John Edgar Voe, Ten Gallon Hat and the Big Salute, Rachel Austin
There comes a time when you just want to escape the cold, dark winter nights, and go somewhere far away, where the freeway stretches off into the horizon, splitting the night sky like a line. And that's exactly what's happening in the Black Box as part of the Out to Lunch festival, as we are treated to performances from an American, a bunch of people pretending to be American, and some other people who've grabbed America by the throat, and dragged it kicking and screaming to the Fermanagh badlands.
Rachel Austin opens the show, holding the audience rapt with just her guitar and voice. In the candle-lit room, her music seems to fill the spaces in the room, bringing us all somehow closer together. Eventually accompanied by some supple double bass work, the performance takes on a powerfully emotive edge, managing to be moving without ever straying into sentimentality. The only real comparison is the exploratory work of Tim Buckley, and there are moments where the performance moves into unexpected territory, constantly delivering on an emotional level. One gets the impression that if Rachel Austin wanted to break the audience's heart, she'd be more than capable of doing so.
After the resolutely "authentic" sound of Rachel Austin, the theatrics of Ten Gallon Hat and the Big Salute initially seem like a misstep. With an actual cowboy hat visible on stage, as well as several cowboy shirts, perhaps the biggest crime committed by these faux country outlaws is the fact that they have clothed a phenomenally powerful live band in the garb of a novelty act.
When you peel away all the pseudo-country trappings, Ten Gallon Hat are incredible, revealing a startling level of musicianship. If some of the more objectionable elements were dropped (the American accents, in particular) there's every possibility that the band could mutate into an authentic Northern Irish Wilco.
As if offering a model for how this would be accomplished, Belfast "supergroup" John Edgar Voe get up on the stage, and demand our attention, frequently by doing very little. With a line-up consisting of the likes of Martin Corrigan (Alloy Mental), Charlie Mooney (Desert Hearts), Ben McCauley (Three Tales) and Robyn G. Shiels, The �Voe (as no-one is referring to them) have put aside the day jobs in order to delve into the murky world of "Fermanicana".
Given the alchemical nature of the personalities involved, there's almost a disappointing lack of fireworks, allowing the music to take centre stage. With Mooney's chiming electric guitar intermingling with Shiels' more robust acoustic, there's a genuine sense of warmth and enjoyment projected from the stage. At times, Corrigan's particularly nasal vocals break forth from their moorings and leave all sense of melody or tune behind, but he's still such a forceful presence on stage that he can get away with it. Whether he's manically eyeballing the crowd, or leaving the stage mid-song without explanation, he remains captivating throughout.
And not a cowboy hat in sight.