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The Duncairn

Putting arts at the heart of North Belfast since 2014, come and see what’s going on in Belfast’s Cultural Quarter!

 Myles O'Reilly's Big Weekend at The Duncairn: Buí & Rhob Cunningham

 Myles O'Reilly's Big Weekend at The Duncairn: Buí & Rhob Cunningham

Here’s a collection, a conversation, and a confession.  Renowned Dublin-based music film maker Myles O'Reilly took over The Duncairn on the last weekend in January. It was coup to have O’Reilly curate this three-day series of Fifty events, unfurling a collection of artists for whom he holds a deep respect, and a hankering to spread the word. And on each of the nights that the different artists played they were mixed and matched with more musicians, more talent, this time selected by The Duncairn. The stage was quite literally set for a weekend-long taster session of new and emerging acts, of off-shoots, and of seasoned, established performers. A little mini festival as the promo described it.

That’s the collection. The confession is that I missed the first night. Yeah I know, bad form. It means I can’t report on Sive, the songwriter, singer and multi-instrumentalist brought to Belfast by O’Reilly to perform on the Friday night. Click on her name though and get a taste of her menthol fresh vocals, hear how her off-centre, experimental alt-folk uses her voice and takes cold breaths between the notes. You’ll also get a taste of Myles O’Reilly’s distinctive mastery at music film making.

Friday night also included a conversation led by PPR (Participation and Practice of Rights). They were discussing their Housing Awareness Campaign on local homelessness. With the unforgivable figure of over 11,000 children homeless in the north of Ireland, a key message from the conversation was how much we need to hold our elected representatives to account. Remember that. Above everything remember that.

Buí play the main stage at The Duncairn. Image  Stan Nikolov

Buí play the main stage at The Duncairn. Image Stan Nikolov

The next night brought a set of different sounds to the stage, with a proud Belfast accent fronting the band that started Saturday’s gathering. According to Bandcamp: “Buí are a Belfast indie music project featuring Josh Healy and friends.” The five-piece was very obviously guitar fronted, with an interestingly keys-led approach to much of their material. And while these electric guitar/keys/fuzz noises offered a young, raw, post-punk chime to it all, there were more pared back, lo-fi, considered elements to the set as well. There was craic, and there was high energy, and there was a resolute desire to broach big issues like mental health. “The rubber band on your wrist indicates you’re OK/At least I don’t have to ask it,” Healy’s home-grown bur intoned in “Life In A Box.” He’d told us beforehand that the song was about a friend with bipolar disorder. When friends had visited him, Healy explained, none of them actually wanted to talk about whwas happening. “Tell me the fun stops when you start talking/Don’t bring it up when we’re happy,” I think was the opening line. Buí are a young band, they’re interesting, I enjoyed Healy’s confident, natural stage presence. I’ll be interested to see what’s next.

Image  Stan Nikolov

It was Rhob Cunningham who appeared on stage after Buí. The songwriter has been playing for 10 years, and according to Myles O’Reilly: “He's had such amazing breaks with support slots, but he never thinks in terms of: ‘How will I get a song played on the radio?’ Or: ‘Who do I need to impress?’ He's allergic to all that.  His music is adorable. He was one of the first that I started filming ages ago, just to give him this extra dimension that will allow others to see him without him ever having to compromise whatever it was that was stopping him from selling himself I guess.”

So, what’s so outstanding about another singer songwriter? Well, it went like this. His first song was called “Natural Way.” It was even and calming and clear. The room was stilled, mellowed. There were whispers, just a hint, of Conor O'Brien in that voice, and a solitary fleeting layer of Damien Jurado., and other unidentifiable wisps of artists already loved. The other 99% of that voice though was Rhob Cunningham. “I’ll be clinging to your shoulders as we go,” he carried on. Deceptively simple guitar couching his words. We were caught in the song, stuck on its strands as it waved lightly in the air above our heads. Holding our interest, slowing us down, stifling the shuffles and the whispers. We were present, he had our full attention. On song #1 it was obvious this performer was above par.

Rhob Cunningham mesmerises the room at The Duncairn. Image  Stan Nikolov

Rhob Cunningham mesmerises the room at The Duncairn. Image Stan Nikolov

And it continued through the night. His voice exercised and flexible would swing from the bars, or roll heavy into the banks. Words would expand and fly, or fall short-breathed with a crushed, flat nip to the end of the line. Every different pitch, tone, clip or stretch infinitely deliberate, yet somehow parading as a gorgeous accident.

When he spoke the room shrunk. No stage, no space, just our candle-lit tables between us and Rhob Cunningham. When his one-way conversations kicked in between songs over the course of the night they shuffled from comfortable to eccentric. From spaced-out to kind soul. From informative to yarn-spinning to political. He was relaxed and happy, the consummate raconteur. A socially aware poet telling of secrets and experiences. Only us, nobody else.

He sang of homelessness and isolation. “Two Signs” was written around the movement at Dublin’s Apollo House a couple of years ago.  He told us the story, of destitution, of midnight mattresses, of Glen Hansard and people power, of reclaiming power for the powerless. No lecturing, no posturing, no fighting. Just a witness, who recorded it in song, and quietly relayed it to the jury in the room. Nuff said.

Although starting on his own, he was ultimately joined by others. “Let’s get these two feckers up here,” he had announced, pint in hand. A drummer and a double bass player eased themselves behind their weapon of choice. I vaguely heard their names and don’t want to risk getting them wrong here. They were musicians and foils. Splash-backs for Cunningham’s words, his conversations, his off-centre tangents. The straight guys, the mirrors. The brushes on the drums that splashed and softened and padded. They were the double bass that plucked and slapped and weighted and towered and grounded.

This was Day II of Arbutus Yarns at The Duncairn, and it was glorious.

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