Take Back The City Hall
Rock and roll has a scuzzy glory, all dirt and grime. But sometimes, just sometimes, it's nice to take a step out of the gutter, and start gazing at the stars.
With this in mind, I thank the good people at ATL and Oh Yeah for bringing us Take Back the City Hall - five bands, kicking out the jams, in the glorious splendour of Belfast City Hall. The chandeliers have been polished, the floor is gleaming, and a lick of paint has been applied to all the right places. All that remains is to bring the noise...
Kicking things off in spectacular fashion are Key of Atlas. This young band fought their way past all the contenders to win the Re-opening Act competition, and are ready to take the cup by the second they hit the stage. Displaying a confidence that is immediately captivating, they unleash a set busting full of hooks, melodies and enthusiasm that has even the most jaded on-lookers nodding their head and tapping their toes. It's inspiring to see a new band rise to the challenge of such a prestigious gig, and by the time they finish their set, sweaty and elated, more than a few people are saying very good thing about them. It's a cliche, but they are definitely ones to watch.
Up next are the Benjamins, bringing their classic indie-pop sound to the Great Hall. Utilising that classic indie totem of the stand-up drummer, the Benjamins are "pop" through and through. It's a lazy comparison (and one they had better get used to) but imagine the 60s' inspired songwriting of the Jesus and Mary Chain, with the visceral noise assault stripped away. These are timeless songs, rousing and anthemic in places, tender and bruised in others. Perhaps some of the classic pop references are lost on the younger members of the crowd, but the melodies linger in the head long after they've left the stage.
This is an all ages gig, and it's inspiring to see music fans from all walks of life getting in on the action. Rock and roll is a universal thing, and no band is better at breaking down the barriers than A Plastic Rose. For all their qualities, it's safe to assume that Key of Atlas appeal to a more youthful crowd, their enthusiastic pop-punk sound getting the kids ready to rock, whilst the Benjamins' nods to the masters of yore resonate a little more deeply with those of us who suffer from *ahem* advanced age. A Plastic Rose, on the other hand, could make your grandmother get up off her chair and start grooving. A tour-de-force in showmanship and performance, this band display superhuman levels of energy from the moment they take to the stage, determined to take their message to literally every single person in the audience. One gets the feeling that if he suspected there was someone in the crowd not enjoying themselves, frontman Gerry Norman would spend the rest of the evening doing his best to connect with them. And knowing him, he'd probably succeed.
When they first came to prominence late last year, their sound was an uneasy mixture of shoegazing and emo, full of great moments, but not completely there yet. Cue a year of hard work and you have one of the most startling transformations in recent years. They've trimmed off all the excess, leaving behind a streamlined rock monster, ready to explode into the stratosphere. Coming on like the Foo Fighters in their prime, A Plastic Rose sound immense, almost immediately grabbing the attention of everyone in the hall. The crowd surge forward, and the band lap it up. The enormous reverb of the hall suits their sound, and the skyscraping guitars and vocals of Gerry Norman and Ian McHugh threaten to shake the building to pieces. There are too many high points to list, but needless to say that people will be talking about this band for quite some time to come.
After the rock and roll extravaganza of A Plastic Rose, it's easy to be scared for anyone who has the unenviable task of following them up, but MojoFURY have proved their track record time and time again, maturing into one of Northern Ireland's most consistently interesting bands. However, their music is frequently insular and paranoid, displaying a choked, claustrophobic tension, which is not particularly what the audience is looking forward to after the glorious display of rock and roll dynamics courtesy of A Plastic Rose.
MojoFURY play like men possessed, every note carefully chosen and locked into its allocated place. This is spectacular stuff, dark and twisted, but accessible at the same time. But for whatever reason, the better MojoFURY get, the more the audience seem to retreat from them. It doesn't seem to matter what approach they take - alternating between noisy freakouts, jagged angular melodies, or spacey jams - they struggle to connect with the audience. In many respects, after the exuberance of A Plastic Rose, MojoFURY come across as a "musicians" band, playing to themselves rather than the crowd. No matter: whilst they might not have been to everyone's taste, anyone they did connect with was shaken to the core.
After a long absence from these shores, it falls upon the able shoulders of Oppenheimer to bring things to a close. 2009 has been a quiet year for the band, and now they have emerged from hibernation with a whole new batch of tunes ready for our consumption. There's always been a warmth to Oppenheimer, a playful charm that keeps us coming back for more, and this time they're using that to take us on an adventure to test the limits of what 'Oppenheimer' can be about. Whereas before we would have been treated to a scattershot succession of two minute pop nuggets, now the band are ready to stretch out a little, loosen up and see where it takes them. The guitars are spikier, the drums are more aggressive, the songs reach higher, and they're not afraid to take their time to get the job done, with one song passing the eight minute mark.
Such is the pedigree of the band that they can afford to take risks with their sound because they're adept enough to pull them off, and savvy enough to know that we'll come with them. And despite a few stumbles, they get away with it. It's a risky move to play a set of almost entirely new material at their first Belfast headline gig in a long time, but Oppenheimer have never been known for taking the easy route. It's a testament to the strength of some of their new material that some of the highpoints of the set come not from established favourites like 'Breakfast in NYC' or 'Saturday Looks Bad to Me', but the gleaming new material. Once they find their feet, expect to fall in love with Oppenheimer all over again.
And then the lights come up, and it's all over. The City Hall has been rocked, and we've been treated to a tantalising glimpse of what 2010 could hold.
Mission accomplished, I'd say.