Van Morrison, The Waterboys, Undertones & Others
The Earth Music Festival, Derry, Northern Ireland, August 2002
It's a sleepy Saturday in Derry City with a difference. Along with the
lingering rain, an enveloping feeling of anticipation hangs in the air like an
electrical charge ready to spark. Derry's first all-day, open air musical
festival takes place today at the Prehen Playing Fields. Unfortunately gusting
winds played havoc with the stage tarps overnight and, as the festival gates
open, a steady flow of dark clouds overhead are threatening to keep the punters
away. The organizers must be biting their nails. They intend to make the Earth
Music Festival an annual event.
The first thing on my mind as I headed out was the state of the earth at the festival. Will the masses make a muddy mess of the ground beneath our feet? The clouds slowly lift as I approach the riverside venue. Once through the efficient but effective security check, I find a relaxed and inviting atmosphere inside. Kids 12 and under have free entry so many family groups have set up camp near the main stage. As patchy blue sky appears, children in wellies dance around umbrellas stuck point-first into the ground as if they were Maypoles.
As a solo performer, the opening act Paul Casey comes with a reputation that is somewhat similar to that of Dubliner Paddy Casey - comparisons with David Gray. However - unfortunately still outside of the venue as Paul finishes his set - I soon realise he's a different live entity when with this band, as he is today. An enticingly eclectic musical mixture miles away from that of Mr Gray filters through the trees to the road where I walk. My only regret of the day is having missed Paul's set.
After Paul Casey, Donegal's The Revs take the main stage. Young-uns from Donegal they take an interesting swipe at boy bands with 'Louis Walsh Says (Rock 'N' Roll is Dead)' where they rhyme 'soul' with 'asshole' and 'number' with 'Mumba' (must be their accent). Ironically they have an interesting penchant for mixing pure pop with ol' fashioned cock rock. As the pop pulses through their guitar rock, the band members throw shapes, stand on speaker stacks, and show an excellent selection of pained facial expressions. It's all in the name of fun, though the wonderfully monikered lead singer, Rory Gallagher, still needs a few lessons from the Glen Hansard School of heavy metal mimicry and the band itself needs to learn to better read and respond to all-ages audiences.
The Revs' poses are soon replaced by the professional presence of The Four of Us. 'Word' (the follow up to 1999's Classified Personal album) is in the works, but no new offering rears its head within their first six songs. With 'Drag My Bad Name Down', 'Pure Release', 'She Hits Me', 'Change', and 'Mary' there are enough 'hits' that perhaps the audience shouldn't 'miss' the new stuff. Disappointed at not getting a new taster up to that point, I turn and head to the second stage.
Strolling past charity booths, carnival rides, food stands, and beer tents, I locate the Nerve Centre stage set back through the trees. This second stage serves to showcase young Derry acts and popular bands from the South of Ireland who haven't yet made headway up North. County Meath'sTurn is in position as I arrive. A great-looking power trio with hooks other guitar bands hunger for, their usual energy is enhanced today by a wasp that helps bassist Gavin with his stage moves.
I move quickly back to the main stage. The crowd is thickening fast as sunshine greet the arrival of Derry's own Undertones and their aptly titled opener, 'Family Entertainment'. They're the first band today to get all age groups on their feet and dancing. Three minutes being a long song for the Undertones so the second greatest thing about them is, if you don't like one a song, it's going to be soon over. The greatest thing about the Undertones is their punk/pop songs are so catchy that you don't want any of them to end.
They perform twenty-one songs in one hour. They keep them simple, they keep them good. The Undertones are a band of surprises. Reforming several years ago sans the rather sedate Fergal Sharkey, the presence of their new perpetual motion machine singer, Paul McLoone (or however he's spelling his last name at the moment), has enhanced the band. Perhaps the new blood has helped with the new songs. Yep, several new delectables are served up for audience consumption, including the 'Teenage Kicks' rivalling 'Ride the Rough Escalator'. One can live in hope that these are just appetizers and a main dish album might follow. John Peel might cry yet again.
