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Jim's Real Music Club should strike a chord with us all


Futur star: Justin Townes Earle

Futur star: Justin Townes Earle

Futur star: Justin Townes Earle

I'd like to talk to you about Jim Heaney. Jim's a bit of an unsung hero in the cultural life of Belfast. You'll find him collecting ticket money upstairs at the Errigle Inn on gig nights. But he's not just the ticket-taker, he's the promoter.

For the last 14 years he has run the Real Music Club. He puts on Americana and roots music and leaves the rest of the field to others.

But it's not just any old hobo with a guitar and a case of the morning after blues that Jim puts on. The Real Music Club has showcased a staggering array of talent over the years.

Steve Earle, Billy Bragg, Janis Ian, Roger McGuinn and Loudon Wainwright have been brought over by Jim down the years and another big new name Justin Townes Earle (son of Steve) is heading our way in September. I went last year to see a bluegrass band called Chatham County Line, who sing of railroads, lost opportunities and the freckle-faced girls they wished they'd never left behind.

They played for a 100-odd souls on a rainy midweek night and they were brilliant.

And that is what's special about the efforts of Jim and his club. Northern Ireland is a special place for culture right now. Call it making up for lost time if you want, but there is a vibrancy about the place even in the depths of recession.

Shows are put on and people go to them in large numbers. While it remains a heavily subsidised business, it is the cultural entrepreneurs like Jim who are the driving force of this renewal.

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Not that Jim necessarily sees it this way. He gets a bit grumpy about the amount of public cash that goes into some events. Jim, you'll understand, receives not a cent from the taxpayer.

I think he's a little unfair, but I do understand his point. The rebirth of small-scale arts is vital in a developing society like ours.

Have a look on any High Street any weekend. There you will see young people forming into tribes. But they're not orange or green-tinged. They're Goth, or indie, or grime, or one of hundreds of other subsets that someone my age has absolutely no knowledge of. New definitions and new debates emerging. It is positive and vital.

Live music plays a huge role in this, whether it be 8,000 packing into the Odyssey for a Westlife concert or a couple of fiddlers playing for the tourists.

Last year, my sons' band supported a local emerging singer, Morgan McIntyre, at the Love and Death club in Belfast. About 200 young people crammed into the venue.

It was a tear-jerkingly life-affirming night for an old fella like me. Young people debating music, supporting their friends, taking up guitars themselves. The clever change of a chord enough to get them roaring approval.

Live music of any kind has the power to move and bring together in a way little else can, whether you're covered in mud at Electric Picnic or in the front row for the Chamber Philharmonia Cologne playing Bach at St George's Parish Church in Belfast (July 28, by the way).

And at this moment in time we are blessed to have the most numerous, diverse and exciting choice of sounds anywhere in Europe. We need to support it, or we will lose it.

So forget the rain. Get out on a midweek night. Somewhere, someone will send a shiver down your spine with their talent. Which brings me back to Jim. He's currently working out how he should celebrate the club's 15th birthday next year.

He hopes to put on a series of shows with stars he has promoted over the years and local singers he's helped break through, like Ben Glover and Eilidh Patterson.

Visit www.realmusicclub.com for the latest news on his gigs and make a pledge to get down to the Errigle to help celebrate their birthday.

I don't want to overstate this, but I firmly believe that Jim, his volunteers and all the people involved in putting on music, dance, or theatre in dusty backrooms are as much a key to the future of this country as any amount of commission, select committee, inquiry or high-profile handshakes.