Monday, 21 January 2013

MUSIC REVIEW: Sons And Daughters

Being confined to one's living room does not dampen the proceedings, as Si's Sights And Sounds find themselves swept up on a tidal wave of optimism near the beginning of our Cultured year, thanks to a superb musical event

"Some call it Derry. Some call it Londonderry. Some call it Stroke City. But whatever you call it, we call it home. And home is where the heart is on this very special night."
-- Amanda Burton

To call Derry-Londonderry's Sons And Daughters extravaganza merely another "concert" would be a little insulting, as it is so much more than that – it is a stylish celebration of musical talent both young and old, an artistic exhibition for both the Maiden City and Ebrington's ViTal Venue on both the national and international stage. That this writer is unable to make the event in person and finds himself watching it on television hardly ruins the symphony, as whether you are inside the tent-like structure or watching it at home, the feeling is the same – you are there. You have to be there. If the names of the indelible One Big Weekend at Prehen Playing Fields in 2004 aren't present, then the mood certainly is – and that counts for a lot.

Why does one always get a little shiver when he or she hears the terribly overplayed, but iconic, "Just Say Yes" accompanied by images of Derry-Londonderry? Is it because the small, in terms of size, but massive, in terms of heart, community and talent, city in the corner of the North West of the island of Ireland is now looking not only especially attractive to visitors, but also easy on the eye? Truthfully, it's more than that – this city may have had its fair share of troubles, economically or otherwise, but it's ours. Our home. Same with the artists – we created them. We've given ourselves a marvellous opportunity to create and expand on a potentially superb artistic and communal legacy. As Phil Coulter would put it, the music in the Derry air is like a language all of us can understand, something crucial to our identity. And from the moment the cameras descend on the ViTal Venue – vital by name, vital by nature – one cannot help but be impressed. I've previously thought of it as Odyssey-lite on the inside, tent-like on the outside, but tonight no one cares how much of a tent it is.

Coulter's suitably wistful and convictive "The Town I Loved So Well" opens proceedings to rapturous applause, before James Nesbitt and Amanda Burton arrive at the forefront to remind us of our cultural significance in their own inimitable manner. It's impossible not to feel a great sense of local pride when hearing that the City Of Culture judges needed just twenty minutes to decide on Derry, even when Nesbitt jokes they should have probably taken ten. His sense of humour, too easy to take for granted, is well in keeping with the spirit of the event.

As are the "voices" of Derry’s own Girl Aloud, Nadine Coyle – I've said it many times before, but the contrast between her singing voice and speaking voice (what is it now? Derry-American?) has to be heard to be believed. Even her own material has never really been my cup of tea, but her energy is kind of endearing. And she looks good.

There's more variation to be found in the instrumentals of renowned Derry saxophonist Gerard McChrystal. With the crucial aid of pianist Ruth McGinley, the 2,000 capacity crowd appear slowly but surely transformed from interested observers to active participants. No better time, then, for the lovely Eva Birthistle to take centre stage and comment on "the incredible talent the city has to offer."

Like Neil Hannon. Being a Divine Comedy fan, it is hard for me to be wholly impartial, but Hannon is, and always has been, the kind of artist that easily transfixes you with the drollness of his shtick and the quality of his songwriting. Merely hearing him perform the beautiful "Sunrise" makes the set worthwhile, though it’s also fun to hear him "tell a funny joke" and hold a high note for a very long time. If he keeps this up into his later career, he'll have definitely earned the privilege of the plaque at his childhood home – 18 Northland Road, if you're curious – that he jokes about.

Amazingly, Hannon is outdone on stage tonight by Soak. The near-mercurial rise of sixteen-year-old Bridie Monds-Watson had really taken me by surprise – until tonight, that is. For someone so young, Soak displays remarkable composure, the gentle rhythm in her material beautifully complimented by both the backing band and the acoustics in the venue. You feel like you're going for a little soak in the sea, pun intended.

Dana and Damian McGinty fail to inspire similar enthusiasm, alas, though I suppose it's just a matter of taste; Dana's aloof approach has never done anything for me, and McGinty, despite his well grounded nature, comes across as a poor Ronan Keating impersonator during his solo number, which is a shame. Things get better for him, fortunately, as he combines with the Codetta Choir, Meabh McGinley, The Wonder Villains and a star in the making (more on her shortly) for a sublime rendition of "Let The River Run".

The banter and stage presence of The Undertones give us the raucous opening to the second half we hoped for, although to me, "My Perfect Cousin" comes off better than "Teenage Kicks" this time. Maybe the sound's not the kindest to them, or maybe you have to be at the Venue to appreciate both songs? Either way, the crowd are happy.

Happiness turns to wistful melancholia as Amanda Burton reminds us of the marvellous shirt factories that no longer are, leading star in the making Mairead Carlin to step forward and perform a genuinely spellbinding rendition of "Scarlet Ribbons". It's a pitch perfect performance, sweet without being syrupy, sad while tinged with a hint of optimism, powerful without being overbearing. And it's followed by waving kisses and a very humble "thank you" instead of a bow. Honestly, what is not to like?

The McConomy School of Irish Dancing & Emmett Conway Pipe Band then put on a stunning display of traditional music and dance, arguably the most outright entertaining and admirable thing we've seen tonight. Coupled with easy-going, powerful acoustics and strings from Paul Brady (who's actually from Strabane!) and the backing band, it all amounts to a promising lead in to The Priests, whose strong, harmonic performances of "You Raise Me Up" and "Amazing Grace" delight the crowd.

The old James Nesbitt humour returns when he jokes that when Snow Patrol were asked to come to Derry, they "just said no"! Except, how could Gary Lightbody and Johnny McDaid really say no, especially considering their connections with the Maiden City? Lightbody's Derry-based parents are out there tonight, and he is clearly keen to put on a heartfelt show for them and everyone else. He and McDaid do not disappoint, delivering a nice stripped-back version of "Run" before singing "Just Say Yes" in a key, rhythm and manner similar to The Calling’s "Wherever You Will Go". Strange though it sounds, it works well.

The true Crowning Moment Of Heartwarming comes, however, when Lightbody dedicates "Chasing Cars" to John Hume. The mere applause at the mention of Hume’s name, let alone the crowd joining in the final chorus of possibly Lightbody's best known (and most overplayed) tune, may yet become indelible.

By the time the Codetta and Phil Coulter leave us (if you'll excuse the puns) ready to breathe the Londonderry Air again and set off for a Bright, Brand New Day, everyone has plenty of memories to take away with them. Despite the difficult times, we can only hope that Coulter is right when he says that Derry-Londonderry is on the brink of "something very special... a better future for its sons and its daughters."

(All photos: William Cherry,