HERE’S WHAT HAPPENS WHEN ONE OF YOUR CLOSEST FRIEND ASKS YOU IF YOU FANCY GIVING HIM A HAND TO FILM VAN MORRISON BRINGING IT ALL BACK HOME TO THE LAND OF PLANES, CRANES AND LOW FLYING PLANES…..
A FEW DAYS LATER AND WE ARE STANDING ON A CAMERA GANTRY IN A BIG TENT AS VAN THE MAN RIPS INTO THE OPENING DU, DU, DU, DIP, DIP OF JACKIE WILSON SAID WITH HIS HOME CROWD GOING MENTAL IN FRONT OF HIM.
MICKEY B TURNS TO ME AND SMILES, IT’S BEEN A LOG AND SOMETIMES STRESSFUL DAY FOR HIM….”SURE WHERE ELSE WOULD YA RATHER BE?” HE SHOUTS
AND WE LAUGH TOGETHER AT THE JOURNEY THAT HAS BROUGHT US HERE.
TWO WEE LADS FROM THE EAST.
“Triple A son?”….
“Are ya triple A son?”
“I’m with the camera crew”
“That’s nat what I asked ye”
“I’ve just got to talk to that fella over there”
Now I’m pointing sheepishly at one of the cameramen who is literally three metres away from us. I’ve got my accreditation and its a few hours before there is even a likelihood of the man from Hyndford Street taking to the stage. Nevertheless, this is an East Belfast music festival. The first of its kind, and here in the east we do things differently.
We’ve no radio link, and all I have to do is pass a message onto him. But it’s proving difficult.
I’ve become a bit of an old hand at gigs music gigs over the last few years. Security and stewards can sometimes be an eclectic mix of friendliness and common sense, over zealousness, ballbaggery, and downright ignorance. This I suppose comes from liggers and drunken chancers making their lives a misery. Usually they are burly, tattooed skinheads in black combat trousers, but as I’ve said here in the east we do things differently.
Tonight at the East Belfast Arts festival at Aircraft Park (Shorts) the security is provided by three wee volunteer women from a community group on the Newtownards Road. None of them come up to higher my elbow. They are wearing day-glo yellow bibs and have spent the last half an hour dancing (thE dance that wee women do) to Gareth Dunlop, and now they are gathered round me like a pack of dingoes circling for the kill. They remind me of my mother. East Belfast’s finest. They are taking no shit. Usually they work in a pre-school day nursery on the lower east side. I’m one smart arse comment away from the naughty step or a skelp round the hole.
“If yiv no triple AAA son, yill have till dander round thonder.
(Thonder? thonder? What a fuckin word!!) I haven’t heard it since my granny died.
“Thems is the rules”
“Thonder” is a three day camel ride. But this is East Belfast and you don’t fuck with wee women in yellow vests sporting perfectly spelt tattoos of the granchilder’s names.
It’s Saturday night and George Ivan Morrison OBE is back home, just a kick in the arse from where it all began five or so decades ago.
The problem with East Belfast is that we don’t blow our own trumpet loudly enough. The event is purposely low key. Granted the gig is under a huge blue tent in the ground of Shorts Social Club, but it’s as parochial as it can be. And that’s class. The head bombardier is a genial wee man in a blazer who is on the bowling committee .His Brylcreem is glistening in the sunlight. He does that funny hand shaky thing which suggests he might be a member of the three legged bricklayers club…”I pass these scissors crossed”…capische?
There’s a small burger and chips stand “going a dinger”, a coffee and crepe stall doing nothing and a beer concession which is not being abused as much as you’d expect on a Saturday evening round our way.
The day bursts into life with a charismatic, larger than life singer called Mama Kaz and her band who as the small older man leaning over the crush barrier with a tin of Carlsberg remarks to me “ Has a quare pair of lungs on her”
Mama Kaz moves around the stage, with a sultry grace, shakin her thang and Carlsberg man digs me in the ribs and winks. He nods in the general direction of her ample frontage. “S’like watchin two badgers trying to get out of a rucksack isn’t it son? I have to agree with him. Already I love the East Belfast Arts Festival.
She, has indeed a fantastic voice and plays a blistering bluesy set to a small but appreciative audience and we are up and running.
“Here, yo” the three wee women are calling me.
“Will you get to talk to him?”
“Who?” I ask.
“Van, fer fuck sake” comes the reply.
“No, I wouldn’t think so” I reply. “Sure you won’t let me in”
“Oh aye right enough” she goes.
“Well, if you do, ask him if he rit Brown Eyed Girl about a girl called Miriam from Abetta Parade, she swears it’s about her, so if ya get the chance”
I tell them to leave it with me. It’s probably best if I pull him just before he’s about to go on.
