BBC’s Big Weekend has taken Belfast over musically, with an extensive range of fringe shows and events supporting the two all-star concerts in the Titanic Quarter on Friday 25th and Saturday 26th. Tonight Radio Ulster’s Ralph McLean brings his Local Voices show to Botanic Gardens and the famous Victorian Palm House. It’s an unusual venue for a music event; small, very warm and full of tropical plant life.
Ralph is my favourite local broadcaster by a country mile; his weekly programme showcases local artists and has been responsible for introducing me to music that I would never have heard elsewhere. He is also hugely knowledgeable about all aspects of music and a great host/compere for this evening’s performances. He knows each of the artists and their music, and this is evidenced by his conversations with each of them between live performances.
First up tonight is Stevie Scullion of Malojian fame, who opens with my two favourite tracks from his latest album Let Your Weirdness Carry You Home, namely “Some New Bones” and “Ambulance Song” Taking a break before we get treated to “Damp”, Stevie fills us in on the health reasons behind his recent cancellations of a number of gigs.
As if Stevie wasn’t already one of the nicest guys in the world, he discloses that he has recently donated a kidney to a family member. Stevie looks more frail than usual, but he manages to joke that this has allowed him to have a roadie to carry his equipment for the first time in his career. Ralph has time to highlight the sheer quality of Stevie’s work thus far and there is even a hint of some new material in the pipeline.
Sonja Sleator sings “Calla” from her EP Adams, accompanied by Daniel Lynch on acoustic guitar and this is quite an atmospheric mid-tempo rock song, and again Ralph’s questions highlight how hard-working an artist Sleator is.
Following Sleator is Ciara O’Neill who treats us to “Hurtin”, the first single from her latest album album, Arrow. O’Neill’s voice is folky, tinged with traditional Irish influences, and her lyrics ring inside the metal and glass frame of the Palm House. O’Neill talks about her connections to Nashville and it is no surprise that she is yet another alumnus of the Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival.
Ralph introduces Mark McCambridge (a.k.a Arborist), and notes that he had been trying to get McCambridge in to record a session for radio show with no success up to tonight. Those familiar with his work will know that McCambridge’s music is sparse but warm, and has very clear Americana leanings. The violin accompaniment on this first song is a sheer delight, and it is provided by Clare Hadwin of the Arco String Quartet and The Ulster Orchestra. “From The Sagging Bough of a Maple” is from a soon-to-be released second album, The Northern View. McCambridge tells of how he got Kim Deal to appear on his debut album before playing “Twisted Arrow” which was co-written with Deal.
Bangor native Iain Archer is next up with a thumping solo acoustic version of “When it Kicks In”. Archer is a two-time Ivor Novello winner and a Grammy nominee; a performer, writer and producer he has worked with everyone from Jake Bugg to Liam Gallagher and was responsible for “Run” (Snow Patrol) and “Hold Back the River” (James Bay).
Sonja Sleator returns for “Mia”, which is a much darker song than her first offering and Mark McCambridge comes next with another soulful and brooding song. Ciara O’Neill plays the other track of the “Hurtin’” single, “Dreamer”. O’Neill and McLean talk up the diversity attached to the Big Weekend, not just the concerts but the other events such as talks and workshops.
Iain Archer plays the meandering but brittle “I Am a Landslide” from his days with Tired Pony; the notes seem to float up to the high glass ceiling of the venue. By the time Mark McCambridge returns for his final song, “The Northern View”, the temperature inside the Palm House has mercifully dropped a little. We get to hear one more number from Sonja Sleator (with a plug for her upcoming tour) and one from Ciara O’Neill before Iain Archer brings the show to a close, with a beautifully paced and delicate version of “Canal Song”.
A fabulous evening of local music, a great compere, and a wildly unusual venue. It’s only a pity that we need the BBC Big Weekend to come to Belfast to get an event as distinct and unique as this.