Northern Ireland incredible musical talent means voice is heard loud and clear on world stage
BBC Radio Ulster’s Ralph McLean shares his love of our homegrown artists
The sheer amount of musical talent in this country of ours never fails to amaze me. For a small place we do incredible things. From folk, blues and roots to indie, rock and punk we punch way above our weight. Through my show on BBC Radio Ulster I hear that talent up close and personal on a nightly basis and the standard is always shockingly high.
It’s art that’s often taken flight from these shores and found a home in hearts around the globe. From the anthemic stadium rock of Snow Patrol, whose journey has taken Gary Lightbody and band from the bars of Bangor to American arenas, to the sweet Celtic soul voice of Dungiven songbird Cara Dillon, whose modern take on traditional folk is now taught in Japanese schools, the number of artists who’ve moulded their music here and have seen it speak to a worldwide audience is hugely impressive. Any basic list of performers who’ve made that leap would have to include punk pioneers like The Undertones and Stiff Little Fingers, indie heroes like Therapy?, rock icons like Gary Moore and classical trail blazers like James Galway. One name resonates above all others of course.
Van Morrison learnt his musical trade on the streets of Belfast and he still proudly resides in the country of his birth. His unparalleled body of work, stretching back over more than 30 often era defining albums, speaks to audiences on a truly Cyprus Avenue.
To see the Belfast Cowboy revisit some of his most iconic songs on the very street where he dreamt his musical dreams as a blues obsessed teenager in the early 60’s was a genuinely moving experience that was shared by visitors from all over the world. I produced a documentary on these international “Vanatics” who made the pilgrimage to see their hero on his home turf and spoke with more than 20 nationalities all drawn to Belfast by the spiritual power and emotive charge of Van’s singular vision. His international impact is unique. The Northern Ireland music experience is much more than a celebration of what’s gone before though. In someone like young Derry songwriter Soak this country has a potential superstar for today.
Soak, real name Bridie Monds- Watson, is a gutsy, honest writer whose debut album Before We Forgot How to Dream won her the NI Music Prize and got her nominated for the prestigious Mercury Prize in the UK in 2015. The fact that she’s still only 19 suggests a bright career awaits the talented teenager.
The succession of fabulous festivals that pepper the local arts calendar provide plenty of opportunity for Ulster acts keen to spread their wings as well. From Blues On The Bay in Warrenpoint to The Atlantic Sessions in Portrush we’re spoiled for choice really. The Belfast Nashville songwriters festival both celebrates the sister city status shared by Belfast and Nashville and allows Irish acts to travel to Music City to further their careers. Those who have already benefitted from this relationship include local songwriters like Gareth Dunlop and Ben Glover who’ve secured publishing deals and song credits on award winning country songs and television shows. One of my favourite gigs of 2015 saw the Nashville broadcaster Music City Roots transmit live from the Empire Music Hall in March.
The performances from Bangor man Foy Vance and rising talent Paul Tully from Strabane were genuinely spine tingling in their brilliance. Other local acts worth keeping an eye on include the supremely talented David C Clements, Aghagallon man Ciaran Lavery, whose hushed brilliance has taken him to stages all over Europe and beyond, and Amanda St John, a singer from the Glens of Antrim who’s way with a sassy soul song proves that music owes as much to its roots in Ireland as it does to the Southern states. Old favourites like Downpatrick rockers Ash continue to deliver the goods as well.
It may be almost 20 years since their debut album but Tim Wheeler and co still have the passion burning deep in their souls. Their last album Kablammo! was packed with the kind of manic pop thrills that made tracks like Shining Light and Oh Yeah so popular back in the day.
Speaking of Oh Yeah the much loved dedicated music space of the same name continues to go from strength to strength in Belfast’s buzzing Cathedral Quarter. Operating out of old warehouse spaces on Gordon Street the centre’s a real hub of artistic endeavour offering rehearsal space, a live stage, recording facilities and a much needed home for Northern Irish rock and roll artefacts that range from memorabilia from Terri Hooley’s legendary Good Vibrations record label to heartfelt tributes to homegrown heroes like Eric Bell and Henry McCullough.
It’s the kind of funky place all good, self respecting art loving cities should have. It’s proof also that Belfast is a truly rock and roll city and that Northern Ireland, through good times and bad, remains a proud musical nation. Long may the good times continue.