The standard of musicianship today is phenomenal. Anthony Toner is next up and he takes to the stage despite an almost career ending collision with the Progressive sponsored weather jingle at the end of the UTV news. I love the song he opens with called Well, Well Well. I love the fact that he recorded the video in the Harland and Wolff drawing rooms…but, after hearing the one line for nigh on 18 months and then having to watch Frank Mitchell just going “It’s bucketing” on the weather forecast every night after it was played means that it takes a bit of time to fall in love with the song again.
But he too is brilliant, goes down a storm and the crowd thickens towards the front of the tent, which is impressive because outside the sun is searing the bright red shoulders and balding heads of the good people of the east, who are in turn doing shuttle runs to Decathlon to buy the foldy up chairs you only normally use for the Twelfth.
The break between the sets allows only a brief trip from the camera gantries into Shorts Social Club for a bottle of Sprite and a bag of Scampi Fries. I take the opportunity to go for a pee in the toilets in the club’s function room. And again, I realise why I love East Belfast. Thirty yards away, one of the world’s most successful recording artists is heading up a formidable array of local talent, but here in the club’s function room a wee band is setting up for the usual Saturday night do. How’s that for optimism?
I’m almost tempted to stop mid flow by the sounds emanating from the big top. You see Belfast has this Gospel community choir that I didn’t know about made up of Prods, Kaffliks, black people, white people, gingers, blondes, baldies, large people, small people, ….but mostly just girls and fellas….and the sound they make when they all sing together is simply sensational.
I find myself drawn to the tent by the perfection of their craft. I’ve never heard them before and it is and I’m not ashamed to say it very emotional. I’ve had a bit of a shite time recently and listening to the beauty of their harmonies almost moves me to tears. And to think that a week ago, the images of Belfast that the world sees are of hooded thugs attacking police officers from the grounds of an old people’s home. These people are the real face that our city needs to portray.
The heat is starting to drop away inside the tent and I’m wondering if I should have brought a jacket to feel the benefit from it when I’m going home. I spent the next half hour shaking hands and talking to familiar faces. There’s a great representation here from the Oval and from the East Belfast glitterati.
The clock on my phone shows its six o clock which means its Gareth Dunlop time. This young man from the Cregagh Road has the potential to be as good as the master himself. I have no idea how a 25 year-old from east Belfast can find so much soul in his voice and so much heart in his lyrics. He tells me before he goes on that time is tight and that he’ll have to stop himself talking and crack on through his set. I know the songs off by heart, Hammy his drummer and the other lads in the band are note perfect and I notice that again Gareth’s following is expanding by the month. The audience whoop in recognition of the songs and by the end of his half hour the place is bouncing. I could watch this lad play every single night of the week.
Next we are treated to a bouncy lively energetic set from a band from North East Belfast (Derry) called the Wonder Villains. After a nightmare start which must have had the guitarist's arse twitching like bunny’s nose they change the vibe with a bright and breezy electro pop collection of songs during which I promise myself to check them out further. They handle their instruments with confidence and aplomb and fit perfectly into the mix of ballad, gospel, soul and blues that the day is delivering in spades.
Time then for another son of the East. Brian Houston has been writing gritty melodic music and performing it with gusto for what must be twenty five odd years.
His band are getting ready in the artists area backstage. Having finally negotiated my way before the three tyrannical sentries of the apocalypse I get a glimpse of the line-up before they hit the stage. Dressed in a killer combo of red and black they look and subsequently sound the part. Brian seems to be in the form of his life. A guy from New York asks me what part of the States Brian is from I’m tempted to tell him the Clonduff Estate…but I politely point out that he is from just down the road which in turn prompts a “get the fuck outta here” from the Yankee Doodle Dandy.
The bar is being set higher and higher by every artist…..Houston tells tales about being caught sleeping as an apprentice in the shipyard by the chairman of Harland and Wolff then tears through a set laced with rock and gospel….job done he retreats to the burger van to negotiate a 50p discount off his chicken burger because he doesn’t want a bap….East Belfast really is wonderful …..and the wee woman who is every bit his match finally capitulates just to get rid of him.
I need another pee…before the headline act.
Shana, Van’s daughter is getting the ever burgeoning crowd in the zone, opening with the captivating Heat Shaped Tattoo. It’s obvious that some of her backing musicians are Van’s men and so the standard remains extremely high for the duration of a polished thirty five minute set. Although Shana performs with a wonderful West Coast drawl you have to remember that she still qualifies to play For Northern Ireland if Michael O’Neill decides to call her into the squad…..
Outside though, as I make one final trip to the little boys room a situation-situation is developing which could throw the whole event into disarray and when I hear from another wee volunteer security man what is happening at the front gate I know that I am truly at home in the land of my fathers……..
To be continued……..