First’s The Worst…

September 14, 2016

Travel to the Asylum went fine. Travel when I got there was something else. Aggressive bus drivers and rude bus passengers meant travelling from my dorm to town dressed as I was became very difficult. I’ve never experienced that before. I’ve been to Whitby Goth weekend but Whitby is a small town, not a city. And WGW is 22 years old. People are used to it now. The Asylum Steampunk Festival, Lincoln is only in its 8th year and even though in the town centre, the cobblestoned ‘safe zone’ people were wonderful and dressed up, there would still be a Muggle who stared, who poked their friend and pointed at you, a woman who laughed in your face, someone who shouted “What the fuck?!” at you and actually quite a nice lady who was talking to her friend about me while staring at me so I asked if she was talking to me and she said no, she was talking to her friend but couldn’t take her eyes off me. Sums it up really. I don’t mind being noticed, but hostility makes me fold back in on myself. I started to wear my big black coat and dark glasses when on public transport to try and minimise attention. The buses were only a problem Thurs-Sat though, as the 7 & 8 bus route didn’t run on Sun or Mon or after 6:30 any evening. Of course I didn’t know that so I’d bought a week ticket, but such is life.

Lots of silly things happened to make me wonder if I should have gone. On Thursday I left my key card in my room, along with the ticket to the event I was heading to later so I had to do twice the walk to get it back, not to mention bother the university reception staff with the issue. They were lovely though. I got hair dye on the towel even though I was trying to not let it touch my hair, so I tried to wash it out at the sink. It started to wash out! …but I was standing there in just my nightdress and soaked my nightdress before bed so had to sleep in a shirt. I got caught in the rain on Saturday without an umbrella, missed the last bus by 4 minutes, would have had to wait an hour and a half for a taxi so just walked, only realising how hungry I was when I got back, rain too bad to go out again. I tried to order something from Just Eat but most takeaways had £12 minimum charge and I wasn’t going to spend that much only to throw it out. In the end I went to the university bar and they sold me a packet of crisps to tide me over until morning. I was lucky they had crisps, the guy didn’t even seem sure they sold them. Bars and their beer fixation, eh?

Apart from that [and a slight confusion with some paperwork that I’ll get into] it was lovely! Oh, and I developed crushes on nearly everyone. The easy manner, gentle ribbing, just general sense of joy emanating from everyone was really conducive to this.

Here’s my introduction to the city though, a photo walk I took [dressed casually] after I dropped my suitcase off at the university lodgings [which were lovely. Double bed, wifi, en suite, quiet neighbours, free breakfast].

Stairs! Why is it always stairs?! I climbed two hills in an attempt to find Steep Hill. They were both steep, but not Steep Hill.

But what’s this?! A glimpse of the Cathedral!

Imagine my embarrassment when I found I had been photographing the back of the Cathedral. This is the front!

Whomp, there it is.

It’s really tough to photograph a gradient. I think this is the best one at showing how steep it was!

These signs would have been super-useful to tourists… if the lettering wasn’t peeling off.

There was a group photoshoot arranged by a group of photographers but by the time I had navigated the bus route, got dressed, walked to the Cathedral, frozen in horror when I realised I’d forgotten my key and party ticket.. I was late. I was so disappointed but at least I wasn’t in my best outfit, and I found a photographer called Tim who had hung around until the end, and helped me get some of these solo shots here. I felt lacking in confidence because of all the key-forgetting hoo-haa, I would usually move more.

That evening I teamed up with Ivy from the next dorm and we walked down to the early bird party where everyone could show off their finery. I liked Ivy, she was pretty easy to talk to but I somehow had the feeling that when we both found our feet we wouldn’t see each other much. We watched Andrew O’Neill do some quite funny comedy, although he did try to sing within his routine a bit too much. You know, the kind who wants to remind us he’s a singer? I mean, I’d never heard of him but he was sledgehammering us with the singing. Still smiled a lot during his set though. Lady Violet Hugh started singing silly songs that to me, sounded like they were copied from Fascinating Aida, so I left as I heard a local Steampunk group were having cake at a nearby pub. And they were! I walked in shyly and they didn’t notice me as they were having some sort of sherbet related drinking game but I didn’t mind, as I got a nice vibe. Rob began to talk to me, then Greg, then I found Sharen who had invited me on Facebook. It was just a really pleasant evening with a group of people who are comfortable with each other, and who are reaching out to share that with others. Funny though, turns out this group [Steampunks at the Well] started after a dispute with the Lincoln Steampunk Society, and both groups blame the other. Anyone I met from either group was kind to me, although I only met LSS members in isolation, no group meets so they didn’t seem as co-ordinated at greeting new folks as a group. Nothing can ever be simple, eh? Sharen and Michael gave me a lift back to the dorm, and I gladly went to bed.


