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Heliopause, Tom McShane, Emma Hopley

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ATL | 16:36 UK time, Friday, 24 September 2010

McHughs Basement, Belfast
Wednesday, 22nd September, 2010

Should musicians work for our attention, or should a crowd give an act the benefit of the doubt? This conundrum seems to split audiences and bands down uneven lines, with no clear answer. It's nigh-on impossible for an acoustic to create an almost magical atmosphere when half of the crowd are chatting at the top of their voices about the football. The oft-used argument of "I paid to get into this gig, within reason I can make as much or as little noise as I want" seems to fall apart when their behaviour impacts upon the enjoyment of other attendees, much as it did at Heliopause's album launch.

Emma Hopley delivers an enjoyable, chord driven folk-pop experience as she opens the gig. Her band is derived from the lovely folk collective Maguire & I, but from the outset it's clear to the observer that Hopley's solo material owes more to Carole King than to Wilco. Strong and confident vocally (despite a few dodgy high notes) the tracks are eminently listenable but there's often that crucial lack of a hook that grabs you. When things slow down a bit Hopley's trio excel. The harmonies are sweet yet not overbearing, the rich melody gradually rises and falls but it's the percussion that transforms proceedings and really engages the listener. The final track in her set is a real stunner, however - with a driving drum beat and some delightful arpeggios, Hopley finds that killer hook and runs with it with all her might, creating a radio friendly piece of pop perfection. There's real promise here.

The murmurs that were present during the opening act's performance had grown in volume by the time Tom McShane takes to the stage. Sadly McShane was the biggest victim of the crowd noise as his set never really reached top gear. His ability to send a shiver down your spine with his falsetto was hampered significantly, and in all honesty it was hard not to be distracted. The slow, bluesy chord progressions and the clean electric tones are complemented well by Nick Fitzsimmons on drums and while it's a stripped down performance, a harmony or two would have created a richer sound. Fighter as usual stands out, a darker, brooding number that shows a different and deeper side to McShane, but closer Flowers sadly doesn't do itself justice. The singer-songwriter can stun and captivate crowds but tonight it just wasn't to be.

Heliopause, in the same way as Tom McShane, thrive on creating an intense yet intimate atmosphere at their gigs. Much for the same reasons as Tom, they didn't achieve this goal. Yet on the whole their performance reminds us why there has been such demand for this long-awaited debut album and why there are so many local musicians in the room. The band's ability to harness the often attempted quiet-loud dynamic to such success can create some truly magical tracks. Musically and physically Heliopause are an unholy alliance: Richard Davis gently fingerpicks and strums his acoustic guitar, quietly singing into his microphone, whilst Chris McCorry excitedly bounces around the stage waiting for the moment he can let rip with his effects-laden, heavily distorted guitar, and drummer Niall Harden plays the duo off against one another.

Tracks like City of Glass and Epilog demonstrate this perfectly, gradually building and building until we can stand it no longer, exploding right before our eyes. There are some rough edges on show for sure with some songs coming to a end with less grace than you would expect, yet The Moon and Sixpence is just a finely crafted piece of music featuring gorgeous three part harmonies and an energetic outro. It's not perfect, but it's a strong performance to launch a truly great album.

Patrick Kane

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