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21 Jun, Friday
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Review: Alabama 3 – Harmony Live Festival, Holywood

It’s the last of three nights of music in Holywood this evening and it would be fair to say that the weather has turned. It’s dark, windy and showers are threatening. However, there is an interesting set of bands and artists playing tonight, and while the crowd is smaller than the previous night for Feeder and The Fun Lovin’ Criminals, they are an enthusiastic and noisy bunch; ponchos and raincoats abound but there are loads of happy, smiling faces. The Alexanders get things up and running on the Forrestside Live stage and their set is made up of original material played in a relaxed country rock style with some obvious blues influences, especially in the lead guitar breaks. Songs like “Running On Empty” and “Don’t You Dare” win over the crowd sheltered under the small festival marquees dotted around the venue.

Tony Villiers and The Villains kick off the main stage with the upbeat and catchy “Devil And The Deep Blue Sea” and follow this with another great tune “Mexico.” Villiers and the Villains are a real throwback to the late 60’s and early 70’s style of writing and performing. Think Bob Dylan in a good mood, or the Stones of the Sticky Fingers period. Dylan’s influence is pretty clear on certain tracks; ; there’s tex-mex meets political satire on “The Government Is Coming To Town” and an ode to alcohol, cigarettes and getting wasted in “Big Old Dancing Bear Blues.”

The band deserve a mention too – Doc Doherty on lead guitar is simply sublime, Kevin Mahoney on bass just stands there like a big old rock and plays perfectly. The drummer, Aidan McGillian was excellent -never flashy or complicated, always on point. It reminded me of the great Charlie Watts.

Over on the second stage, local singer-songwriter Michael James opens with a cheery and fun cover of KC and The Sunshine Band’s “Give It Up” before playing some of his own material. “Six Strings” stood out for me and James closed his set out with an excellent cover of The Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back.”

Back on the main stage, Ciaran Lavery wasted little time starting what proved to be one of the more interesting and unusual experiences of this year’s festival. Most people are used to Lavery playing solo acoustic, sometimes playing with a band. Tonight, as Lavery himself admitted, he was doing something different – drum machine, synths, keys and occasional guitar partnered onstage by Danny. Opening with “Full Love” the sound is fabulous – pulsating drum machine rhythms overlaid with rich synths and keyboard fills.

Lavery is as genuine, honest and heartfelt as always, opening up to the audience about his life his experiences and his feelings. The big piano sound of his new single “Selene” leads into a deeply personal and raw account of anxiety, loneliness and sadness – who else would write a line like “I should get over myself and all my fucking business.” Lavery admits to the audience that he realises he has a depressing set, before announcing that it is going to get sadder. It does, and “Okkervil River” is a poignant song that reminisces about being 15 again. Sad in places, deeply intimate and personal, of that there could be no doubt. Lavery pulls the evening together to finish on a truly fabulous version of “Return To Form” from the awesome 2016 album Let Bad In – Lavery’s voice seems to soar over all of Holywood and this just leaves me wanting more.

Back to the Forrestide Live stage for a bit of big old fashioned rock and roll from covers band Rehash. With Ben Cutler on guitar and Ronan McSorley on guitar and vocals, these young lads rattled out a string of really well judged tunes including “Use Somebody” by The Kings of Leon and The Fountains of Wayne’s “Stacey’s Mom.” Loud and with a little bit of edge to their sound, they did well. In a surprising twist to proceedings, with 15 minutes to kill before the headliners take to the main stage, Matt McIvor (sound man for the Forrestside Stage all weekend) treats us to three songs; he does a mean cover of Paul Simon’s “Boy In The Bubble” accompanied by Michael James on drums.

Everyone heads to the main stage anticipating the arrival of The Alabama 3, and the stripped-back acoustic version of the band is led by Larry Love on vocals, backed by Ese Okorodudu(vocals), Harpo Strangelove (harmonica) and Rock Freebase (guitar). “Converted” is the first song of the evening and this sets the tone for what is to come. The band’s sound, for such a simple set-up, is strong and clear, and Love, in one of his many lengthy speeches informs us that we are witnessing a “goddamn gospel band” and that there will be “no swearing in Holywood tonight!”

“Woke Up This Morning” comes up early on and is done in a soulful, gospel style that loses none of the punch and power of the original. “U Don’t Dans 2 Tekno” gives us a brief detour into hillbilly country, all done with the band’s trademark black humour. After an explanation of how wild wild women are what rock and roll is all about, Love launches into “Rattlesnake Woman.” The sight of a somewhat unsteady Love leaping onto the speaker stacks in front of the stage provides the stage security with their only opportunity of the weekend to go into full-on panic mode. It all worked out fine in the end.

Rock Freebase hits a fast blues rhythm on guitar which leads into “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness” – the crowd might not be massive but they are loving the performance and Freebase’s slide guitar solo on this track is exceptionally good. The band draw this out, circling the chorus round and round before leaving the stage to a massive reaction from the crowd. The band return to play “Too Sick To Pray” as a tribute to recently deceased founder member Jake Black (a.k.a The Very Reverend Dr D Wayne Love) before rattling through a stomping version of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.”

Another great night at the Harmony Live festival and something radically different to the loud rock and roll of Feeder and The Fun Lovin Criminals the previous evening. The crowd was smaller but the atmosphere was the same; warm and welcoming and really just a bunch of happy people who had come to enjoy some great music. Looking back at the festival overall, there were some truly great highlights; Christy Dignam’s performance with Aslan, the sheer quality of The 4 Of Us, the wonderful smooth groove of the Huey Morgan and the Fun Lovin Criminals, the audacity of Ciaran Lavery and, of course, the gospel revival that was Alabama 3.

Having a second stage showcasing local acts was a big plus and the lineup for the festival was every bit as good as past years. The festival was well organised and ran like clockwork – a lot of praise has to go to Mari Jackson and her committee for the work that they put in, as well as the small army of helpful volunteers who were on duty over the weekend. Onwards and upwards for Harmony Live – may it keep growing!

Photographer and sometime reviewer with an eclectic taste in all things visual and musical. Still struggles to understand jazz.