CQAF - Sons & Daughters, Frightened Rabbit, Lowly Knights
The Lowly Knights are introduced by Gary Lightbody, compere for the evening, as "my favourite band from Belfast". It's a hell of an accolade to live up to, but the Knights make a fair crack at doing it justice. Whilst they recently suffered by appearing between the technical noise onslaughts of Adebisi Shank and And So I Watch You From Afar, they look much more at home tonight in the genteel surroundings of the Festival Marquee. In fact, they seem to be having inordinate amounts of fun, which is appropriate since their music is so uplifting. 'Devotion', 'Where Are You Now, Jesus?!' and the raft of non-EP songs sound bright and alive and are delivered with an almost religious fervour - they may actually be a Christian band, but if so we're talking Sufjan Stevens levels of subtlety. There's still the sneaking suspicion that the sprawling line-up (there's 10 of them tonight) is a bit unnecessary - do they really need a drummer AND a rudimentary percussionist? - but the 'choir' is sensibly stripped down to three and the instrumentation, including at various points a cello, mandolin, oboe and double bass, augment the songs beautifully rather than cluttering them up. They may not yet be the finished article, but they're certainly getting there.
From the sacred to the profane, as the extremely sweary - but sweet - Frightened Rabbit appear to a heroes' welcome. On their previous visits to Belfast, they've been intense, serious and even a bit strung-out on stage, but tonight frontman Scott Hutchison is positively glowing with positive energy, flashing his rapier wit at every opportunity - not least when a fan from their home town of Selkirk throws a scrawled-on T-shirt on stage and is met with bemused ridicule. When it comes to the songs, however, the jokes are left behind. Hutchison's heartbroken lyrics are red-raw and he positively howls them out over the layered guitars and boneshaking drums, particularly on 'Square 9', 'The Modern Leper' and the desperately sad 'My Backwards Walk'. By the end, you feel battered and bruised, but strangely energised from having withstood the full force of the Scots' folk-flecked fury. It's a cathartic experience.
So how do you follow that? You can't. Or, at least, Sons & Daughters can't. Not so long ago, the Glaswegian quartet was one of the most exciting new bands in Britain, but on this evidence their best days are behind them. That brooding, sexy mixture of gothic country, blues and spiky rock has been replaced by something disappointingly mundane. Latest album This Gift is a polished effort, but this band never used to be about polish, and the live show makes the point with searing clarity - older songs like 'Johnny Cash', 'Taste The Last Girl' and the dark and dangerous 'Rama Lama' are so much more engaging than newer efforts such as 'Iodine', 'Darling' and 'House In My Head' that it's almost embarrassing, and the set drags as a result. At one point, David Gow stands on his kick drum to lead the clapping, but it comes across as the act of a desperate man. Whatever it was that made this band interesting has all but gone. Let's hope it returns before it's too late.
Words: Chris Jones