The word on the street is that the Saturday is the less cool show of Belfast’s BBC Music Biggest Weekend. Friday had Beck, for one, lesser spotted on these shores and always an event. Put that together with The Breeders, Manic Street Preachers and a dance to Orbital to finish the night and you have 90s retro heaven. An unmissable event. But… you can have a dance to end the night on Saturday too, surely? Underworld are shutting up shop for us and are certainly comparable to Orbital in scope and slickness. Franz Ferdinand are indie darlings and have been since 2004. Ash are a uniting experience for all Northern Irish folk and Neneh Cherry is a must see even just for the sake of curiosity. It’s clear on closer inspection that Saturday has cool in spades but what it might lack is a certain cohesiveness. Swinging from rap to experimental pop to folk music to a rave is just a little too much for certain people. But whoever said a festival had to be cohesive? We’re trying to please as many people as possible here and the way to do that is to showcase different genres. And the people do seem pleased.
The weather is with us as we enter the arena, confused by the shimmering summer sounds emanating from the main stage, female vocals that we’re not expecting from drum and bass pioneer and occasional Eastenders cameo star Goldie (Live). But it is indeed Clifford Joseph Price, MBE introducing “My muse, Natalie Duncan” for ‘I Adore You’ from 2017’s The Journey Man. Natalie lets her voice float over the day, caressing the wistful lyrics while Goldie himself seems redundant, air pianoing and conducting her with hand gestures like The Phantom Of The Opera. But he’s the creator of everything here, including the vocal arrangements and takes the opportunity to free himself from the production table, leaping about during ‘Inner City Life’ offering a buoyancy to the jungle-whipping helicopter of it and grinning his gold-toothed smile. He’s amassed an excellent crew of musicians with two drummers, oodles of cowbell and synths oppressive in the early afternoon heat, creating a fitting beginning to the day.
The Mercury Music Prize-winning Young Fathers are all kinetic energy. All standing up, shirt-unbuttoning, arse-wriggling directed right at us and we can’t help but take notice. Vocal duties are shared between Alloysious Massaquoi, Kayus Bankole and Graham ‘G’ Hastings and each brings something to the table. G stands still, plain-shirted and commandingly growls instructions. Kayus ducks and dives, his deep-voiced rumblings underpinning the pop and Alloysious has the soulful tone this needs to keep it even. It jangles and intimidates, the hyperactive pinball beat of ‘Shame’ convincing the audience to accept their offer to dance.
“Play us something beautiful, Håkan!” drummer Erik Boden requests of Little Dragon‘s keyboardist, and it does indeed seem as if they’re attempting to play only pretty high end gasps and thrums. Their set is characterised by yelps. Singer Yukimi’s for a start which are echoed in staccato short bursts of high pitched synth screams, building on the consistent warm, full background they’ve created. There’s not much in the minor key here and we’re fine with that. ‘Feather’ from 2009’s Machine Dreams is introduced by Yukimi as a Feminist song and she showcases the low, soulful end of her vocals, raising her blue-gloved arms to the sky, the audience mirroring the pose. It’s definitely an improvement on their first Belfast gig 11 years ago which they delight in telling us only five people turned up for. A quick head count today reveals… considerably more than five.
Unsurprisingly, Ash amass the largest crowd so far, Belfast audiences always loving a local success story. Not counting their chickens though they politely introduce themselves. “We’re from Downpatrick”, Tim Wheeler announces as it’s never a good idea to just assume everyone knows you.
They start with the searing guitar of ‘Burn Baby Burn’ and this, probably being the first truly familiar song of the day having reached number 13 in the UK charts in 2001 speaks to the audience as only familiarity can. ‘Kung Fu’ follows quickly behind, delighting those in the crowd who worried that anything from their 1996 album 1977 would be left behind. It’s all youthful exuberance and guitar solos, mostly on Tim’s Korina 1982 Gibson Flying V with bassist Mark Hamilton giving plenty of rock star poses, holding his bass high.
‘Oh Yeah’ gives the first real singalong of the day because today IS “the start of the summer”and although Wheeler’s voice is delicate, everyone quietens to hear him for the verses. It’s a gently shambolic set (apart from the tight-as-a-drum ‘Orpheus’); definitely not as polished as some of the other acts here today but we’re a forgiving lot, and shambolic fits a little with Ash’s punk ethos anyway. They invite Undertones members Damian O’Neill and Mickey Bradley onstage to recreate the backing vocals they provided for ‘Buzzkill’, a Ramones-esque chant about having your buzz killed, man, from their newest release, Islands. Of course, the presence of two Undertones makes a cover of ‘Teenage Kicks’ exponentially more likely. Predictably, the welcomed cover finishes the set.
Neneh Cherry seems baffled by the Belfast audience, as they seem to be by her, at least for the first portion of her set. Beginning with ‘Manchild’, she cuts a still figure, stopping every now and then to turn a page on her notes which gives the performance a stilted edge. But after asking the audience repeatedly “Are you with me?” and getting a mixed response she realises and cracks a few jokes to dissolve the tension, motioning towards her notes and saying as she gets older, “it takes longer to learn new things”.