Aside from the young Dublin bands on the Nerve Centre Stage, all of today's acts stem from the Celtic North - meaning Ireland or Scotland. The latter's Deacon Blue was a late addition to the bill. They're a solid gold band with a solid lead singer. Singer Ricky Ross' threateningly muscular stature onstage is in stark contrast to his alluringly vocals. Juxtaposed with Lorraine McIntosh's smooth backup singing, their songs flow past one's ears like daytime radio. Perhaps that's their Achilles heel. Live they provide a great nostalgia trip for their fans, but they leave the rest of the audience unmoved.
If Deacon Blue is a fan's band, then the Waterboys are a band with special fans. In fact three fans of the mechanical kind soon take their place at the front of the stage during the set change. It seems Mike Scott likes to have them pointing away from him to help dissipate unwanted smoke. The rest of the Waterboy's gear takes a bit longer to set up. Band changeovers today are only 15 minutes long, and the addition of fiddle, mandolin, flute, and several keyboards extends this one to over a half hour. Sadly the band drop several new songs from the set as a result.
They start with Bob Dylan's 'Girl of the North Country', a song hailing from their late 80's live repertoire when Mike Scott based himself in Ireland. Aside from the highly sensual 'The Pan Within', and the humorously grotesque 'The Wedding', their entire set stems from their Irish era, or Mike's solo Scottish years thus reflecting the homelands of today's festival line-up.
Not since their Irish era has the Waterboys had such a strong a nucleus. Along with Mike, Steve Wickham has returned on fiddle and English keyboard virtuoso Richard Naiff completes the holy trinity. With a new drummer and bassist backing them, it's almost like viewing two bands onstage - the three front men intuitively playing together with the new recruits behind them wide-eyed, their musical antennas tuned to Mike's every move and nuance. Old or new they seamlessly fall into place forming a smooth flowing whole.
Though perennial crowd-pleaser 'Whole of the Moon' was not aired, the Waterboys had many surprises in their energetic set including 'Dunford's Fancy' and 'Jimmy Hickey's Waltz' complete with dancers apparently pulled from the audience. The glow of the setting sun illuminates the sky and the musician's faces during 'Long Way to the Light', and 'Fisherman's Blues' gives the audience a burst of their own dancing energy as the approaching night pulls the heat from the air.
Saxophone in hand and mouth, Van Morrison arrives onstage asking 'Have Ye Been Healed?' Like a shepherd calling forth his sheep from their sleep, or perhaps a shaman calling forth the spirits - or beer-laden bellies to be exact - the audience in front of the stage mutates into a drunken mess.
Those who were silently enjoying their drink sitting down suddenly decide to let their hair down. Ah yes, as his second song indicates, "There'll be days like this". Or even nights. With Van's jazzed up oldies as a backdrop it's a perfect chance to walk down to the river to watch the Derry City lights reflect off the water.
The chill breeze soon sends me scurrying one last time to the Nerve Centre Stage. With points of starlight poking through the clear, darkened sky, the star of the County Offaly is churning out a summery set of songs including the cheesy, innuendo-filled 'July'. A massive draw in Dublin and the South, Mundy's live skills quickly win over the crowd who, like Indians 'round a fire, whoop and holler along, while pounding their feet in rhythm to his beats. Mundy's appeal knows no age barriers and he would have been better placed on the main stage instead of the Revs who themselves would have perfectly suited as the second stage's closing act. It's a moot point perhaps, but one of my few criticisms of the day.
The Earth Music Festival's grounded by good music, but there's much more. There's good value in ticket prices - the same amount as seeing just Paul Weller and the Waterboys play in Dublin - as well as the food and drink. Best yet, special buses run from the city centre out to the gig and back for their normal fare! Considering that each bus travelling the short distances from Dublin to Witnness or Slane charges the equivalent of a return trip across the whole Island, this was a revelation. From a fan's viewpoint the Earth Music Festival's an unqualified success. Hopefully it was for the organizers as well and they'll bring it back to Derry again next year.