Saturday, 9 February 2013

MUSIC REVIEW: Other Voices Derry, Opening Night

The popular music festival opens in a blaze of glory at Derry-Londonderry's Glassworks Church

"We wanted a church that was small, would light up and play some wonderful music."

With those words, Other Voices producer Phil King signifies the end of a very long and worthwhile journey. We may not be in County Kerry this year, but the Glassworks Church on Great James' Street is trussed up just like you would expect St. James' Church in Dingle to be for such an event; with colour, crowds, musicians and techicians everywhere. We're in a church that, according to the Derry Journal's Julie Ann Campbell, "hasn't seen much action in the last few decades besides the odd disco and, for a time, Bedlam vintage market." Well, it's about to see a lot of action tonight and in the next couple of nights.

The question is, can it rise to the occasion? Let's find out...


Our host, Aidan Gillen (he of The Wire and Game Of Thrones, for you uninitated folk out there), introduces Damien Dempsey as "a real Dublin voice, a real Irish voice... who knocks out one hit after another". Tonight, Dempsey knocks out an eclectic, if slightly inconsistent, mixture of styles that amount to something both homely and moody. What he seems to lack in stage presence, he makes up with energy and all round musical power; the beat of the drums, the thump of the bass and the strength of the vocals are really felt by everyone in the venue. Call it "balladry with balls".

The positives far outweigh the negatives here. Whether you're a fan or not, it is difficult not to admire the rich sound, the meaningful lyrics (be they English or Irish) and the great care Dempsey puts into his instrumentations. As a neutral, I enjoy Dempsey's gentle, affable rapport with the crowd and the way he crosses a wide variety of genres, from folk, country & western to even Bob Marley. That one of his refrains sounds a little too Nickleback for my liking is forgotten by the time we hear his final number, which leaves the entire audience swaying and smiling. In my view, he deserves a standing ovation for that alone.


Derry's latest rising star - although arguably, she has already risen - hasn't even reached the mike yet, and there's deafening applause all round. As we're about to find out, she more than deserves it, but what's more of note at this moment in time are her rather, ahem, unorthodox footwear. I'll let her explain:

"When I reached a certain amount of Twitter followers, I vowed I would dress like a dragon. Only part of the costume arrived."

So there you are. Bridie Monds-Watson, aka SOAK, has come to perform for us in a pair of dragon feet. On this evidence, one already wonders if we'll ever be able to stop smiling during this set. And smile we do.

Whether you're sitting back and enjoying SOAK's pleasant, delicate, clear and unforced vocals, impressed by the remarkable maturity of her guitar playing (one must remember she is still only sixteen), or amused by her close-to-home, easy-going sense of humour (including, but not limited to, performing in her socks and later another pair of shoes), there really is something for everyone here.

This all-too-brief four song set is both charming and surprising in its graceful simplicity.


They're "steely, dark, thrilling and hypnotic", according to Aidan Gillen. Yes, all-girl punk band Savages are definitely that. But their dynamism is a true jolt to the senses, really out of context with what we have heard so far this evening.

The question is, though: does it work? Well, sort of. There's little or no comedy here, just flat-out punk rock, creepy soul, hammering instruments and an almost consistently fast tempo. While they definitely have presence, not to mention a couple of groovy tunes, there's little cohesion to the set, and they do feel a little distant, not just from the audience, but from the venue itself. In a nutshell: their rather savage nature (how apt!) isn't bad in its own right, it just doesn't feel right for the moment.


For his first, and hopefully not last, set with a full band - and not just any full band, but Thomas Walsh and the Duckworth Lewis Method! - in the City Of Culture during 2013, Neil Hannon has gone the Damien Dempsey route and chosen a nicely eclectic mix of songs from different albums. As with SOAK, the set is not long enough, but there is still much to enjoy here.

A slightly nervy but no less touching rendition of "Sunrise" gets us underway before the band take centre stage and join Hannon for "Bad Ambassador". While it's clear that Hannon can't quite hit the high notes the way he used to, he makes up for it with a more blues-y and soul-ful approach to the song. Things get a little more problematic when we come to "At The Indie Disco" - it turns out that Hannon has never performed it live with a full band before, and trouble looms when the band begin playing out of sync with Hannon. Fortunately Hannon's sense of humour easily rubs off on the band and the audience, and we just shrug it off, enjoying a hugely singable rendition of an effortlessly catchy tune.

"A Lady Of A Certain Age" is performed so smoothly that you feel like you can just, as Gary Lightbody would say, shut your eyes and sing to everyone... which is exactly what I, and no doubt many others, feel like doing. The rest of the set is a mixed bag - if "Meeting Mr. Miandad", from The Duckworth Lewis Method, is perfection, "National Express" comes across as a slightly flat finale. To me, the latter song has never quite "worked" live - but its position as one of his most iconic tunes makes it a must-hear. And in fairness, the audience seem to like it.

As Hannon takes his final bow, it's time to leave the Glassworks and re-enter the city streets, knowing that tonight has set a very high standard for everything that will follow at Other Voices Derry.

Other Voices runs until Sunday February 10. For more information, check out the official site or follow Other Voices on Facebook.

(All photos courtesy of Lorcan Doherty Photography.)