And we’re treated to a few new songs today, ‘Soldier’ is heavy on the harp repetition with glockenspiel soundscapes, ‘Shotgun Shack’ breaks the stillness and she raps in a spoken word style, owning the song in a way that turns the tide of respect in the crowd. The only artist today to mention the result of the Referendum For Repeal in Ireland the previous day – the results of which are appearing on social media as the concert unfolds – she dedicates ‘Woman’ to those women who don’t give up as we luxuriate in the sampled strings and trip-hop vibe. “We’ve prepared a little weird, like, jazzy thing” she tells us. “We just made this up last night” and just when we think she’s going to end on a brand new song we’re bathed in a reworking of ‘Buffalo Stance’ which requires a different key of singing that Cherry can’t quite find, but freestyles a new melody as she smiles wryly at us during the De La Soul-like jam.
First Aid Kit bring together the dedicated as we look around and realise no matter which direction we look in, someone in our eyeline knows all the words. Sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg are wearing frou-frou flowery dresses and shiny white shoes, their guitars dwarfing their frames.
Their band too follow the flowery theme, black shirts with saloon-style white panels and embroidered roses. It’s clear there’ll be a touch of Nashville here today. ‘King Of The World’ displays shout-sing harmonies and trombone light-heartedness, almost the exact opposite of ‘Fireworks’ from the newest album: a gorgeous tragically hopeful lullaby. We’re in familiar turf with their self-proclaimed love song for country music ‘Emmylou’ and although the audience knows this one so well when Klara sings the chorus solo to a stripped back sound – many of the band holding back – the audience hold back too, not daring to break the spell and join in until she actively gives them permission and the voices crowd in. There are clearly many here who’ll be buying tickets for the sisters’ show in Belfast’s Telegraph Building in October.
Franz Ferdinand‘s Alex Kapranos seems to have borrowed a shirt from First Aid Kit’s band. Same red flower embroidery and everything. But they’re as far from country as you can get. Of course they’re going to devote a section of their set to their February release, fifth studio album Always Ascending and the crowd happily indulge them in this but we’re really here for the memories: the late Terry Wogan being namechecked in ‘Matinee’ which gives Kapranos a chance to croon mellifluously even if the song sounds a little more slowed down than usual.
Seeing the band pogo in unison when the drums kick in properly after the intro to ‘Take Me Out’; the joy at realising what we think will be a casual conversation when Kapranos says “I’m a late riser,” is actually a fake-out beginning to the “Oh, I woke up tonight,” opening line of ‘Do You Want To’, the lecherous “Lucky, lucky, you’re so lucky” refrain lasting as long as the audience wants it to, Kapranos taunting them into letting go and shouting finally. They finish with recent single ‘Feel The Love Go’ which characterises their new synthy sound, as heavy as when Yazoo’s Vince Clarke popularised synths and got Alison Moyet to sing over them. Sadly not as much saxophone as the recorded version though.
Underworld formed in 1987 although Karl Hyde and Rick Smith met in 1979 and started creating music together then, for those of you who think their career began and ended with the soundtrack. They follow the typical electronic duo stereotype of quiet producer Smith and an extrovert frontman in Hyde, who bounds onto the stage and repeatedly bounds over to Smith for hugs throughout the set.
His love is not just reserved for Smith though. “You look beautiful!” he jubilantly tells us and it could be a lie, or the truth, or a vision he’s having as he raises a foot off the ground in a pre-kick stance with better balance than everyone else here while ‘Juanita’ pops around us. Hyde acknowledges Underworld’s previous neglect of Belfast several times throughout the set, drawing attention to this gig as “Numero uno! You, me him… you, me, him.” pointing to the audience, himself and the oft-forgotten composer Smith in a glorious triumvirate of the rave.
‘Two Months Off’ is the closest Belfast will get to Balearic beats as everyone chants “You bring light in” along with Hyde’s unexpectedly pleasant singing voice when he actually sings rather than speaking rhythmically. Hyde removes his jacket to reveal a long sleeved white top with dark stripes which he seems to have been wearing in every publicity shot for the last 20 years and raises his arms frenziedly. Not the first hands to God motion today, but perhaps the most convincing.
Hyde steps aside, however to let Iggy Pop on stream-of-consciousness poetry vocals and onscreen take centre stage on a track that wasn’t even named last night, the way all their others have had their names printed high on the screen which is handy for those who haven’t the faintest idea what’s going on. It’s ‘Bells & Circles’ and despite Pop’s absence in person, we hang on his every word. As if the holding back has been difficult for Hyde though he’s straight out of the blocks for ‘King Of Snake’ with its dizzying hypnotic green dots backdrop, his sleazy snake-hipped movements enticing and beggaring belief that this man is 61. Even though it’s been full on dance from the start it’s as if we’ve been asleep until now, everyone realising the gig must be around half over as the sun gradually sets while Hyde is seemingly electrocuted by the strobe. Snake memories in our minds he tells us “You’re cool” and we actually think we might be. ‘Rez’ takes things up another notch as the sun disappears, our heart rates rise with the hi-hat and he takes us to Romford for the first time, but not the last.
There’s about time for one more song and it’s what he calls a “traditional Essex folk song”. If there’s a crowd has ever been more ready to shout “Lager, lager, lager” we haven’t seen them here in Belfast. “We’ve never danced before, Belfast. I’m asking you out,” he tells us and the Biggest Weekend as one dance an emphatic yes as their dance cards are filled with ‘Born Slippy .NUXX’. And then it’s over, Smith and Hyde hugging again, Hyde dancing off as he danced on 75 minutes previously going… maybe going back to Romford.