I never had the privilege of knowing Gary “Bapper” Morris, but listening to the many testimonials about him last night, I really wish I had. A local man, Bapper was a swimming instructor who died in January of this year from a stroke at the age of just 52. He was a life long music lover and travelled to rock gigs whenever he could, particularly supporting homegrown bands. In tribute to him, his friends and family organised the massive rock gig on the Hill of the O’Neill that he had always dreamed of, with many of his favourite artists agreeing to join the bill. Besides being a night on which to remember their lost friend, this sold out event also raised a lot of money for the Northern Ireland Chest, Heart and Stroke charity.
The event kicked off early with the gates to this stunning venue opening at 2pm. First to the stage were Cookstown heavy rock and blues band, Smoking Gun. Johnny McLaughlin, Stevie Martin and Nigel Hazelton, together with new vocalist Hector O’Hare, perform a mix of original songs and covers. A great way to warm up the crowd. Next up was AC/DC tribute act, Bad Boy Boogie. This was a crowd full of hard core rock fans and so these guys were right up their street.
A highlight of the day for me was the great Pat McManus Band. Their surprisingly early time slot was determined by the fact that they had another gig to play elsewhere that night. However, as an old friend of Bapper’s, Pat wasn’t going to miss the chance to honour his memory and support a good cause. Playing many favourites, including his ode to Gary Moore, Belfast Boy, and several Mama’s Boys’ classics, Pat’s blend of Irish trad and rock was masterful. Touchingly he recalled a personal memory of the man of the hour. He and Bapper had attended an AC/DC gig together which was besieged with torrential rain. Losing sight of his friend, Pat looked around, only to see Bapper spinning on the ground in the mud, Angus Young-style. Laughs all round revealed that this was just the sort of behaviour this crowd expected from their friend.
Another few cover bands filled the middle section of the day’s bill, but then a great cover band will always be a crowd pleaser. The mellow Craic Horses covered artists including Curtis Mayfield and Soft Cell. The Crafty Crows are a lively, band with the advantage of having three great vocalists in Brian Mills, Declan McGrath and Alzi Murray. Their vibe was really fun and with numbers like Huey Lewis and the News’ Power of Love, they got everyone up and dancing. In what was a very family-friendly event, it was great to see so many little kids filling the dancefloor to the songs they knew.
Next up was Kalibur, a seriously talented bunch of musicians who tackled everything from Peter Gabriel to Sam and Dave. Front man Ryan Kelly is known for being able to play just about any request that’s thrown at him, and he absolutely nailed the ambitious guitar solo in Gary Moore’s Still Got the Blues. No mean feat. These are not your average cheesy wedding bands, they’re top class musicians keeping some great classic songs alive. Unfortunately, The Black Stuff were unable to perform as planned, but Kalibur gladly extended their set, even bringing emcee for the day, Mark “Soulman” Casey up on stage to sing Honky Tonk Woman.
The diehard heavy rock fans in the audience were catered for in the form of Coalisland based power rock trio, A Little Bitter. The most metal and certainly the loudest act of the evening, A Little Bitter have recorded three albums of original music to date, including their latest, Arrows, released this year.
Penultimate act for the evening was the Southern blues stylings of Rusty Jacks who hail from Draperstown. Formed in the last few years, this is a group of musicians with years of experience between them who have established a reputation as a formidable force in blues music and with a great onstage chemistry. With four albums to their credit, their set was comprised of a lot of original material and one or two choice covers, namely Them’s Baby Please Don’t Go and soul standard, Hard to Handle.
At 9pm it was finally time for the headline act, the mighty Blackwater Conspiracy. With influences ranging from rock to blues to country, this is a band with the spirit of a proper, rock giant and they have been likened to The Rolling Stones and The Faces. Bapper was a devoted fan of the band and followed them around the country when he could, so it was fitting that they should bring the night to a close. Formed just three years ago, they give the impression of a vintage group who have been together for decades. Fans of the band are devoted, and it was a thrill for many to see them in their home town for the first time in almost two years.
The audience were in rapture at their ninety-minute set, in which they didn’t fail to play all the favourites from the 2017 album, Shootin’ the Breeze; Monday Club and Penny for Your Dirty Mind were favourites for me. The more poignant Hanging Tree brought a sober tone to the already emotional evening. And there wasn’t a dry eye in the house when they ended the night with the very apt, A Little Help from my Friends.
All in all, this was a really special affair. Not only is The Hill of the O’Neill one of the most beautiful settings imaginable for a summer evening gig, but it showcased a whole host of talent which was entirely local. Children of all ages were welcome, and families celebrated the life of Bapper Morris together. With hot dogs and pizza and the obligatory ice-cream man, this was essentially a mini rock festival and praise is due to those who arranged it in his name. Speaking to his niece Erin Foy, I got a sense that Bapper would have approved of the occasion, and I am certain his family must have been gratified by the outpouring of love for him that was so evident. And excitingly, such a success was it that today it was announced that it will happen all over again next year!
You can donate to Chest, Heart & Stroke NI in Bapper’s name here.