Scorch – The MAC, Belfast

November 18, 2015

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It’s the halfway point in this, the ninth annual Outburst Arts Festival, Belfast’s only festival dedicated to events of a queer slant. Art installations, lectures, bands, films and workshops rub shoulders with each other during these nine days this November, providing a dazzling array of ideas, opinions, support and entertainment to the LGBTQ community and others. Tonight in The Mac, Belfast it’s the turn of theatre to take centre stage, Prime Cut Productions teaming together Northern Irish playwright Stacey Gregg with director Emma Jordan: winner of the Spirit Of The Festival award and Dublin-born actress Amy McAllister. Given the recent uproar over the unveiling of the Abbey Theatre, Dublin’s 1916 commemorative programme – the fact that out of ten productions, only one writer is female, with two directors being female – this play having been created and executed solely by women is a talking point in itself within the current climate, before we even take into account the subject matter.

Although the subject matter is quite playful really, at first. Kes – a name chosen as a teen for internet gaming, we never find out the character’s birth name – explains how it was growing up with brothers, attempting to pee standing up like them. Experiments with lip gloss and the nuclear torpedo arrival of boobs, without warning or consideration of whether they were invited are detailed in a visceral and humorous way, this theatre being physical as well as cerebral. Kavinsky’s ‘Nightcall’ introduces a dance that becomes faster and faster, three poses [legs crossed, legs splayed open, knees together or ‘female’, ‘male’ and ‘neutral’] blurred together for a world that forces us to pick one. Kes gets a girlfriend and it’s a touching tale of first chat, first Skype, first meet and first love. The tale is gleefully recounted, moments of wonder interspersed with musings on whether Jules has guessed the secret, reasonings that she must have guessed as Kes always uses the accessible toilets. “There’s always so many men in men’s loos,” you see. They make love eventually, never talking about the secret and Kes tells us frankly that it’s only fingers and tongues, the prosthetic they bought just for filling out trousers and giving confidence to a walk, to a feeling.

Kes tells us all this because we’re in the same support group named, amusingly, LGBTQ – ABCDEF. We are the support group’s listening circle. The MAC has taken on a greyish tinge, the circular minimalist benches look like stone in pale grey, stairs in charcoal and a grey carpet that blends with Kes’ grey tracksuit. Kes flits from place to place, directing their story at different parts of the crowd, of the group. Messages received online are signalled by an electronic ‘ping’ and the three-dimensional rectangles hanging from the ceiling gently glow in a variety of colours as Kes gazes up at them. This is how we find out that Jules has dumped Kes. “You lied to me,” Jules writes and Kes is dumbfounded but gradually recovers with the help of friends in the group. The twist, when it comes is unexpected and playwright Gregg based it on recent court cases: “A girl can’t be accused of raping another girl. So it’s called sexual assault by penetration and fraud.” Matters of consent clash with matters of identity as Kes struggles with the court’s accusation of fraudulently claiming to be a man, almost feeling that the court’s insistence on them being female is the real accusation. McAllister deftly deals with the emotions involved: incredulity, sadness, fear and the lingering confusion of someone who, when they found out they could choose ‘they’ as a pronoun “the whole world fell into place”.

The overarching message of the piece is “Is gender fraud the same as homophobia?” but digging deeper one could ask are accusations of gender fraud the same as homophobia? Or, more simply, should gender fraud as a term even exist in a world where gender identities are fluid for many? As Kes states “Just as likely you are all aliens, and I’m the Earthling. There’s just more of you”.


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Turning the corner into Hill Street and making our way to The Black Box we see the red and white banners of the protesters and sigh a little, surprised they’re protesting on a Sunday. Traditionally, those groups that tend to protest usually are against doing work on a Sunday, and standing in the rain proclaiming loudly and negatively certainly feels like work. We don’t want to look directly at them in case their general prayers for all of us begin to be aimed at any of us us in particular, but there seems to be around 5 of them. The red banner has ‘Tradition, family, property’ inscribed on it in gold, the word ‘property’ baffling us slightly as we discuss it afterwards, unsure of its connection to the others. These words mark the group out as the international TFP group, of Catholic origins. The unfurled white banner has a long message, the headline of which is ‘Enough is enough’. We’re still not sure why they had bagpipes but they cause added noise, and it’s the added noise that prompts the decision to move the show from the Black Box Green Room to the much larger and atmospheric main room, with its cabaret seating and candles on the tables, ironically providing us all with a much more pleasurable viewing experience.

