How Rufus Wainwright and a bopping priest made us love Belfast
A girl friend is over from London for a first-time visit. Like all Londoners the world ends at the M25 for her so this is a foreign fact-finding mission. The omens aren't good.
There's a Dark Ages vibe going on. The headlines are of politicians shouting murderer at each other in the corridors of power and of dissidents secretly photographing prison officers.
What's worse a young woman has died in a Galway hospital after being refused an abortion. Her baby, much longed for, clearly has no chance of life and yet doctors do nothing as her pain and distress grows.
My attempts to explain why it might have happened are met with incomprehension.
She's not stupid, understands a little of how this island works, but she is stupefied by the story. There's a danger that first impressions might have her scurrying back on the first plane to the sanctity of life in a pluralist city where many more things are OK. Outside the rain falls in unceasing sweeps. A new career in the tourist board would seem an unlikely option for me.
I know, I say, Rufus Wainwright's playing at the Ulster Hall tonight. Why don't we go. Rufus for those who don't know is a singer with impeccable musical breeding. His parents were much loved singers. He himself has built a worldwide audience on his charm and his beautiful voice. He's also incredibly handsome. A troubadour and a torch singer, he's a little bit country and a little bit soul.
And he is proudly gay, at times as camp as a row of tents (as my old grandad would say) and lives in married bliss with his German partner, Jorn.
Last year he had a baby girl by the daughter of Leonard Cohen (keep up at the back) who will share parenting with Rufus and "deputy dad" Jorn. Although he was born in Canada this is all very New York where he now lives.
So to the gig and the place is packed. There's a great mix of old and young and, like any Belfast audiences I have ever witnessed, they are enthusiastic and up for a good time, whooping and hollering as Rufus sashays onto the stage wearing unfeasibly tight patterned trousers and an outfit that he reckons makes him look like Rupert the Bear. It's a brilliant hour and a half of mesmerising songs that even defeat the Ulster Hall's dodgy acoustics.
There are deliciously confessional numbers, hymns to his daughter, and others written by his mum and dad. His own reveal wonderful insights into the human condition, straight and gay. So far so good but as he takes a bow and the audience rise as one to applaud him he's saving the best for the encore.
It's all been pretty restrained so far but as we shout for one more a buff hunk dressed as Cupid in a loincloth and little else takes the stage and tells us the star has morphed into Rufus Apollo and will not come back until we all get on our feet and dance. There follows an unrestrained camp heaven finale with Rufus also dressed as some sort of skimpily clad angel dancing through the crowd. He leads 20 of them onto the stage and the party moves up a gear, the stage a mass of jigging fans and musicians. Rufus makes the willing disciples play dead and come to life again.
It's bonkers but the audience is lapping it up. He finally takes a bow and leaves. Clearly bowled over by this Belfast crowd, he's surfing on its joie de vivre. We don't want to let him leave and say so to a man and woman.
As we all finally exit with big grins on our faces someone leans over and tells us that the priest who married her recently was one of the audience members playing Apollo's apostles on stage. He'd been at the front bopping all night, she says half in amazement, half in pride.
I'm getting to like this place, says my girl friend as we step out into the night air. The rain is still unrelenting but I can't do anything about that.