Tonight, BBC Northern Ireland pay tribute to Belfast’s Ulster Hall for its incredible 150 years of hard rock service. Designed by Newry architect William J Barre, the iconic building has hosted some of the finest national and international acts since opening in May 1862.
The Ulster Hall means something different to everybody. This reviewer fondly remembers numerous beer-soaked rock gigs as a teenager. Others will recall classical concerts by the Ulster Orchestra, literary talks, fierce boxing matches.
Radio Ulster has chosen to honour the venue with an eclectic concert featuring an array of Northern Irish acts backed by the Ulster Orchestra. Hosts Ralph McLean and Lynette Fay put us in the picture: tonight, ten tracks composed by Northern Irish artists, and chosen by public vote, will be performed by ten of Northern Ireland’s biggest stars.
The UO open the concert with an orchestral piece that melds traditional songs such as 'Danny Boy' with contemporary tracks by the likes of Van Morrison and Snow Patrol.
Before opening act Brian Kennedy takes to the stage to perform a cover of Van Morrison’s 1968 love letter to Belfast, 'Madame George', a film is projected with music journalist Stuart Bailie detailing the history of the track and putting it into context, comparing it to the Beatles’ 'Penny Lane'.
Indeed, Bailie’s introductions precede every performance, and his encyclopaedic knowledge of the Northern Irish music scenes frames each piece with poetic finesse. Kennedy’s performance of 'Madame George' is as slick as one would expect from the Eurovision veteran.
After performing a track featured in the BBC's Great Northern Songbook, each of the evening’s artists has the chance to perform one of their own songs. Before Kennedy launches into one of his best-known singles, 'Life, Love and Happiness'. Kennedy is so excited to be performing with the UO that he lets slip an expletive. Thankfully for the producers at the BBC, it's a one-off.
Next up is Peter McCauley of Ram’s Pocket Radio, performing a piano driven cover of Stiff Little Fingers’ 'Alternative Ulster'. While it is an interesting take on a protest-punk classic, the subsequent performance of McCauley’s self-penned track 'Dieter Ram’s Has Got The Pocket Radios' is much more engaging.
Talented Dungiven singer Cara Dillon then offers a tender, yearning cover of the Undertones’ 'Teenage Kicks'. It is, sadly, a little lacking in energy (no-one could ever say the same of the Undertones). Katharine Philippa’s take on David McWilliam’s 'Days of Pearly Spencer' fares better, the orchestra swapping the meandering strings of the original for bold horns and a syncopated bongo beat – a bold move that works.
Ciaran Gribbin (who has recently been signed up INXS's new frontman) rounds off the first half of the evening with a cover of Paul Brady’s 'The Island'. Despite being a fairly faithful rendition, Gribbin seems far more comfortable performing INXS track 'All The Voices'.
After the interval things get a little louder. A handful of the older members of the audience have filtered out by this point, but the vast majority stick around to hear Bellaghy-born indie rockers General Fiasco’s cover of the Divine Comedy's 'Tonight We Fly', with galloping drums and soaring vocals.
Barry Lynn (also known as Boxcutter) offers an ambient, electronic rendition of Cara Dillon’s 'Hill of Thieves'. And the second instrumental of the evening comes in the form of And So I Watch You From Afar's 'Big Time', a Rudi classic. This is everything a cover should be – outrageously inventive, yet true to the spirit of the original. ASIWYFA were brave to cut the lyrics altogether. Rudi would be proud.
Penultimate act Bronagh Gallagher showcases her trademark powerful vocals (and a 150 year old dress) with a cover of Duke Special’s 'Freewheel', followed by a track entitled 'Mexico', from her forthcoming album.
The track voted number one by the public (from a shortlist selected by an assortment of BBC presenters) is Ash’s 'Shining Light', which is tonight performed by fellow Downpatrick rockers, The Answer. Then joined by Ash frontman, Tim Wheeler, The Answer wrap things up with a cover of Led Zeppelin’s 'Stairway to Heaven', famously first played on the same stage some 41 years ago.
A well deserved standing ovation rounds off a groundbreaking evening chock full of incredible one-off performances. It's all terribly self-congratulatory, of course, but it works as a tribute to the longevity of the capitol's oldest music hall. One thing is certain – Ulster Hall, Belfast loves you.