We can only guess at the exact reason for the protest but our guesses range around the fact that this play is about Jesus. More specifically, Jesus is portrayed as a woman. Even more specifically, Jo Clifford, the writer and sole performer in the show is open about being born and raised as a man and after spending years miserable at this cruel trick of fate, decided to change it. So Jesus is portrayed as transgender. Pronouns are blended from the beginning of the show, at first seemingly absent-mindedly but when the parables begin it all becomes very specific. “The Prodigal Son” is a daughter, who was initially cast out because she decided to live as a woman and returned because she spent all her money on dresses and shoes. “The Good Samaritan” is a drag queen who engages in casual sex but still is the only person who calls the ambulance that the Bishop and policeman neglected to call in this updated tale. The parables retain their original meanings of acceptance, kindness but go farther into what acceptance means in the present day. Pointing out that often, even today, more so today, the church ignores certain groups, maligns certain groups. This all while the eerie bagpipes sound outside.

And Jo Clifford is a excellent conduit for this message. This recording of the show decided not to use a static camera placed in the audience seats, instead following Jo closely with all words being directed to camera, sometimes in a slightly too-wobbly Blair Witch fashion. But because of this we can see her face and it’s a face that shows everything. Disdain, arrogance, humour, benevolence shine out of the dignified bone structure, used to maximum effect by a practiced actor. Jesus walks slowly from one part of the church to another, and maybe Jo just walks slow. Maybe it isn’t  contrived but it seems artful, nevertheless. It seems as ceremonial as the bread she offers us from the screen, bread she bakes that appears on our table so we can partake of her body. Her slow voice, again is an art. The play’s director Susan Worsfold explains afterwards that Jo underwent vocal training, “allowing the voice to be a barometer for what’s happening internally”, accessing the male and the female making her a powerful orator. This is revealed during the thoughtfully choreographed Q and A, Jo giving us a few moments at the start to confer with our table mates about the play meant to us and asking each table to pick a question, revealing the frank answers that by this point we’ve come to expect. And we leave, the final word going to the Outburst Festival director Ruth McCarthy, who thanks us all for being so respectful which begs the question: were they expecting some people to be disrespectful? Then again, that’s the entire message of a play which is on the surface about Christianity but in reality about the experience of being transgender. Those not always treated as valuable standing up and saying “We are as valuable as everyone else.” Or having Jo say it for them.

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This show is an unusual one, a rarity in more than one sense. QUB’s Elmwood Hall has been opened for the evening, seats laid out for the civilised event that will take place. Canadian singer Feist has never played Belfast solo before but has flown over from Toronto specifically to take part in the Lughnasa International Friel Festival, in which capacity we’re not quite sure. It’s something of a hidden gig, word of it whispered from fan to fan, shared on the occasional Facebook post. The reason it has remained hidden is most people assuming that a festival dedicated to playwright Brian Friel will not have much in the way of music events. If it does, they will likely be heavily tied to the context of one of Friel’s plays and more than likely any music will simply be incidental during one of the plays. And the festival is indeed play-heavy. But it contains a hidden gem: the Amongst Women section. One of the curators introduces the events about to unfold and tells us they fought for this section to be included, as if some director somewhere also thought that it was surplus to requirements. In the end, the programme tells us, one of the most famous Friel plays and the signature plays of this festival Dancing At Lughnasa has five women as its main characters so the Amongst Women section explores how far women have come and how much freedom they have – or don’t have – when compared with the characters in the 1930s-set play.

