There was something very pleasant about strolling into the Open House Festival’s outdoor venue beside the McKee Clock. The sun was just starting to drop over the marina and Amanda Agnew’s crystal clear voice was ringing out – all in all the stage was set for a delightful summer evening by the sea. If memory serves me right, it’s been a while since the Open House Festival has put on a series of open-air shows like this year’s line-up. Agnew’s set was short and showcased her voice and her songwriting. She chose to finish on a song co-written with another local artist (Gareth Dunlop) and you could hear Dunlop’s influence in the song while still retaining the feel of Agnew’s other work to date.
Stephen McCartney’s new venture, King Cedar came next and it was no real surprise to see the outstanding guitarist Matt “Supersub” McGinn filling in on lead guitar.
King Cedar’s sound has a country/Americano feel to it and I was reminded of Brian Fallon of The Gaslight Anthem’s last solo album Sleepwalkers as well as some very early Springsteen. There’s a nice addition of a saxophone to the band this evening and the stand-out tracks tonight (for me) were “Hey I’m Stephen” and “Hard Luck Anodyne”.
The Waterboys are announced from side stage as hailing from Dublin, London and Memphis (even though Mike Scott is Scottish) and the big difference tonight from the last time I saw them play live is the inclusion of two female backing vocalists, Zeenie Summers and Jess Kavanagh.
Right from the off, you get the feel that this is going to be a great evening. Scott wears a huge Stetson and shades and starts throwing high kicks during the first song.
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Steve Wickham (fiddle) also sports a pair of orange shades, trilby and sparkly blue jacket. Brother Paul on the keyboards is as flamboyant as ever. In the back, Ralph Salmins drums like a man possessed and Aongus Ralston is cool, composed and very funky on the bass.
The show starts at a break-neck tempo, and it just simply stays there. The band hammer through songs like “Medicine Bow” and “All the Things She Gave Me”. I’m struck that the band are essentially a rock and roll band, with the lead guitar replaced by Wickham’s fiddle.
Brother Paul’s work on the Hammond give it a Memphis/Nashville edge at times, and this is quite openly acknowledged on “Nashville Tennessee” with its refrain of “my soul is in Memphis but my ass is in Tennessee.”
There’ are moments of theatre, as Wickham and the vocalists don masks for “We Will Not Be Lovers” and act out a pantomime where Wickham is attracted and caught by the singers before Scott jumps in to save his band-mate. Scott charges at the masked singers, head down and guitar thrust forward like an angry bull.
“Still a Freak” is dedicated to Eric Bell and Scott reminisces about playing Bangor in 1982 and of how much the town reminds him of his teenage years spent in Ayr. Jess Kavanagh gets the chance to take on lead vocal duties on this one and she doesn’t disappoint. Wickham (I think) teases us with the short trad fiddle jig from the band’s excellent cover of Van Morrision’s “Sweet Thing”, and if one song was missing from the set-list tonight – for me, that was it.
On the wonderfully laid-back “Nearest Thing to Hip”, Scott is reminiscing again and is keen to get the audience involved, if only to hear a thousand or so people singing the word “shithole” back to him. It’s maybe nine or ten songs in, and it has been hectic high tempo stuff. The band leave Scott and Wickham on stage for a version of “The Pan Within” and this is the first time that the crowd have had a chance to draw breath.
When the band return, it’s time for the big hits as they launch straight into “Whole of the Moon” followed by “Fisherman’s blues” – these are beautifully performed and delivered with a sense of fun and energy that many bands would struggle to match when doing their best known (and most played) material.
And just like that, it’s over. I’m amazed that the band are leaving the stage after what seemed like a relatively short time; in retrospect they must have played for around 90 minutes. It was that good. We get just the one encore, a big, bouncing version of “How Long Will I love You” which serves as an excellent antidote to the numerous bland and slow-ballad versions of this glorious song.
And so we leave; the big concerts at Open House are timed to end early enough for people to get the last train back to Belfast, go for an after show pint or take in some more music in other venues around the town. This is a nice idea, and beats wandering about at 11.30 trying to get home or get a drink. Tonight worked well in every respect and you couldn’t get a better band to open proceedings than The Waterboys.