It’s an era of hustling; of in and out of the local jail, constant band image and band name changes, a brief brush with adding comedy and a gorilla mask to their act.

Joe Pesci – yes, that Joe Pesci, as if the set-up wasn’t Goodfellas enough – introduces one-hit wonder Bob Gaudio into the mix and he takes over both as chief songwriter and as our narrator; shedding light on the creation of hits like ‘Walk Like A Man’ and the story behind ‘December 1963 (Oh What A Night)’. A meeting in the car park of the ‘Our Sons’ bowling alley and a serendipitous mending of the defective neon sign gives the band their permanent moniker, and they’re off.

And from the introduction of the hits, the show really takes flight. Enthusiastic applause meets each one, warm laughter greets Gaudio’s innocent arrogance, Declan Egan delightfully all teeth and eyes in this role. Watson begins to sound like the Valli we all know and love and the stage is set for success, despite distant rumblings of turmoil, divorce and Tommy’s ever deepening involvement with loan sharks. Not to forget the enigma that is Nick Massi, played by a deadpan and at times scene-stealing Lewis Griffiths. Enigmatic perhaps because when Jersey Boys co-writers Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman interviewed the other three members of the band to hear their stories, Massi was already dead, having passed away in 2000. The strong silent type doesn’t speak until at the end of his tether and in the end leaves the band because the idea of quitting just came out of his mouth and he “knew it was the right thing to do”.

The set is minimal and moveable. The ever-popular double staircase with adjoining walkway is present throughout and the live band play behind a wire mesh at the back of the stage. Mic stands are pushed towards the singers rather than the other way around, and they’re all perfectly height adjusted every time. Any backdrop is provided by a large screen, alternating between a sunset skyline (where the drummer fits in perfectly against the silhouetted skyline) and the Ed Sullivan show, to Roy Lichtenstein-style pop art images of brokenhearted women and macho men.

The music of course, is joyous. In the words of Bob Gaudio in those interviews with Elice and Brickman, words that are recreated on stage by Egan, “We weren’t a social movement like The Beatles were. Our fans were the guys who were flipping burgers and pumping gas and the girls behind the counter at the diner – real blue collar workers.” Their private lives may have been complicated, but the music was simple, unadulterated pop and as the audience leave with ‘Who Loves You?’ ringing in their ears, it’s with a sense of understanding the music even more now they know the stories behind it.

Jersey Boys runs until Saturday 22nd September at the Grand Opera House, Belfast.