All hail John Cale...in year that Northern Ireland really rocked
So RIP 2012, then.
In artistic terms, it seems to have been a bit of a cracker, with Titanic-related events (plays, music, spectacle) everywhere you looked, John Cale providing consummate mastery in the big tent at the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, Van the Man on top form in Londonderry and Belfast and the Ulster Bank Queen’s Festival celebrating its 50th and the usual line-up of big and small, moving, funny, quirky, exciting local festivals.
Jane Hardy asked our critics to name their top artistic events. Read on and see whether you agree with their choice.
Flags seemed to be a contentious cultural highlight for many in 2012. The German artist Hans Peter Kuhn had the temerity to erect his gaudy installation FLAGS only a stone’s throw away from the Giant’s Causeway.
But there was a glut of flag-free happenings. What about the Good Vibrations movie? It could so easily have been a dud with a capital “duh”, but instead turned out to be an engaging, beautifully directed movie that cut through the crap to get to the heart of an inspiring folk tale for our times and place. Elsewhere, Enquirer by The National Theatre of Scotland examined the post-Leveson omni-shambles that the media finds itself in and poked a big stick at it. My gig of the year was a toss-up between two I was fortunate enough to promote. Velvet Underground genius John Cale just shades Saint Etienne, by dint of the fact that he was seventy, had pink hair and rocked seven times harder than a stable full of stodgy sexagenarian on steroids, the Rolling Stones. His secret? Green tea apparently.
Proving there's still fire in the belly of this particular beast, 1980s thrash-metal veterans Anthrax razed the all-new Limelight to the ground in November. With a perfectly judged setlist and more energy than five men mostly in their forties or fifties should be able to muster, these New Yorkers made a packed house of old and young fans very happy.
The highlight of the strongest Belfast Festival at Queen's in years turned out to be Adam Riches, an anarchic comedian who somehow cajoled his audience into playing swingball in the aisles and feeding him water “like starlings do”.
It says a lot about Northern Ireland writer Paul Boyd's musical comedy Molly Wobbly’s Tit Factory (Lyric Theatre) that the fact it never references the Troubles is far from the most original thing about it.
When theatre works, it’s a kind of alchemy with the onstage story becoming truer than the world outside.
So it was with Pat Kinevane’s one-man show Silent (Fishamble Theatre Company) which took us into the world of Cork man Tino Mc Goldrig who relocated from a privileged life to the Dublin gutter. The performance was broken up with small vignettes from Tino’s past performed as scenes from silent films.
Finally, Prime Cut’s I Am My Own Wife relayed the true story of Charlotte von Malhsdorf, a German transvestite who lived through Nazi and Communist regimes in east Berlin. Actor John Cronin gave an astonishing performance.
There's really no excuse not to immerse yourself in the live music scene here. Great new American band Howler at the Oh Yeah, Danish punk rockers Ice Age at the Limelight were two intimate sweaty gigs. I think Howler are going to grow and grow next year with their Strokes/Ramones hybrid sound.
Meanwhile, proving old experimentalists never die they just get more experimental, former Velvet John Cale wowed his Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival crowd. Also at the same festival, how lovely was Sarah Cracknell of Saint Etienne, the indie pin-up of the 90s, still as sexy as hell and with a great new album to showcase.
Jim Heaney and his Real Music Club put on some superb shows at the Errigle Inn in Belfast. My favourite was Arkansas folk legend Michelle Shocked who sang won
derfully even if she did talk too much. Gig of the year had to be the Stone Roses on Boucher Road not because the music was exceptional but just for being able to stand there and say “wow, that's the Stone Roses”. That they looked weathered was understating it but the show was genuinely moving in parts.
The recital of the year was undoubtedly Barry Douglas’s solo piano programme at the Clandeboye Festival. Mixing dark, ruminative Brahms with a blisteringly committed account of Schubert’s great Wanderer Fantasy, Douglas served notice that he has in recent times been adding a deeply reflective, mature vein of poetry to his virtuosity.
In August I found myself at Belfast Zoo enjoying Britten’s Noyes Fludde, an operatic retelling of the Old Testament ark story. This was a wonderfully colourful al fresco staging by NI Opera company.
And for sheer entertainment value, the closing concert of Duke Special’s week-long residency at the MAC easily takes the laurel.
2012 was the year of major artists' comebacks, led by comeback veteran Bob Dylan. After a troubled year, Van Morrison returned with an acclaimed new album Born to sing: no Plan B. I caught up with him at the Derry jazz festival, where he proved that what separates the geniuses from the merely very good is that ability to take it to the next level, as he did at the Millennium Forum.
If the cast of The Big Bang formed a band they’d look and sound a lot like Django Django, whose intimate run through their eponymous debut LP at the Limelight was a testament to the endurance of psychedelic as a musical style. And hats off to Elton John, whose wham bam performance at the Odyssey wowed the audience and banished the memory of a croaky showing in front of her Maj at the jubilee.
I saw Benjamin Britten’s opera The Turn of the Screw at the Theatre at the Mill in Newtownabbey during March. Northern Ireland Opera was only a year old and yet it had managed to create a fully functioning company producing work of a consistently high calibre. The Screw was no exception, impressively combining local and imported talent and catching the ambiguity of the Henry James story musically and visually.
Local composer Connor Mitchell presented his own Requiem for the Disappeared in Belfast Cathedral in May.
I was moved by this dark work and the uncompromising sadness which Connor’s music engendered, reflecting the enormity of the crime that brought about the Disappeared but perhaps pointing towards some hopeful resolution.
Finally, I had the huge pleasure of hearing pianist Stephen Hough perform his own second piano sonata, in the Rosemary Street Presbyterian Church during this year’s Belfast Festival. A tour de force of showmanship and pianistic brilliance.