Tuesday, 29 May 2012

MUSIC REVIEW: Tennents Vital Music Showcase

Si's Sights And Sounds visits Derry's Bound For Boston to check out four of the acts competing for a place at Tennents ViTal

The very mention of the words "Tennents" and "ViTal" have been filling most music fans with excitement for a decade. Since 2002, revellers from all over the province have been thrilled by the likes of The White Stripes, Ash, Primal Scream, Snow Patrol, Kaiser Chiefs and the Manic Street Preachers, be it in Botanic Gardens, Ormeau Park, and Ward Park.

Now, the Foo Fighters and the Stone Roses will be taking to the stage at Belfast's Boucher Road Playing Fields on August 21-22; and, for the first time, two emerging Northern Irish acts will get to join them. That's just two out of a final sixteen, so competition is fierce.

One of the four heats took place at Derry's Bound For Boston, and Si's Sights And Sounds was there to check out the talent on show.

Renowned for his intelligent lyrics and “delicate instrumentation” (Steven Rainey, Culture Northern Ireland), Derry tune smith Eoin O’Callaghan, aka BEST BOY GRIP, has also been likened to both The Divine Comedy and The Beatles. The influence of both is obvious in a varied set that gives him the chance to show off all of his strengths, much to the delight of his loyal band of supporters in the city’s Codetta choir and beyond. Having a handful of equally talented musicians to back him up, including successful violinist Niamh McGowan, also helps.

The catchiness and cleverness of his tunes, combined with the affability and stage presence of everyone on stage, sets a very high standard for the other acts on the night to follow. There’s something for everyone in the crowd to enjoy here, be it the instantly appealing “Soldier Boy”, the Neil Hannon-esque wit of “Monster And Me” and “Barbara”, and, probably best of all, the whole of “Russian Roulette”. It’s clear that this particular best boy has a good grip on both his material and audience.

Belfast-based rockers A NORTHERN LIGHT can’t offer anywhere near as much versatility. They’re a no frills, all thrills, right-into-the-action band that appear to be relying solely on charisma and very loud playing to mask what’s mostly a bland, superficial set.

Their “one of us” presence and punky retro sound – very 1980’s, with a bit of Rolling Stones thrown in for good measure – keeps their set afloat, but something’s undeniably lacking. Perhaps, to paraphrase some film about a shark, they’re going to need a bigger stage? And ViTal may yet provide it.

If you were to rate a set purely on effort and single-minded quality, RACHEL AUSTIN would come out on top. The Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival's artist-in-residence gives a one-woman show that is, quite simply, the most admirable of the night. “These Eyes” and “Babydoll” effectively exhibit her impressive voice (once likened to a nightingale’s) and guitar playing prowess, while the angry yet poetic “Control” benefits immensely, not to mention uniquely, from backing vocals on a loop station. Alas, she’s having trouble commanding everyone’s attention at this moment, making you wonder if her undeniable gifts are really suited to the ViTal stage.

But then, along comes “Oh Heart”, a highly amusing, upbeat number featuring a pig-snort on repeat as the backing track! And so, Austin invites the crowd to quite literally make pigs of themselves for a few minutes. The result well and truly wins the audience over, carrying the set through a rough patch – a blues-y cover of “What A Wonderful World” that doesn’t quite come off – into the soulful, moving final number, where elements of Alison Krauss and Corinne Bailey Rae combine to put the seal on a slow-burning, spellbinding performance.

On a personal note, I was rather underwhelmed by MOJO GOGO when I saw them at Derry’s Bentley Bar last Christmas. As spirited, tight-knit and energetic as they were, their musical appeal eluded me. Fortunately for them, it has not eluded Hot Press magazine and most of the island of Ireland, and they hit the Bound For Boston stage to the loudest applause of the night.

To start with, they seem like Michael J. Fox’s band in Back To The Future – “too darn loud” – but when front man Niki Pollock takes the forefront on the catchy, heartfelt second song, they really begin to make their presence felt. And it’s all uphill from there. It’s like A Northern Light without the weaknesses – no frills, but extra thrills.

By the time they dedicate “No Dancing Allowed” to Across The Line’s Rigsy, they are well and truly into the groove, and admittedly, so am I. This is a band that clearly enjoys what they do. Their music has struck a nerve with most young festival goers. For that reason alone, it might just be exactly what ViTal is looking for.