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17 Sep, Tuesday
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Review: Horslips — Festival Marquee, CQAF 2019

One of the rare birds of Irish rock n roll fame makes an appearance at the CQAF this weekend in Belfast in the form of the inimitable Horslips. The two-night performance run has been informally dubbed Horslips Con 2019, a sequel to last year’s band reunion facilitated by mega-fan Rob Aiken. Official or not, this event was indeed a confluence of diehard fans of the intermittently active 70s band made popular for their Celtic rock fusion. The chatter in the tent centered largely around how far everyone had traveled for this gig, be it across the country or across the pond—diehard indeed! 

But there is little wonder as to how this elusive band gained such an acute cult following that well outlived their touring days. With their insightful and inspired songwriting riddled with myth and metaphor, the band seems to encapsulate the Irish experience: past, present, and future. That is to say nothing of the fantastic and technical musicianship that blends psychedelic with prog rock and trad, and their sound at the CQAF lived up completely to their former “power and glory.” 

While we weren’t lucky enough to be treated to a full reunion, this evening saw bassist and leading man Barry Devlin, keyboardist Jim Lockhart and guitarist/vocalist Johnny Fean come together to serenade a sold out house with a lot of old favourites and even a few deep cuts, and all with an affable and good-spirited nature. 

The marquee at Custom House Square was done up with a dazzling design, as twinkling lights on a velvety curtained ceiling created a false night, even while it was all sun and blue skies outside. Opening for Horslips, but not to be diminished by the headliners, was the Pat McManus Band. Banging out unfrequent covers and originals from a plethora of albums, the trio brought soulful and wandering guitar-driven instrumentals with their stripped down sound. 

Guitarist and front man Pat was feeling the love, grinning in delight the whole way through a lengthy set, clearly tickled just to be up on stage. “It’s great to be here in Belfast,” he proclaimed. “I guess it’s lovely to be anywhere.” The guys wasted no time bounding into a straight-laced blues progression with sparse vocals to match. 

Virtuoso Pat was clearly in his element launching into an operatic and guitar hungry rendition of Roy Buchanan’s“The Messiah Will Come Again”. This barebones ensemble saw him shredding to his heart’s content, with no other instrumental element to compete with, and he seemed positively delighted about it, showboating and mugging to the crowd.

While the marquee wouldn’t fill up until later, there were certainly some serious fans of Pat McManus, rocking his merch and singing along to song after song. With original “Don’t Do It” the band really began to liven things up with a heavy bass kick, getting the crowd to stomp, tap and clap along. The catchy and upbeat vocals made this one of the most enjoyable songs in the set, and kept that momentum going with sing-able track “Straightforward”.

Pat never ceased to amaze, proving multi-talented in the next tune as he pulled out the electric violin for a cracking Celtic outro. It was on to the next cavalcade with more fancy finger work, creating bouncy Irish vibe on “Running from the Wreckage”, as both of Pat’s hands ravished the guitar’s neck in an intricate tapping pattern. McManus wrapped things up with a rousing rendition of “Belfast Boy”, capturing the imaginations of everyone present. After an hour plus with this talented musician, even those who walked into the tent not knowing the opener were undoubtedly sold.

After a quick changeover, the signature chant of “Horslips, Horslips, Horslips” started up and the infamous headliners hit the stage. “We can really only start with one tune in Belfast,” Devlin declared after a bit of banter and the guys launched into a ballad to their “Lagan Love” in an instrumental version of “Fantasia”.

Working out the kinks in this first number and shaking off the rust, the band wasted no time in getting the party started with upbeat “Guests of the Nation” and well-loved “Power and the Glory.” The mainly middle-aged rock lovers were transported back to the countless past performances they had enjoyed with the band decades ago. Pumping their fists in the air and dancing haphazardly, the crowd got the wooden flooring bouncing almost as much as the “trampoline floor of the Astoria in Bundoran”, about which Barry reminisced between tunes. 

“I know the first ten rows personally,” Devlin quipped as he called out friends in the audience, speaking volumes of the intimate nature of Horslips’ fan base and musical circle. The guys continued to hold the audience rapt while slowing the pace with lesser known jam, the first song they ever wrote, “Furniture”. With it’s mellow flutist tones emanating from Jim Lockhart followed by a hefty guitar breakdown by Johnny Fean, the tune was an absolute gem with a stomping crescendo. 

After the dancey love song “Warm Sweet Breath of God”, the band ploughed through more slow jams with a steady intensity and a crystal clear sound and tight arrangements. “Our songs start very abruptly, give you no time to get into it, and stop very abruptly. It’s a recipe for coruscating success as you can tell,” remarked Devlin, dripping with self-deprecating humour. But no doubt the band had done something right, as evinced by a rousing “Charolais” ringing with Irish tin whistle and sensational organ drawl over an epic chord progression in “Sideways to the Sun”. 

However good the three present members of Horslips were, there was still something lacking in the sound in the form of fiddle man Charles O’Connor. Fortunately opener (and friend of the band) Pat McManus was still on hand to burst out his fiddle for a couple numbers. After razzing Pat for being a “fiddler in the Fermanagh tradition, basically beating the fiddle to death!” Horslips welcomed him to join in an intense instrumental “King of the Fairies” and to bring life to “Sword of Light.” This addition was totally thrilling and the marquee was positively bouncing.

The one everyone had been waiting for“Trouble with a Capital T” was played perfectly (with a capital P!) as the set dwindled to an end. That iconic unison flute line riled up the crowd and promised to stick in people’s minds for days to come. The last song in the set “Dearg Doom” was a phenomenal blend of heavy rock and Celtic, a staggering wave of sound and rhythm rattling in everyone’s chests that will resonate long after the show was over. Similarly, the love for this cult classic band shows no sign of stopping and will undoubtedly continue for decades to come. 

By popular demand, Horslips plays a second performance tonight under the CQAF marquee. If you missed out on them last night or if one night simply wasn’t enough, be sure to get down to Custom House Square this evening!