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Cookstown Rock & Blues Showcase

The Ulster Hall, The Limelight, The Empire Music Hall; these are the venues that spring to mind when we think of live music in Northern Ireland. However, what many people don’t realise is that all over the province, there are pockets of hardcore music fans, of every imaginable genre, doing their bit to keep live music alive in their own regional areas.

One example of such is Cookstown couple John and Debby McVitty whose love of live music in general and rock music in particular has inspired them to put on over twenty-five events in the last two years. John, a retiree with time in his hands has been the driving force behind what has come to be known as the Cookstown Rock & Blues Showcase

John and Debby McVitty

Almost two years ago in September 2017, looking for an original way to celebrate a significant wedding anniversary, the McVittys came up with the idea of hiring out Cookstown’s Lanyon Hall, booking some of their favourite bands, and raising money for Charis Cancer Care at the same time.  On that occasion Screaming Eagles, The Picassos, Donum Dei and Cookstown’s own Smoking Gun, lured in an impressive crowd and the charity received a cheque for almost £2,500.

Having been bitten by the bug for organising live music events, the next logical step was to have a go at the increasingly popular format that is the house concert. In John and Debby’s own front room, Chris Todd’s Hardchargers entertained an audience of perhaps 12 people.  I was lucky enough to be invited on that evening and it is difficult to imagine a more intimate soiree. Fabulous as that night was though, it wasn’t going to be practical to make that the regular venue. Still, the mission to bring more live music to Cookstown had begun. 

Chris Todd of The Hardchargers

The key idea behind John’s plan was to bring bands to local pubs, normally on a Tuesday night, notoriously the quietest night of the week, and a night when many bars in smaller towns no longer even open.  The thinking was that it would be a boost for local businesses, it would give bands and artists increased opportunities to reach a live audience and it would give music fans a reason to pop out on a week night, enjoy a top class gig, and still be home in bed in time to get the full eight hours before the morning alarm.

The first establishment to get involved was Ma Quinn’s bar which hosted fantastic solo sets from Chris Todd, Matt Fitzsimmons of the Gasoline Outlaws, and a set from Cookstown blues outfit Muddy Wells. These early gigs were well attended, and it soon became clear that if this was to become a regular, established series of events, they’d have to relocate to a larger venue.

The Railway Bar

On 23rd October 2018, Trucker Diablo frontman Tom Harte provided the first gig in Union Street’s Railway Bar, and since then it has been established as Cookstown Rock & Blues Showcase’s home ground.  In the intervening eight months since that inaugural gig, more than twenty artists have graced the Railway’s stage. 

The premise is simple; a fiver charge at the door, all money made goes to the artist, and a light supper is included – sure where else would you get it? It’s fair to say that some of these events have been better attended than some others, it’s not always easy to get punters out on a school night. And it’s bound to be disheartening for musicians and organiser alike on occasions when the crowd is not as big as they’d like. But that’s the risk, and to be fair, several have been close to a capacity crowd. And there is no doubt that the reputation of the Showcase is growing since on chatting to the attending crowd on several of these nights, it was clear to me that people are travelling from further afield.

Rusty Jacks

As the name Rock & Blues Showcase would suggest, most of the acts booked have had a rock and/or blues flavour, with a few more acoustic sets thrown in for good measure.  Castlerock’s Lonesome Highway Blues Band have played on a couple of occasions and have been really well received. Another guaranteed draw has been blues four-piece Rusty Jacks from Draperstown who had a really successful night on Good Friday and are due to return in the autumn.

Incredibly, the blues rock outfit Crow Black Chicken, (notable for their performance on the introductory stage at Glastonbury) travelled all the way from their home town of Cork to play for the good people of Cookstown and were a massive crowd pleaser.  Antrim based Rory Gallagher tribute Barry McGivern also did a turn. 

Smoking Gun

Other more rock oriented acts that have appeared include Kitchen from Armagh, Coalisland’s A Little Bitter, Hot Eyre from Antrim, The Davy K Project and local boys, the excellent Smoking Gun.  For fans who prefer their music with more of a punk edge, there has been the brilliant Inflatable Dolls from the Moy and Omagh’s Brainshake.  

The music has been a lot more diverse than you might expect including some more acoustic artists like Portrush’s Drew Hamill and the incredible Buskerman.  Also worthy of particular mention is the long established and highly esteemed Rubber Plants. These guys have been around for over twenty years and they are in essence a Led Zeppelin Tribute band. In reality though they are so much more than that; they are a band of first rate musicians who make their own of Zeppelin’s back catalogue.

Denver McCord

Of course there will be stand out gigs and of course I have favourites from among the many events. Any time Chris Todd appears, alone or with the Hardchargers, you can be sure I’ll be there. Probably the most memorable night for me to date though, was the night that local artist Denver McCord packed out the Railway Bar on a Tuesday night ‘til it was standing room only. Showcasing tracks from his original album, Confessions, Questions and Tales, Denver brought the house down with his blend of funky beats and classic rock. It’s supporting fabulous local talent like this that the Cookstown Rock & Blues Showcase was made for. Denver is due to return for a full electric set later in the year, and I highly recommend keeping an eye out for that one. 

And there are plenty more exciting gigs in the pipeline. Saturday 17th August will see a spectacle of metal bands coming together for “Metal Saturday”, which if successful could become a regular feature. Festival favourites and the best classic rock band you’re likely to hear anywhere, the highly lauded Blackwater Conspiracy will offer a rare acoustic set. Other acts aren’t set in stone, but if rumours are to be believed, the remarkable Tony Villiers and the Villains may make an appearance in the autumn, so fingers crossed for that one.

Blackwater Conspiracy

With enthusiastic, dynamic people like John and Debby McVitty going the extra mile to organise opportunities to see first rate music acts in local venues, there’s no longer any excuse for any of us not to get up and out and support live music at its best. Too many times I’ve heard people bemoan the lack of live music in the pubs, but those same people are more likely to watch Love Island with a glass of wine than to get off the sofa and into those pubs. So look at this as a call to action – whether in the Railway Bar in Cookstown, The Diamond Rock Club in Ahoghill, the Underground in Draperstown or any one of the innumerable small venues around Northern Ireland shedding sweat and tears in their efforts to promote live music – get out there and support them when you can. 

To keep abreast of upcoming gigs, you can follow the Rock & Blues Showcase on Facebook here.

My tastes vary - live in concert I've seen (amongst others) Bob Dylan, The Cure, Morrissey, Johnny Marr (sadly never The Smiths), Van Morrison, David Byrne, Counting Crows, John Prine, Chris Smither, Erasure, They Might be Giants, The Verve, Ben Folds, Georgie Fame, Teddy Thompson, Martha Wainwright, Rufus Wainwright and Loudon Wainwright III. This decade, a lot more home grown talent, with the likes of Duke Special, Brian Kennedy, VerseChorusVerse, The Bonnevilles, Tony Villiers and the Villains, The Hardchargers, and The 4 of Us. Favourite gigs include Prince in Cork in 1990, Trip to Tipp ’91 & ’92, David Bowie’s Reality tour in 2003.