Belfast’s turbulent political history hasn’t stopped the Northern Ireland capital from aspiring to a certain level of harmony on the musical front.
The city has spawned its share of famous musical native sons –– from blue-eyed soul crooner Van Morrison to ’70s punk outfit Stiff Little Fingers to current alt rockers Snow Patrol –– while its famed Ulster Hall can lay claim to some pivotal moments in rock history: Most notably, the venue hosted the first public performance of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven in March, 1971
The city’s vivid musical history came alive to me during a recent visit to Ulster Hall, as part of the Belfast Music Bus Tour. My guide, Damien Murray, had worked at the Hall since the ‘60s, and shared his personal memories of concerts by The Who and the Rolling Stones.
At one show, The Who, in Murray’s telling, almost suffered a kind of wardrobe malfunction by planning to wear orange, white and green suits that too closely resembled the colors of the Irish flag. Rather than offend fans who identified with the British, the band changed into T-shirts and jeans that were a far cry from its usual sartorial splendor.
On another occasion, the Rolling Stones, according to Murray, ran afoul of the police in a incident that culminated in a “rowdy” and understandably indignant Mick Jagger being removed from the premises.
Homegrown musical artists also get their due at Belfast’s Oh Yeah Music Centre, which honors the city’s musical past and plays a contemporary role in developing new talent.
The Centre’s mission statement –– “Open Doors to Music Potential” –– sums up its role as a welcoming spot for emerging artists and for fans who enjoy discovering new performers.
Situated in a former whiskey warehouse, the space includes the Strummerville Rehearsal rooms (backed by the Joe Strummer Foundation for New Music and complete with equipment donated by Snow Patrol frontman Gary Lightbody), a songwriting room, exhibition space, recording studio and a cafe. Live music events for all ages are regularly held, as are courses, focus groups and workshops.
The Centre has also released two albums, 2008’s The Oh Yeah Sessions and this year’s The Contenders, both of which feature the music of up-and-coming local bands. A volunteer told me that members of a group featured on The Contenders actually had to get permission from their high school to skip class in favor of spending the day in the recording studio.
“I just love that!” he enthused.
I felt the same way about the spirit embodied by Belfast’s musical past and present –– and what it could mean for the city’s future.