We feel almost as if we’re seated in the audience of a talk show as Leslie Feist and the curator of this event and her ‘interviewer’ for the evening, the actress Lisa Dwan appear with hand held mics and sit in comfortable chairs. The audience view them with quizzical expressions and it’s clear our two conversationalists are expecting this, as Leslie Feist welcomes us by joking “Thanks for coming out to what is a mystery to us as well as to you!” Dwan is, if anything, playing the part of the bad cop in this situation, asking the questions, setting the parameters and not-so-gently steering Feist back on track when she becomes distracted by a shiny new conversational angle. The parameters, as Dwan introduces them, are the lack of representation of women in history and in that context, how Feist found muses. They make it clear that phone conversations have preceded this evening and that homework has been done, but we still get nicely personal with almost a dual narrative, Feist describing her time touring with a punk band at 17 and nearly losing her singing voice for life which led to her turning towards instrumental music. Quieter music. Separately she describes the backstory of the Lomax Collection which was funded by the American Library Of Congress: a series of field recordings in which the Lomaxes travelled the South and sought out locals in many towns, locals who were willing to be recorded singing the folk songs passed down to them from friends and relatives. Her recounting these stories in the Elmwood Hall is peppered with the enthusiasm of someone who has just learned new facts about a favourite subject, but the personal history is that she discovered these recordings in her quiet period, and they brought her what she was looking for: not only retellings of some of the earliest recorded American folk songs, but pure, untrained voices with no real knowledge of fame or self-consciousness. This, Feist says, helped her to realise the power of the song and not the singer, to appreciate that the influence of the stage is heavily skewed, sometimes without real reason.

Dwan and Feist take us through some of these songs, the voices of Texas Gladden and the Shipp sisters lingering in our memories long after the crackling recordings have died away. The Shipp Sisters’ version of the playground song “Sea Lion Woman” later recorded by Feist herself; the ever-decreasing circles of the Lomax story and Feist’s own life meet here and for once we’re grateful to Dwan when she utters the magic words “I wanna talk about how you write.” Not that Feist seems overly prepared to talk about this, dodging direct avenues with perhaps the most telling line she utters being “Melody comes first”. Feist eventually gives in, mentioning that she sees Dwan eyeing the guitar and the audience breathe a sigh of relief, as doubt had begun to creep in that any singing would occur this evening. It’s late though, and there’s only time for two songs, with a brief Q and A with the audience sandwiched in-between which was mainly valuable for discovering how she became involved with The Muppets Movie – short answer, she was asked to write songs for it and they were turned down, so she was offered a cameo as a consolation prize. The first – and second last – song is a Nina Simone cover which some may think is a waste of good time, but “Where Can I Go Without You?” is a worthwhile chance to take, the perfectly clear handheld mic Feist has had all night taken away and a new one given to her for singing, which makes her sound as crackly and distant as the people from the 1930s we’ve heard tonight, making us shiver again. Although she apologises during “Mushaboom” for her hoarseness, it’s just her, a whispery hoarseness, a gravelly smoothness as if her voice is a maypole of ribbons, each doing their own thing but eventually becoming intertwined.

Do we feel cheated? We may have only received two songs but we’ve been given the gift of a library of folk song field recordings to explore at our leisure. We heard more than most people hear at a full gig. Did it leave us wanting more? Certainly, yes.

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Imagine, if you will, a musical starring just two people. All words are sang, not to each other as we see them, but to versions of each other that we can’t quite see. They meet onstage and direct words to each other just once. The passing of five years is told through song and the occasional costume change. The passing of these years isn’t always linear either. Cathy Hyatt tells her tale in song, beginning at the breakdown of her marriage and striking back towards being on the rocks, further back to being happy, to the first meeting. Jamie, on the other hand, begins in the blissful unawareness of a new romance, extra unaware of his to-be wife mourning her ex-wife status at the other side of the stage. Following it so far? Sounds like it wouldn’t work? Read on…

Blunt Fringe Productions have bitten off a lot this time. Only established at the end of 2013, they managed to convince one of Northern Ireland’s main musical theatre names to appear in a fringe production, in the round. The Lyric’s Naughton Gallery seats audience members three-quarters of the way around the stage, the only respite being the small seating area reserved for the band. This allows no escape for the actor, no chance to glance away from the audience and Fra Fee seems to revel in it. This small space gets smaller when he invades the audience, directing lines from ‘A Miracle Would Happen’ to individuals while nudging them in the ribs. And a nudge in the ribs is the least of the physicality here. A picture is painted of a kind, arrogant young man who splashes out physicality and life everywhere he goes. You want to smack him for his ignorance of the heartbroken woman who occupies the same stage but it’s testament to his acting that he can be right beside it and seemingly not see it. Testament to his acting… and Amy Lennox’s. If Fee is the physical life of the show, Lennox is the heart, beginning with the questioning ‘Jamie’ setting the thematic tone. Her vulnerability is well-established from the start and is convincingly stripped back away from her face, every nuance of growing love showing in a carefully arched foot, or a raised eyebrow. We begin to wish that these two would actually spend more time together on stage, while at the same time knowing what’s going to happen. Brought down to its bare bones, Lennox starting at the end of the relationship almost develops the plot with more of a bang than Fee does. Fee develops the characters with his gift for humour and nothing but a set of six boxes – which at different times produce a dress, a laptop, photos and a place to sit – to conjure a set.

