Magical musical tour

 

From Van Morrison to Snow Patrol, the city has a rich heritage, writes TONY CLAYTON-LEA

MENTION BELFAST to anyone under 60 who has half a notion of popular music and the response will probably be something along the lines of: “Doesn’t Van Morrison come from there?”

Unless they’re a musicologist, amateur or professional, they might also add to that list Ruby Murray, Them, various founding members of Thin Lizzy, David McWilliams – no, not that one but the singer-songwriter behind the cult song The Days of Pearly Spencer– Stiff Little Fingers and Snow Patrol.

Although the list is long on minor key bands and short on hugely successful ones, there are nonetheless enough names from Belfast for the city fathers to justifiably claim it as a music-tourism destination. If Glasgow and Dublin can do it, then why not Belfast?

Local man Stuart Bailie, a former assistant editor of NMEand now both a regular presenter of BBC Radio Ulster’s Across the Lineand holder of the keys to the city’s Oh Yeah Music Centre, knows more names of Belfast music acts than most. He’s also old enough to have seen the rise, fall and rise of indigenous music from the days when he himself was in punk bands, including Acme and The Troubleshooters, treading the boards and hoping for a clatter of pound notes to pass his way.

That didn’t happen, at least not on a scale large enough to make it worth his while to continue, so when he returned to Belfast from London in 1996 he embedded himself in the local music industry to the extent that he has been for some time the go-to guy for detailing and documenting the city’s – and, indeed, Northern Ireland’s – music output.

To this extent Bailie has been a busy man, especially recently. The success of Snow Patrol – fronted by Gary Lightbody, who returned to live in Belfast a few years ago – has added to an already thriving Belfast music scene. Snow Patrol’s avuncular help for local bands, including Lightbody’s assured hands-on approach in some Belfast-based music projects, has ensured that optimism within the local music scene remains at a high. The previous peak was from 1977 to 1982, when punk rock galvanised as much the city as pockets of the provinces.

It’s unlikely that punk bands such as Rudi (or, indeed, Them), The Outcasts, Starjets, Protex and others would ever have imagined that, 30 years after the fact, they’d end up as part of the Belfast Music Tour.

Yet they and others have been corralled into a well-put- together bus journey that twists its way through some very small streets, recounting along the way the contributions of Them and Van Morrison, and many others.

Cynics might baulk at trundling by the likes of Sandy Row, Cypress Avenue, Hyndford Street, Beechmount, Springfield Road and East Bread Street with associative songs in the background from the likes of Morrison – who has referred to city locations throughout his career – Gary Moore, Brian Kennedy, the McPeake family and Snow Patrol, but there’s an emotive quality at play that strikes a distinct chord.

Ditto when we pass by the Ulster Hall, on Bedford Street, and Stiff Little Fingers’ Alternative Ulstercomes on, or when we travel down Benburb Street and a Ruby Murray tune crackles into existence.

Perhaps too often news about Belfast’s musical heritage has been forgotten about, its pop-cultural worth buried beneath harder stories. Something as simply effective and as enjoyable as a couple of hours on the Belfast Music Tour – and a couple of days getting a buzz off the city, which again thrums to the rhythm of a rake of new bands – places the emphasis once more on the positive.

Incidently, the 11th Coors Light Open House festival takes place from September 23rd to 27th. Acts include Beth Orton, Steve Earle, Noah and the Whale, Alela Diane, Liam O Maonlai, Foy Vance, Alabama 3, Laura Marling and Otis Gibbs. www.coorsopenhousefestival.com.

* The Belfast Music Tour runs weekly until end of September, then switches to the first Tuesday of the month over winter. Tickets cost £8 (€9) from the Belfast Welcome Centre (048- 90246609) or belfastmusic.org

Where to stay, where to eat and where to go for a rock’n’roll weekend north of the Border Belfast hot spots

5 places to stay

Ten Square. 10 Donegall Square South, 048-90241001, tensquare.co.uk. Cosy boutique hotel with friendly staff and a busy restaurant, the Grill Room. Rooms from £170 (€190) per night.

Fitzwilliam Hotel Belfast. 1-3 Great Victoria Street, 048-90311588, fitzwilliam hotelbelfast.com. The Fitzwilliam comes to the North, and what a lovely, cool addition it is to the city’s accommodation options. Room-only rates from £52.50 (€60) per night.

Radisson SAS. Cromac Place, 048-90434065, radissonsas.com. Smart, modern and the place where Snow Patrol and crew bedded down for their recent Odyssey gigs. Doubles from £135 (€152).

Hastings Europa Hotel. Great Victoria Street, 048-90271066, hastingshotels.com. Comfort, business and all-round high-standard hotel. Do you see what they’ve done with their phone number, by the way? Hastings? 1066? Nice historical touch. Doubles from £100pps (€112).

Malmaison Belfast. 34-38 Victoria Street, 048-90220200, malmaison.com. Smartly designed, uber-contemporary, the hotel of choice for many visiting rock stars (its Samson suite even has a purple-baize pool table for games between gigs). Room-only rates from £85 (€96) per night.

