Having last visited Northern Ireland in 2013 with One Big Weekend Derry, five years later Belfast has been chosen by the BBC to host their Biggest Weekend alongside Coventry, Swansea and Perth. Distributing the curation of each stage among BBC’s range of radio stations, Belfast had the privilege of 6 Music assembling two days of an eclectic mix of rock and indie to entertain the masses at the Titanic Slipways.
First up was Father John Misty accompanied by the Ulster Orchestra. An ambitious collaboration given the little time for the two to acquaint each other, none the less the suited and bearded figure of the man in question fronted the stage with the utmost confidence of the ensemble behind him. Despite the early start of 1pm, a healthy crowd had made the effort to catch the first act of the day. The former Fleet Foxes drummer opened up with “Mr Tillman” from his upcoming album God’s Favourite Customer. Admittedly the efforts of the orchestra only became apparent when the brass section came into play during the chorus of “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)”.
Up next was Swedish singer, model and actress Lykke Li. Donned from shoulder to toe in black mac trenchcoat, her backing band all joined their frontwoman by keeping the dress code onstage to the single tone of black. Opening up with a “deep end” from her upcoming album “So Sad So Sexy”, the melancholic pop was performed with both emotion and sincerity. The slicked back dark blonde hair of the vocalist danced around to songs of heartbreak and suspicion but partnered the paranoia of her subject matter perfectly. Closing with the “I’ve heard that before” hit of “I Follow Rivers” proved a friendly reminder among the masses looking for a sing-along.
Public Service Broadcasting took to the stage with a specially created four-song concept piece relating purely to the Titanic. Having previously created music depicting their own story of World War 2, the space race and the decline of the coal industry in South Wales, the band’s interpretive use of music was accompanied by archive footage of the Titanic as a backdrop. The trip the music takes you on goes on a journey from the launch in “The Unsinkable Ship” to “White Star Liner” depicting the pre-war optimism that came with the journey from Belfast to New York via Southampton. “Part III: The Disaster ‘C_Q_D'” clever use of morse code in the backdrop to the beat of the music was an intelligent touch albeit a harrowing evaluation of the actual trauma the ship and its passengers were subjected to.
As the clouds covered up what had been a boiling a bright Titanic Quarter, comical indie rocker Courtney Barnett took to the stage. The Austrailian’s ever-rolling storytelling lyrics are reminiscent of the tone Sheryl Crow is known for but apart from guitars in hand comparisons end there as Barnett’s subject matter relates to the uncomfortable situations of life rather than soaking up the sun. Playing through tracks such as “Avant Gardener” and “Need A Little Time”, the garage rock musings get lost in the wind of the Belfast crowd but a peak of interest arrived in the invitation of The Breeder’s Kim and Kelley Deal to the stage to perform “Nameless Faceless”. Closing with “Pedestrian at Best” draws the biggest reaction of the set, Nirvana-like licks combined with an undeniably catchy chorus was a perfect segway for the next act; The Breeders.
Sporting the former Pixies guitarist Kim Deal and a legendary act in their own right, The Breeders returned to Belfast five years after having played here on their twentieth-anniversary tour of breakthrough album; “Last Splash”. Fast forward to 2018 and with a new album in toe, the band played a set largely filled with tracks from “All Nerve” including “Stay in the Car” and “Howl at the Summit” (with some help from Courtney Barnett and her band). One particular song left the majority of the audience lingering with interest until the end and predictably enough “Cannonball” closed out a strong set from the female fronted quartet.
Despite the late announcement that guitarist Nicky Wire would not make the show due to a family emergency, the remaining Manic Street Preachers battled on to make their Belfast appearance. Fronted by the faultless James Dean Bradfield, the band flew through a career-spanning set. Opening with “International Blues” from their latest album “Resistance is Futile”, new material sounded just at home as setlist staples such as “Motorcycle Emptiness” and “If You Tolerate This Then Your Children Will Be Next”. With such a wide and loyal fanbase, it was no surprise a large number of those in attendance were here for the boys from Wales and it took little effort for JDB to get the crowd clapping in unison for “You Stole The Sun From My Heart”. Apparent that they were the first band of the day to draw in all of the punters at the Slipways, the Manics are the epitome of a reliable festival band. Closing up with a song dedicated to “two of Belfast’s favourite sons…Mr David Holmes and Mr Andy Cairns” the band closed with “A Design For Life”.
As the evening began to warm up again, Beck took to the stage. A huge artist in his own right but an unknown quantity in some circles, the electro/funk/disco frontman has had career-threatening back issues but now finds himself in fine form with a new album and back on tour. Opening up with one most of the crowd should know, “Devils Haircut” is a nostalgic kick back to the early 2000s on this sunny May evening. Accompanied by one of the best visual displays of the day, the graphics for “Wow” and “Dreams” look great on the big stage and cannot be missed regardless where you happen to be standing in the slipways. The turning point of the set comes with the opening chords of “Loser” and the unified singalong of “I’m a loser baby so why don’t you kill me.” To finish, a fifteen-minute jam session/megamix/harmonica freestyle version of “Where It’s At” closed what had been a thorough and stylised set in a messy fashion.
The final band to take to the Biggest Weekend stage on Friday was dance pioneers Orbital. With almost thirty years of music behind them, it’s no surprise their sound and stage act is pretty much flawless. The relentless bobbing heads of the brothers on stage to tracks such as “Impact” and “Halcyon” show just how much they enjoy their own music and their dynamic and balance behind the decks have been a blueprint for acts such as Underworld, Chemical Brothers and the Prodigy. Admittedly there is a zone you need to be in to get the best out of a ninety-minute Orbital set but even as a sober bystander the tracks that the Hartnoll’s eventually bring out of their continuous mixes have an undeniable hook to them. With the sky finally starting to darken, the ever so apt “Satan” was pulled out of archives along with “Chime” and “The End is Nigh”. With the Slipway’s seemingly at it’s fullest merely a half an hour before the night was done, “Belfast” was unleashed on its namesake. As the night closed out to strobing lights and echoing bass, it wouldn’t be long until another legendary dance duo would have the privilege of closing out to a Belfast crowd, roll on tomorrow.