Mark McGrath leads a five piece band, hammering through an American jazz-like score, all syncopated beats and Jewish humour. The piano is a third player on the stage, guiding the actors through what they have to do and even though vocally the songs are sometimes too high for Lennox and too fast for Fee, you forgive it because not everyone can hit notes while telling you the stories of their life. Sometimes, in life, songs are more spat than sang. And these are undoubtedly challenging songs, with extras required of the cast, such as changing of clothes and crawling along the ground while singing. If the songs are too big for this cast, the gestures and emotions certainly are not.

Jason Robert Brown’s ‘The Last Five Years’,  presented by Blunt Fringe Productions, at the Lyric Theatre Belfast 24th June – 4th July 2015.

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Much like public perception of Amanda Palmer herself, this show is a mixture of sophisticated and brash from the start, the neatly lined chairs for this seated gig at odds with the voice from the merchandise area loudly proclaiming “If anyone has a question for Amanda we have a box here”, unsurprisingly in an American accent. Questions are for later though, as she appears nonchalantly from the dressing room, only gradually noticed by the audience in a slow-motion Mexican wave of double takes. She’s strumming her ukulele as she promenades down the room and enters crowd territory of the aisle between seat rows when the strum gradually becomes Radiohead’s ‘Creep’. In case we weren’t sure we were allowed to, she tells us we can join in with the chorus that when sang triumphantly celebrates beautiful freaks like Palmer and her fans.

Parts of this show are true wry cabaret, especially the ukulele parts. Soft whispers meet strident vocal blasts and eyebrows are often raised at the audience, eyebrows that tend to be more in control when she’s seated at her piano. As she admits herself though, anyone could learn ukulele in an hour so the extra effort it takes to play the piano is matched with the extra depth of emotion it takes to play the piano-based songs. Except, maybe, for ‘Bigger On The Inside’. It’s a strummer, and raises the question if it’s the words or music that makes Amanda Palmer… Amanda Palmer. We’re sure it’s a mixture of both, and if one is lost, then you have nothing. No-one will display emotion at this two-chord extended edit. Until you realise that the sing-song sameyness doesn’t stop you caring about the French child in the lyrics, a violent sort of caring that wrenches the tears from you.

And this is the beauty of Palmer. There’s the unmistakably sexual inhalations before she starts a song. There’s the more than perfect hair, a delicate gold gown covered with an evening jacket. There’s the splayed legs behind the piano, splayed because they have to be, but do they have to be quite so outstretched, cheekbones so icy-sharp and facial expressions so wild? But the living cartoon that she sometimes appears to be – and her performances thrive on this – can also make us feel. A comical ‘Vegemite’ segues into ‘Bed Song’ and all humour is sucked from us. It’s this command of emotions and desire to be heard, presumably, that led to the next string on Palmer’s bow: writing a book. Technically, this is the last show of her ‘The Art Of Asking’ book tour. But as her merch stall has sold out of books and it emerges that no bookshops in Belfast stock it, focus on the book has ultimately drifted. She brings it back with what we expect to be a cursory mention of the book, a rote reading. A member of the audience blindly picks a page and when Palmer begins to read we wonder if the page was somehow marked because it’s so perfect. A tale of vomiting, abortion regret, and Neil Gaiman’s [Palmer’s author husband’s] childhood.

A gig wouldn’t be a gig without a nod to the future though. This nod to the future includes a respectful nod to Palmer’s pregnant belly, which limits future plans excitingly. Before baby appears though, plans involve supporting Morrissey and gently mocking him in a kindly way, in a musical way. The main plan that shows there will be music after baby though, revolves around the Patreon site. Palmer’s previous success with crowdfunding platform Kickstarter – funding previous album Theatre Is Evil with it – has led her to set up a Patreon, in which your financial support gets you free music for life, or as long as music is being made.

The show finishes with ‘Ukulele Anthem’ which is, unsurprisingly, an anthem for the knitters, the ad lovers, the outside-the-boxers. It reminds us – if the rest of the show hadn’t already, which given the pin-drop silence and the hands brushing tears away from eyes it seems it has – that if we’d wondered at all if we’d outgrown who we needed as a teen we can brush that wondering away. Palmer has grown with us and we’ve grown with her, looking forward to the next chapter.

