I was hoping to write something witty and remarkable about the New York trip, but the head is blunted, the body is in recovery mode and the memories are lost in some scattershot trail. Suffice to say that it was quality entertainment and a chance to see around a dozen acts from Northern Ireland, all lashing it out at a venue called the Knitting Factory in New York.
It was a deep joy to hear Oppenheimer perform ‘Breakfast In New York’ in the real-time location. And to witness a ferociously raw version of the Duke Special song, ‘This Could Be My Last Day’. In the past, I’d overlooked that track, but in America it forced you to connect with the themes of mortality and grief, and Peter was utterly lost in there. The guy needs some time off the road.
But for others, this ‘Rediscover Northern Ireland’ event was the perfect chance to socialise and to meet a different continent, head-on. Martin Corrigan was railing about state-sponsored rock and roll and throwing these incredible, thespian shapes. He is the Larry Olivier of alternative rock and we must treasure him so.
It was the mass of people at this event that also impressed. For two days you kept meeting old pals along Broadway, the Bowery and in the East Village, propping up bars and holding court. Meantime, there were business meetings for the likes of Ben Glover and the Duke, plus a lovely session in the Knitting Factory basement where we showed BBC music programmes and sentimental ex-pats wept quietly.
One day I’ll make proper sense of all this, but for now, let’s conclude that it was busy and stimulating and unique. Now we rest.
Valerie reckons that this is her night. She's made a big sign, telling everybody that she's the right girl for the job. And she's pushed herself to the very front of the stage at the Bender Arena in Washington. She knows that Snow Patrol will pull someone out of the crowd to sing a duet on 'Set The Fire To the Third Bar' - a gig that was originally carried out by Martha Wainwright. Valerie knows the words, can carry the tune and so when Gary spots the sign and hauls her up, she takes it in her stride.
She doesn't bother with the autocue and the crowd is shrieking with approval. She waves her arms in a Martha-esque fashion, and she's playing hot and cold with Mr Lightbody. He's loving it, and by the end we're all stomping like mad. Result.
It's another happy incident on yet another US haul. Snow Patrol are working this massive school hall - like Riddell High on steroids - bringing atmosphere and humour to the gig. While the entire campus is alcohol free, the Patrol method is to intoxicate and this it does - with a titanic 'Chasing Cars', an eerie 'Somewhere A Clock Is Ticking' and the walloping return of 'Hands Open'.
Near the end, we see a very elated Valerie, in conversation with the security staff. "I told you I could do it!" she gushes. And we had no cause to doubt her.
Friends, I’ll have to make my excuses. Tomorrow I’m headed for Washington DC, to catch Snow Patrol at the magnificently named Bender Arena, followed by a TV preview in the same city of the new BBC NI music documentary, ‘So Hard To Beat’.
This is a pet project that’s been growing for about two years now. It started as a weekly section on Radio Ulster’s Saturday Magazine show, telling the story of Ulster rock, year by year. While I really enjoyed spinning out the yarn, I was rather surprised to learn that other people deeply dug the historical and emotional shape of the story.
And so it turned into a TV project, with contributions from Gary Lightbody and Tim Wheeler, Van Morrison, Neil Hannon, Phil Coulter and all. At least 25 interviews, all connecting with the family history, all reflecting some kind of connection to this place. It will be fascinating to see what Washington makes of this. Two days later and it will show at the Knitting Factory in New York, in the midst of a musical blur that will also feature live performances from Duke Special, Iain Archer, Oppenheimer, Foy Vance and more.
Was there ever a more effervescent time for homegrown rock and roll? Not since punk rock, at least. And if you’re keen to follow the TV documentary, try BBC1 NI on Tuesday 27 at 10.35pm, followed by part two on Wednesday 28 at 10.40pm. I think you’ll like it. I’ll try to blog you from over there, if there’s enough time, technological savvy and room in the old social calendar. Later!
Question: what are the best songs ever recorded with animals in the title? Answer, Rufus Thomas with ‘Can Your Monkey Do The Dog’ and Kate Bush with ‘The Hounds Of Love’. We can also accept The Cure with ‘Lovecats’ and George Clinton’s ‘Atomic Dog’. Oh alright then, let’s also be hearing Neil Hannon bellowing out ‘Frog Princess’ and The Pixies with ‘Monkey’s Gone To Heaven’.