5 places to eat

Deane’s Restaurant. 36-40 Howard Street, 048-90331134, michael deane.co.uk. Michelin-starred open-plan joint serving traditional Irish cuisine with distinction and delicacy. Mains for two, plus house wine, for about £80 (€90).

Crown Bar Liquor Saloon. 46 Great Victoria Street, 048-9024-3187, crown bar.com. Owned by the National Trust, this beautifully preserved Victorian gin palace contains surely the most wonderful interior of any pub in Ireland or Britain. Hungry? Try its Ardglass oysters.

No 27. 27 Talbot Street, 048-90312884, no.27.co.uk. Opened in December 2007 to rave reviews for its fine-dining food and atmosphere. Mains for two, plus house wine, for about £70 (€79).

Mourne Seafood Bar. 34-36 Bank Street, 048-90248544, mourneseafood.com. Gary Lightbody’s favourite Belfast restaurant; an award winner that serves – from its private shellfish beds in Carlingford Lough, no less – fresh oysters, mussels and cockles. Mains for two, plus house wine, for about £55 (€62).

Lavery’s Bar Gin Palace. 12-16 Bradbury Place, 048-90871106, laverysbelfast.com. Five bars, three levels, located in Queen’s Quarter. Think students, music lovers and old-pub atmosphere.

5 places to go

Oh Yeah Music Centre. Gordon Street, 048-90310845, ohyeahbelfast. com. This former bonded warehouse in Belfast’s cultural district, the Cathedral Quarter, is a huge space – almost 1,400sq m over three floors – given over to performance and exhibitions areas, offices and a privately-operated recording studio.

Ulster Hall. Bedford Street, 048-90334400, ulsterhall.co.uk. In 2007 this venerable venue closed its doors to the public in order to undergo a multimillion-euro overhaul. Two years later – on March 6th last – the venue reopened with a gala event that paid tribute to the hall’s Mulholland grand organ, as well as welcoming the Ulster Orchestra’s new residency.

St George’s Market. May Street and Oxford Street, 048-90435704, stgeorgesmarket.com. One of the best-preserved Victorian markets in Ireland or Britain hosts the Variety Market (Friday, 6am-2pm) and the City Food Garden Market (Saturday, 9am-2pm).

Linen Hall Library. 17 Donegall Square North, 048-90321707, linenhall.com. Belfast’s oldest library houses one of the world’s most renowned collections of Irish material. Free tours daily. Advance booking is essential.

Belfast Wheel. City Hall, Donegall Square East, 048-90310607, worldtourist attractions.co.uk. Belfast Eye (or Aye), anyone? Watch the city stay still while you go around very slowly. Open daily. Tickets £6.50 (€7.30)/£4.50 (€5.10).

5 best music venues

Limelight/Katy Daly’s/ Spring Airbrake. 17 Ormeau Avenue, 048-90325942, the-limelight.co.uk. This three-venues-in-one establishment means that most of your regular music fixes are catered for.

The Stiff Kitten. 1a Bankmore Square, Dublin Road, 048-90238700, thestiffkitten.com. For some the jewel in Belfast’s entertainment crown, with its extensive cocktail menu and its vibey live venue.

Ulster Hall. Bedford Street, 048-90334400, ulster hall.co.uk. Following extensive restoration to its original Victorian beauty, just watch this space once again stake its claim as the city’s cultural centre.

The Empire. 42 Botanic Avenue, 048-90249276, thebelfastempire.com. A Live Music Venue of the Year winner at last year’s 7Up Go Belfast awards. In a word? Lively.

Odyssey Arena. Queen’s Quay, 048-90739074, odysseyarena.com. Ireland’s largest all-seater indoor venue is home to touring international music and sporting events.

Hot spot

The Merchant Hotel.

35-39 Waring Street, 048-90234888, themerchant hotel.com. Formerly the HQ of Ulster Bank, this intimate yet stunning five-star hotel has been the go-to place for any star worth their sparkly salt. No doubt the celebs visit to test the recently won accolade of the world’s best bar, the world’s best cocktail menu and the world’s best drinks selection (according to the New Orleans-based Spirit Awards). To which we can only say, Cheers!

Shopping

Although there are some cool alternative shops in and around the Cathedral Quarter, the best place for shopping is Victoria Square, which boasts the usual suspects, as well as high-street names such as

All Saints, jeans retailer Clockwork Orange, Crabtree Evelyn, Firetrap, Kurt Geiger, Pull Bear and Urban Outfitters.

Check out

Ten Square boutique hotel offers a Party Like a Rock Star package on Fridays and Saturdays. Avail of a superior room, champagne on ice, VIP passes to Scratch Nightclub and a full Irish breakfast that includes a survival kit of eye mask, cooling headache pads and energy capsules. From £205 (€230) per night. 048-90241001, www.tensquare.co.uk.