Hollie McNish

May 19, 2015

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Usually a headline act is nowhere to be seen before they appear on stage in a flash of light. They’re presumably backstage, drinking free beer and being cool. When a headline act does appear before their moment, it feels like they are stamping their authority on the show. Yeah, it almost seems like they’re saying, the support act may be good but remember me. It’s all about me. So when Hollie McNish takes to the stage to introduce her hand-picked support act Alice McCullough you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s bolshy territorialism. Except that it doesn’t seem like this. At all. It seems like McNish is bubbling over with excitement at the prospect of playing the sold-out McHugh’s basement, which someone has told her is near a red light district and she genuinely wants to know if this is true. It feels like she’s formed a friendship with her support act [“she makes good tea” McNish tells us] and wants to tell us that yeah, this other person might be on first, but we’d still better listen.

On this night of performance poetry, rhyme isn’t exactly king in Alice McCullough’s set but it’s a prince, sometimes ruling, sometimes quietly watching subjects from a hidden vantage point. Donning her wordy mantle, pictures are painted. Not all as vivid as that of the bodhran draped in a sash and a rosary laid across a Lambeg drum – from ‘Belfast, You’re Melting My Head (Only Slaggin’) – but to leave an audience with even one image burned into their memory is no mean feat. When McCullough says that one of her poems began as an apology to her Dad and then “sort of turned into a love poem for Van Morrison” it’s not a surprise as most of her pieces are changing beasts: from eating disorders to beauty in the eye of the beholder, from childhood bullies to hope. Everything in this set is about love.

When someone starts their set by telling the audience they Googled “how poets fill an hour” – something, we’ll be honest, we were all wondering. No music? No interpretive dance? – you know you’re going to warm to them. They have the same fears as you. Perhaps they’re even… a real person? Don’t be too fooled though, Hollie McNish has gigged before. This is the final night of this particular UK and Ireland tour and she’s worked heavily with Kate Tempest, a Mercury Music Prize nominee. She doesn’t have what’s considered to be a dramatic, powerful voice though. If you closed your eyes she could be a high-voiced teenager from innercity London, albeit a very politically aware and articulate one. And it’s her articulation that makes people stand up and take notice. Not always the positive kind of notice either, as she admits she probably gets more hate mail than other poets and kicks off her set with her five most hated poems according to the aforementioned mail and Google analytics. If they hate it, chances that the ticketed audience will love it are extremely high as her frenetic but never panicked delivery takes us through a world in which teenagers stab each other because they were raised with racist and homophobic misapprehensions (‘Hate’] and an amusing parallel universe in which media males gyrate in thongs instead of being praised for their talent, while greying female news anchors talk down to their toyboy eye candy co-presenters (‘For One Day’).

Motherhood really brought McNish into the public eye though. The new perspectives it offers to the mother, and the perspectives the rest of society have towards her make up much of the rest of McNish’s show. Babies are in the audience, because why shouldn’t they be? Sometimes they cry, because that’s what they do. Sometimes they want fed, because that’s part of growing and at one of Hollie’s gigs they can be without apologetic bar staff asking if you can please take it into the toilets. ‘Embarrassed’ is about this very thing, with the aim of breaking down the embarrassment and pressure to hide many mothers feel and we all feel empowered by it, be we mothers, fathers or completely child-free.

In the end the hour is filled almost effortlessly, with no hint of needing an interpretive dance interlude. Explaining just why Flo-Rida wants us to blow his whistle and why on Earth he thought describing it as a whistle would be attractive puts the audience in fits of giggles that are never quite recovered from. And most of all, she wants us to remember that “Salt ‘n’ Pepa’s ‘Push It’ wasn’t as funny on the birthing CD” as she thought it would be. Duly noted.

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Laura Marling’s fifth studio album Short Movie leaves us gasping for water with its arid, desert isolation. We already know this show is going to be heavy on the most recent album but if we hadn’t expected it, the backdrop lets us know. A dune-filled desert waits behind the empty stage, warning us what to expect.

She appears on stage shortly after 9pm, tiny and alone, beginning in the guise of a horse with ‘Howl’. Her three band members appear individually, silently under cover of darkness and the cover of Marling’s singing. And it’s a voice so distracting that the cover it supplies is effective as a complete blackout. Her resonant voice which startled five albums ago, seeming older than its years is now an ancient goddess, deepened and blackened with experience. A voice coated with tar can be as smooth as one coated with honey, just not as sweet. Sweet is not what Marling’s going for. ‘You Know’ with its tales of falling for a troubadour is her first chink of lyrical weakness this evening, and even then seems so unlikely. We cannot imagine this robot falling for anything. It’s only at the finish of the fifth song in that she allows a first applause from the audience. The audience do as permitted, one member whispering quickly to her friend “She’s scary!” One imagines Marling would crack a smile at this assessment.

