King Kong Company – Black Box, Belfast

January 6, 2019

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.

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