Music trivia: ain’t it fun? I was thinking such things while I prepared my upcoming Radio Ulster show on Friday night (that’s 10pm until midnight, music lovers). For one week only, it will be two hours of animal magic, including the aforementioned songs, plus Suede, The Byrds, The Cramps and Elvis Costello. We remember the activities of Echo And The Bunnymen, who once plotted out a tour of the Outer Hebrides in the shape of two rabbits ears. Bless. And of course they had a cool song called ‘Crocodiles’.
The Beatles have so many possibilities. They’ve given us ‘Blackbird’, ‘Hey Bulldog’, ‘Octopus’s Garden’, ‘Piggies’ and more. And did you know that Iggy is short for Iguana, a good prompt for his immortal lyric, ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’.
These days, anyone presenting a theme programme on radio must be thinking of Bob Dylan and his wonderful shows. He plays the best music with funny, wise and cryptic links between. We can only marvel. So a Bob song had to be in my show. Not ‘Cat’s In The Well’ or even ‘Leopardskin Pillbox Hat’. It had to be ‘Man Gave Names To All The Animals’. And it goes out to the man with the greatest of affection.
Colin Murray should be serving a jail term for murder. In the past week, he’s killed a load of songs on Fame Academy. Much-loved works by The Undertones and Thin Lizzy. The best offerings of Neil Diamond and whoever wrote ‘Unchained Melody’. The particular low points were ‘Love And Marriage’ plus those chronic squawk-fests with yer Tara Palmer woman.
And yet I still find him oddly admirable. They way he wept at the end of emotional lyrics. His ability to find soul in a Green Day song. His transparent flirting with Lesley Garrett and the Johnny Cash song that was so blatantly a plug for Liverpool FC.
Murray is still Ballybeen to the bone. His accent may have been smoothed out a bit, but he’s impudent and daft. Sure enough, he’s calculating at times, and he’s not blind to the chance of earning a dollar. But the child-like dimension still rules, and he’s found a livelihood that fits with his low boredom threshold and his instinct to play it to the gallery. Showbiz suits him.
Recently, I watched the Ulster punk documentary, ‘Shell Shock Rock’. In this classic by John T Davis, we follow three spikey kids into the toilets of the infamous Harp Bar in Belfast. It’s a terrifying reminder of the facilities we used to endure: flaking paint, hardcore graffiti and leaking, busted cubicles. But that’s also how it was at CBGBs in New York and the music was no worse because of it. Certainly, you could never argue that the music had been sanitised.
These days, you enter the gents in the local clubs and there’s a smiling bloke with a portable cosmetics stall, offering to buff your cuticles and clip your errant nasal hair. This affronts me in a strange way. Firstly because it’s a rather demeaning way to make a living. Also, because someone in the venue is probably getting a financial kick-back. I guess it’s proof that now we've got a reasonable economy, but do we really need to pay someone else to squirt our soap dispensers?
It was a guitarist called Ry Cooder who put the honk into ‘Honky Tonk Woman’. The same fella helped to bring the Buena Vista Social Club to the world’s grateful attention and his entire career sounds like a journey to find the essential pulse of the music. His work with accordion player Flaco Jiminez is pure pleasure and his appearances with The Chieftains are the coolest. Check out his work with the Hawaiian guitarist Gabby Pahinui, his African odyssey with Ali Farka Toure or the Indian mysticism of ‘A Meeting By The River’ with VM Bhatt.
His slide guitar on the soundtrack to ‘Paris, Texas’ is a wow. It was this same knowledge of country blues tunes that was ‘borrowed’ by Keith Richards for the Rolling Stones album ‘Let It Bleed’. And the guy’s ongoing career is perfectly illustrated on a new album called ‘My Name Is Buddy’.
It’s a furry and fabulous yarn about a red cat, travelling through America during the dust bowl years. Our feline hero converses about his troubled relationship with mice, about Hank Williams, union unrest and the possibility of a moggie heaven, beyond the clouds.
The playing is sublime, the humour is spot on and there’s even a little picture book to help us visualise the freewheeling fun. Y’all should love this.