Short Movie is her first album written entirely on electric guitar and she honours that live, with a twang and reverb that recall the infinity of the desert, the backdrop behind her slowly beginning to glow with the dawn, moving into morning and later, to afternoon. ‘I Feel Your Love’ showcases more rock chick attitude than a folk singer has right to have, or ever gets credit for. It’s nearly a Patti Smith moment, with the full band all aglow behind her, a moment that returns throughout the show, when ‘Master Hunter’ rears up off the page, erected as a 3D house by the power of the band and a riot girl is released.

The audience break free from their chains on occasion, a lone voice shouting “Love you Laura!” is joined by others and she bashfully chimes “Love you too…” behind gritted teeth that really seem to say “Don’t be so embarrassing.” A request for “banter” is met with confusion. After a brief translation she lets us know that she doesn’t really do banter. Interaction is so pared back that changes in lighting raise rapturous applause, 5 floodlights shining upwards announcing the beginning of ‘Rambling Man’ casusing whoops of appreciation. Most of us aren’t here for banter though, or a catchy chorus, or understanding. We’re here to observe the living enigma. What we’re looking for is a chink in the armour, some true emotion. Whether we got it or not lies in the opinion of the individual beholder.

The dusty screen image darkens to night, a distant townscape flashes the lights of habitation. The other band members depart, the double bassist asking if he should stay. He is given permission to do so, for now. ‘Goodbye England (Covered In Snow]’ is a younger song than her recent output, the weight lifts off her. It’s coupled with its usual partner in Marling setlists, the Jackson C. Frank cover of ‘Blues Run the Game’ this time with no bassist in the background. The backdrop has shifted. We no longer see a night time desert. No land at all in fact, it’s pure sky as galaxies and constellations confuse us as much as the changeable Marling, idiosyncratic as Joni Mitchell with the flitting between chest, head voice and something more ethereal. It ends, as expected, with ‘Short Movie’. At an hour and a half, if this concert had been a movie, yes it would have been short. But this ain’t Hollywood and our definitions are different. Short, but it encompassed dawn until deepest night, and everything in between.

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Malojian – our support act this evening – is Stevie Scullion. Sometimes he expands his talent to encompass a full band, sometimes he goes it alone. Both are completely different beasts but both are Malojian through and through. Tonight it’s a two-piece. Stevie picks his guitar and absent-mindedly sucks on his harmonica, as at ease as if the audience aren’t there at all but they’re very much there, silently hanging onto his every muttered word. He’s joined on double bass by Joe McGurgan, a strong, silent time at the side of the stage who surprises us all by breaking his aura of silence, uttering a backing vocal or two here and there. It’s a series of high, eerie notes he produces, an almost echo that’s weirdly fitting to give depth to Scullion’s modest everyman singing.

It’s unhurried but never plodding, the bowed bass adding a thrum to the twang, a power that fills the room. ‘Bathtime Blues’ is introduced bashfully, a Lennon & McCartney-esque playful song that started as a washtime joke with his toddler daughter that contains a whistled chorus, and is perhaps the only song we hear tonight that has been written on the toilet… Or the only one admitted to. An unusual addition, and one that many musicians wouldn’t include, it definitely has its place, adding brevity to the sadness contained in some of the other songs. New album Southlands is officially released on May 18th but previews can be purchased here, and also heard as the much-talked about single ‘Communion Girls’ is showcased, a premier for many of the ears here. Scullion downplays it as he downplays everything, describing it as a child’s Bruce Lee fantasy of rescuing friends from The Troubles, but despite his attempt to give it a humorous bent it is still a song about the Troubles, and we treat it with reverence, seeing the serious songwriting for what it is. It’s not the very oldest style of Americana. If anything, it recalls 60s San Francisco, when the dreamers strummed and protested in short, barely finished bursts.

