The Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival has been a long standing mainstay in the calendar since 1989. Despite its long history I am ashamed to actually admit that to date I had never attended any of its events. The Festival itself combines various cultural elements comedy, music, theatre and the visual arts and take place in a variety of locations and venues around Belfast City Centre. Pleasant surroundings, a well tuned sound system and no queues for either bar or food services. I have attended many events over the years which have never effectively manage the basic provisions of food and drink service for their audiences. The majority of the music shows programmed take place in the the Festival Marquee with others like The Black Box and Belfast Barge playing host.
After the original booked act the enigmatic and legendary Wilko Johnson was forced to withdraw at short notice for health reasons it was his former band mates The Blockheads that stepped in. The Blockheads have been around and have established their musical legacy dating back to the late seventies. With the death of front man Ian Dury, this role has been taken by a former friend and acquaintance Derek Hussey. I was curious to see how this would come over in a live setting but The Blockheads however have not chosen to pursue the retro “Greatest Hits” package of many of their peers. Many bands of that era still in existence choose to tour the same set each year. Instead The Blockheads continue to record and release new material, which obviously has a direct effect on their live shows, keeping them fresh and current for their audiences.
First up where the long named Billy Miskimmin’s Mercy Lounge, a name unfamiliar to me despite their leaders intro listing of his musical pedigree with many international and global stars. Billy, originally a Belfast man, was returning to his musical roots after global tours and experiences with bands as musically diverse as the Yardbirds and Nine Below Zero, playing studio sessions for artists such as Marc Almond and Stiff Little Fingers and he was even personally invited by Bruce Willis to play at the Hollywood Premiere of his Twelve Monkeys movie. Suffice to say that they totally blew me away.
With a musical style forged in a variety of genres, not dissimilar to Van Morrison, utilising a guitar and harmonica dual interplay they seemed to have a style which instantly got the audience moving and grooving. Quite simply one of the best bands I have seen in many years and definitely will be exploring their musical history very soon. I was particularly impressed with the guitarist who showcased a variety of styles and techniques. The Mercy Lounge showed no mercy when it came to delivering a solid and energetic set, encoring with an extended version of Canned Heats “On the Road Again” as audience members were encouraged to shake their thang on the Marquee dance floor.
Onto the headliners The Blockheads which seemed to have attracted many die hard fans, judging by the t-shirts in evidence. Audience was a nice mix of generations and exuded a party and good-natured atmosphere throughout the performance. Lineup featured four original members, a rare feature these days amongst bands of that era. Vocalist Derek Hussey, effectively presented the cockney storytelling nature of the songs following in the footsteps of his predecessor. Mixing some latter and new songs with their well known hits, they delivered an enjoyable and entertaining set. Engaging well with a good natured bonhomie with the audience, the band seemed to be having a great a time as those attending. Even the older songs which were played – i.e. the bands “hits” – retained a vigour and freshness as if the band were playing them for the first time.
Indeed songs like “Hit Me with your Rhythm Stick” and “Reasons to be Cheerful” sounded as good as they did when I first heard them back in the day. With a groove laid down by drummer and legendary bassist Norman Watt-Roy the band sounded musically solid. No doubting the band’s musicianship from the regular and original members to the saxophonist and with regular shout outs to Wilko Johnson and his health crisis were warmly appreciated by the audience attending. A very pleasant evening out and 2 new bands that I had never witnessed live before. Initially with the original headliners withdrawal I felt ticket sales would be adversely affected, however fortunately this didn’t appear to be the case. “Reasons to be Cheerful” as they sang , well this evening I had many. Mark Dean, GiggingNI.com