As an impressionable boy, I made the connection between great music and bad teeth. Johnny Rotten, Joe Strummer and Shane MacGowan had dentures like Victorian graveyards, but they still produced magical sounds from their mouths. The Osmonds and Freddie Mercury may have had pearly smiles but they sang nothing of any importance.
The clincher was David Bowie. He dressed like a bespangled alien, yet the choppers were definitely NHS. He was the Thin White Duke with the wonky front tooth. And when Mike Myers took on the Austin Powers role, the demands of being a swinging English kid also required him to wear a horrorshow grin.
Well that’s my excuse, anyway. While I gave my mouth a regular, reluctant brush, I didn’t bother so much with dentists. And yes, I used to open beer bottles with my gnashers. That’s what they were for, right?
Consequently, I entered middle age with teeth like an Albanian peasant. I now have a patient and well-remunerated dentist, who is doing his best to deal with the ravages of my careless years. He gently tuts at the scale of the job, and the nasty repair jobs that were carried out in London. And if my bank balance permits it, I may ultimately have a set of choppers that are socially decent. But never as impressive as someone who’d actually looked after their own. Hindsight, eh?
Last week, we mentioned the rising photographic talent of Gavin Mullin at www.headphoneland.com. If you’ve not been there yet, check out his impressions of the recent lunar eclipse.
Another photographer who’s making an important mark is John Baucher. He’s been stalking the back lots of Belfast culture for many years now, documenting the rise of Laganside and the Cathedral Quarter, finding resonant images of industrial decay. He’s good with people, has an obsessive interest in the colour orange (rust, advertising, retro clothing, politics) and many of the landmarks that have been levelled or refurbished in this feverish era. This intense activity is illustrated on his website www.johnbaucher.com, but the daily rush of it all is illustrated on his flickr photo site. Billed as Moochin Photoman, he’s worth many return visits.
March 28, 2005 and I’m at the San Diego Sports Arena, waiting for U2 to start their Vertigo Tour. But first, a magnificent ceremony. Before tonight’s show – and ahead of each date of the tour, the band will play out a track on their enormous PA system. It’s the work of a fairly obscure act from Montreal but it instantly loads up your nervous system with its choirs, its strangeness and its staggering emotion. “Who’s that?” I mouth, astonished. “It’s the Arcade Fire,” says Gavin Friday, grinning like someone who’s party to a mad conspiracy.
The track is ‘Wake Up’, and it becomes a sure favourite. A few months later and the BBC will use the roaring chorus on its trails series. David Bowie will record a version with the band at the Fashion Rocks event while the Arcade Fire album, ‘Funeral’ will top many of the critics’ polls in December.
The band’s new album ‘Neon Bible’ is out today. Some reviews have been a little sniffy about it, claiming that it’s a tad mainstream. But that’s surely missing the point, since the beauty of the music is pretty much intact, and the songs still sound like a gospel revival show, fronted by Ziggy Stardust and scored by Bach. It makes all those other chancers – like Muse and The Killers and the silly old Klaxons - sound like creative microbes. Go Arcade Fire, I still say.
Hurray for Neil Hannon, who picked up the Choice Music Prize in Dublin last night. The bookies had rated him 25-1, but Neil came good when a panel of Irish judges reckoned that his latest Divine Comedy album, ‘Fanfare For The Comic Muse’ was the best native release of 2006.
While it was a slightly unusual call (other entries included Duke Special, Snow Patrol, David Kitt and Republic Of Loose), it’s ideal for Neil. He’s been writing intelligent, witty and lovely songs for so long now that we sometimes take him for granted. And when you hear some of the recent album, like ‘A Lady Of a Certain Age’ and ‘The Light Of Day’, you’re reminded that he’s indeed a national treasure.
Neil was in Belfast on Tuesday night, guesting with Duke Special at the Ulster Hall. That was another milestone in our musical history, full of wonder and noisy support. Neil and the Duke sang a jazzy version of ‘Tainted Love’ that slayed the place, while their duet on ‘Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes’ was a reminder that both artists have found inspiration in the cadences and tones of church music.
The past month has seen Snow Patrol, Van Morrison and now Neil Hannon taking away prestigious awards. Our cultural trophy cabinet is positively groaning.