The Lost Brothers aren’t brothers. They are Mark McCausland and Oisin Leech. They also don’t seem to be particularly lost. If the tales Oisin tells between songs are anything to go by they’ve navigated their way around the world, playing in Los Angeles, Oregon and spending quite a lot of time sitting outside George Harrison’s house in Liverpool, bothering the neighbours. Opening with ‘Gold and Silver’ we notice a clarity to them. Each song is a finished tapestry that they re-embroider in front of us with their flat, honest storytelling. If Malojian are the 1960s recreation of Americana then The Lost Brothers are from the era before, the original mountain-crafted songs rather than any sort of throwback homage. Harmonies are so close they’re impossible to unravel, delivered with as much natural ease as The Everly Brothers. ‘Now That The Night Has Come’ safely straddles the line that they might be accused of coming too close to. That line of being so simplistic we feel we’ve heard each song a thousand times before but we welcome this recognition instead of sneering at the obviousness.

Oisin is obviously the appointed spokesperson for the group, the only word that crosses Mark’s lips during the whole hour and fifteen minutes set is a brief “Cheers”. Leech doesn’t mind though, telling us they’re selling the new album at the merch stand, along with a few handbags if we’re lucky. New album New Songs of Dawn and Dust features heavily during the show, ‘Soldier Song’ and ‘Poor, Poor Man’ evidencing the lack of showboating. There’s no need for it. The beauty is in the subtlety, leaving the stories to breathe on their own even though we already know the ending. It’s not all slow sadness though. They’re not above a rising, repeated riff, an infectious jangle. Beatles cover ‘In Spite Of All The Danger’ brings this and some doo-wop of sorts.

An encore is called for and seems desperately needed, as this audience don’t want to let these two go just yet. Even when the music stops, the congratulatory crowd amass at the merch stand, wanting a piece of these men. When they play, you forget that other musical genres exist. This is it. This is music. Nobody wants to let go of that.

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Freak’s are nowhere near as freakish as their name, nor as terrifying as their misplaced apostrophe suggests. They’re quite pleasantly indie, with the likeably cracking vocal usually associated with a juvenile frontman. At times the drummer and bassist seem to be locked in a battle of tempo and wills but this is unimportant when faced with their nonsensically upbeat choruses. It’s never quite anthemic as they never seem to either wake up or wake us up but it’s solidly nice, with deliberately skittish rhythms which would be reminiscent of The Maccabees if the guitar had a touch more jangle.

You get the impression Katie Richardson has been listening to an awful lot of Stevie Nicks lately. There are worse people to channel though, as Richardson’s new project Goldie Fawn showcases their collection of rousing late-night torch songs which do touch something musically retro, and welcomed. The tracks have more of a heavier rock sound than most familiar with Richardson’s previous musical incarnations were expecting, the slicked-back bassist driving the mood along with occasional 70s-style synth samples tick-tocking underneath. With ‘Something Beautiful’ you can tell this is indeed their attempt to create something beautiful, a centrepiece. A builder of a song, one of those that has the lyrical repetition that sits so well inside your head you feel the absence when it finishes.

The atmosphere is experiencing a steady climb, both the numbers and the audience excitement increasing, in case anyone forgot this evening is supposed to have a pinnacle. We’re here to celebrate the debut album launch of Bee Mick See, the Portland born turned pure Belfast rapper. The Belfast Yank does exactly what it says on the tin: fuses the styles of 90s hip-hop with breathless raised inflection rap and an unashamedly broad Belfast accent that, while comical, can be taken seriously the more you listen to it.

Six people crammed onto The Bar With No Name’s stage only serves to ramp up the energy even higher, the band taking their cue from Brendan Seamus’ jolly hyperactivity. You can’t deny there’s a party taking place. Every instrument is manipulated to exert maximum fun potential. Guitars jangle when they’re not rocking out. The bass lollops along like an enthusiastic puppy while Bee himself expresses so much joy he’s almost – metaphorically, of course – humping the leg of the audience. There’s even a keytar!

It’s unclear if the audience know quite what’s going on but they know they want to join, as during ‘Who Likes Laughing?’ the call and response gets louder as the newbies pick up the lyrics, Bee the children’s TV presenter encouraging us all to raise our voices. And that’s the theme of the entire evening. Memorable titles are thrown at us: ‘Single’, Awkward’ and those who fall outside Mick See’s singalong radar are caught on the edges by his duetting partner, Yellowbridge’s Ciara Donnelly who snarls naysayers into submission. For all this encouragement, the only sour note is that even though the atmosphere reaches the audience, the lyrics don’t always. Mick See’s rapid delivery is lost under the bass and drums and love song to a Fermanagh girl ‘My Favourite’ ends up limited to the only phrases we can catch: the occasional “chamomile tea” and “Deep Heat”. To turn the only negative into a positive though, if the album launch was your first Bee Mick See experience, then buying the album will fill in the blanks in your lyrical knowledge.