If you like your hard rock with an Irish brogue, you should have gone to the Knitting Factory in New York City last night. NI in NY, a showcase held by the Northern Ireland Music Industry Commission, featured new music from Northern Irish bands. The sound of blistering guitars was almost drowned out by the overwhelming buzz in the room surrounding these up-and-coming bands: you quickly got the sense that you were witnessing artists on the brink.
First, we saw Duke Special (official site, MySpace), the one-man band created by Belfast native Peter Wilson. Thumping the piano while staring down the audience, Wilson looks like Robert Smith – the guy loves the heavy eye makeup – crossed with the dreadlocked Adam Duritz from Counting Crows. His sound suggested Keane melded with a more eccentric, Kurt Weill sensibility. Instruments included Duke on piano, a saxophone, a guitar played with a bow, and some pretty ramshackle percussion, including a cheese grater.
Former Snow Patrol songwriter Iain Archer (official site, MySpace) played an intimate set in a downstairs room. You quickly realize how much Snow Patrol lost when he decided to go his own way: he is, after all, responsible for one of the band’s best and biggest ballads, “Run.” He brings some of that song’s earnestness to his own recordings – without the thundering melodrama. Gangly and small on-stage, his throaty, sensuous croon still commanded attention even on his quieter, more introspective pieces. Nothing he sings is as soppy wet as “Chasing Cars,” thankfully. (Gary Lightbody and the boys stopped by the Knitting Factory for a low-key party after they played Madison Square Garden. It was rumored that they would play, but they decided to hang back.)
There was a deeply disturbing, anarchist aggro-techno band, Alloy Mental (official site, MySpace) , that performed. The group’s lead singer scowled, growled, swung his microphone like a lasso, jettisoned his mike stand into the crowd, menaced his bassist, and skulked off stage when it appeared the crowd wasn’t quite as into it as he would have liked. I found it all very camp.
The winner for Most Likely to Succeed was a two-man collective from Belfast named Oppenheimer (official site, MySpace). The word “collective” seems apt for a band that features a singer/drummer (Shaun Robinson) and guitar/synth player (Rocky O’Reilly): they make a lot more noise than two people should. I kept mentioning to my co-worker that they had to be hiding a bassist and another guitarist backstage to fill out their sound. The result is a very ’80s yet contemporary electronic pop sound filled with fey, Vocoderized vocals and raucous, eardrum-melting guitar noise. Having already played South By Southwest this year, they came last night with the largest – and loudest – fan base, and they clearly won over many others.
Also, in a small theater, we watched a documentary on the history of Northern Irish rock titled So Hard To Beat, spanning the region’s unique music scene from Them and Van Morrison to Thin Lizzy and The Undertones, all the way up to Snow Patrol and Ash. It proved an insightful and informative look at a musical heritage made in response to the ongoing national tragedy that was The Troubles, and it features several interviews from legendary Northern Irish musicians, include the grumpy old genius himself, Van Morrison.
I hope that this documentary will eventually be released in the States. It airs tonight on the BBC in the UK. Here’s an article on the documentary.