Review – Aslan -Harmony Live Festival, Holywood
The rain is falling as The 4 Of Us open Friday night’s proceedings at the Harmony Live festival. There’s something about the smell of wet, trampled grass that just shouts “music festival.” The Murphy brothers are obviously energised when they come on stage, and by the time they finish their second song “She Hits Me” the showers have passed and there is a rainbow above the main stage.
Playing as a full band, their sound is sharp, crisp and punchy and frontman Brendan Murphy performs as if he were in front of 20,000 punters in Wembley Stadium. “Bird’s Eye View” and “Going South” from the 2016 album Sugar Island move things along nicely and “Drag My Bad Name Down” gets the small (but growing) crowd involved before they finish on a rip-roaring version of “Mary.” The 4 Of Us were not on stage for very long, but they nailed it, as they always do.
Next up were Belfast’s own The Adventures playing as a seven-piece band and they started big and loud. “Love In Chains” gives Terry Sharpe the chance to warm up his vocal chords and throw some shapes. The material is very firmly rooted in late 80’s/early 90’s mid-tempo pop and it translates well to the open air setting and goes down well with the crowd. The band provide solid backing and allow Sharpe and co-vocalist Eileen Gribben to deliver some note-perfect harmonies.
When Sharpe announces “you may have heard this on the radio” it’s an easy guess that they’re about to play their one massive single “Broken Land” and when the keyboard intro starts, followed by the distinctive bass and drum rhythm, the crowd respond enthusiastically. There’s space for a massive, screeching guitar solo before a spot of technical difficulties with the lead guitarist’s equipment and they wrap up their set with the more up-beat “Washington Deceased,” first recorded in 1989.
In between the first two bands, there was the chance to catch a coupe of younger artists on the smaller second stage. Conor Marcus played a short set which included a decent cover of “With Or Without You” and later Belfast-based Valium served up some harder rock with a fair bit of energy and skill.
Headlining the main stage were veteran Irish rockers Aslan and they opened with the slow, rhythmical intro to “Pretty Thing.” As Christy Dignam takes the stage in an olive green combat jacket and shades, he seems both a diminutive but powerful figure; his drawling vocals are instantly recognisable and he commands both the stage and the audience’s attention. Billy McGuiness on rhythm guitar (and occasional harmonica) is a ball of energy, running across the stage like Springsteen in his prime.
The crowd seem a little subdued at the start of the band’s set, although a few diehard fans are dancing in front of the stage. “Where Is The Sun” is a slow soulful number and “Chains” is a reminder of the authenticity that Dignam brings to a performance. “Crazy World” gets exactly the response you’d have expected for this simple yet anthemic song and Dignam wastes no time in conducting a spirited and noisy sing-a-long with the crowd. Dignam also takes time to complement the crowd before we get the hear the band’s version of “Angie.” Cover versions can be iffy but this song and the treatment of it seemed to fit the band well.
The band race through the rockier “Sweet Time” and blistering versions of “Too Late For Hallelujah” and “Rainman.” There’s time for a stand-out solo from Joe Jewell on guitar before the band finish their set on one of their earlier songs, “This Is.” It was past curfew but that didn’t stop Dignam leading everyone through a cover of Willie Nelson’s “Crazy” and a reprise of “Crazy World.” One by one the band exit the stage, leaving Alan Downey on drums on his own. No flashy and pointless drum solo here – he just takes it home and finishes the evening on a single beat.
All in all, a great opening to this year’s Harmony Live festival. The rain stayed away, and the line up provided a bit of good old quality nostalgia. The only thing that would have improved on this evening’s proceedings would have been a longer set from The 4 Of Us who were as always fabulous. The Adventures provided the pop aspect and Aslan gave us the rock; Christy Dignam continues to be a revelation. Two more nights to go – and two very different line-ups to come.