The setting for this evening’s unofficial ‘homecoming’ – and Thin Lizzy’s first outdoor festival gig in Belfast – is a man made auditorium, close by the River Lagan, with apartment blocks to the front and side of the stage, the density of which looms over the normally imposing edifice of the Custom House from which the arena takes it’s name. It’s an unusual location, perched on the edge of the capital’s commercial district, but one which is well served to the variety of events which it hosts – including this annual festival, which has grown over the past few years from a solitary weekend to almost two weeks of eclectic gigs (interrupted this year only by the small matter of the Foo Fighters playing Belfast in the same week!).
Tonight’s third of ten gigs on the 2012 calendar is unashamedly aimed at the city’s rock audience (who, quite frankly, universally responded with “about f***ing time too” when the bill was announced).
Local NWOBHM legends Sweet Savage open proceedings with a solid and, as ever, enjoyable set, and obviously relish playing big festival stages such as this: their set may be safe and predictable in terms of their choice of songs (opening with the towering ‘Warbird’ and finishing with the iconic ‘Killing Time’), but they enjoy themselves, as does the slowly growing early crowd, and Ramie just about manages to cover every square inch of the boards.
Power poppers FM have never really floated my boat, but their set is impressive enough for what it is: it’s solid and dependable middle-of-the-road rock for a (shall we say) solid middle-of-the-road audience, and the songs sound much heavier in a live environment. Again, they go down well – and they do do what they do well, if you see what I mean – and maybe make a few new friends among those of a slightly younger vintage than the vast majority of the crowd.
As the air temperature starts to drop, The Answer certainly raise it again: if Sweet Savage are the old guard of the Norn Iron scene, then this Co Down quartet are very much the vanguard of its new breed, and they certainly rise to the occasion. Frontman Cormac Neeson is his usual whirling dervish of a self, dancing and jumping, cajoling and exchanging banter, and all the while delivering a power-packed, emotional performance drenched with heart and soul.
To one side, Paul Mahon does his best to match his vocalist for onstage energy, but Neeson is lengths ahead and the guitarist settles for his usual impressive workmanship. Some of the riffs, and particularly the bass work of Mickey Walters, may be lost in the night-time breeze, but, what the hey, everyone is having fun and rawkin’… and that’s what it’s all about!
Now, there have been many different views expressed about the merits, or demerits, of the various ‘versions’ of Thin Lizzy, with many critics writing them off as a mere ‘tribute band’. Certainly, the band will never replace the charisma, charm and genius of Philip Lynott, but with original drummer Brian Downey still behind the kit, Scott Gorham hitting 30 years in the group’s service and Darren Wharton around a decade behind him, it can quite rightly be argued that this – together with the recruitment of Northern Ireland’s own Ricky Warwick – is as near as damn it an honest Lizzy as you are gonna get without their legendary frontman…
To be honest, the last time I saw Lizzy was way back on the farewell ‘Thunder And Lightning’ tour: over the years since Lynott’s untimely passing, various events had conspired to make me miss the increasingly frequent visits to Belfast of what I personally came to regard as the ‘legacy’ band. And, so it was that I awaited, obligatory dram in one hand, for this first ‘reunion’. Boy, was I not disappointed – they blew my proverbial doors off!
What was evident right from the off was that Warwick has added a whole new dynamic to the Lizzy sound: he may not have the power of Lynott’s deep bassiness, but he has a rougher, bluesier edge which reflects the timeless honesty of the material to which he pays more than fitting homage. And the fact that he also plays guitar adds a welcome depth to the old songs, making them more ‘fit for purpose’ in the modern era.
Certainly, it was a set jammed full of Lizzy classics (well, it couldn’t be anything else, really): ‘Killer On The Loose’ went walkabouts around the now darkened amphitheatre, found a few willing victims and ambled its way back on stage, ‘Emerald’ was suitably haunting, ‘Are You Ready’ and ‘Jailbreak’ rocked the place to its very foundations, ‘Dancing In The Moonlight’ had a whole new strut and swagger while ‘Still In Love With You’ (featuring an impressive vocal from Wharton) undoubtedly had the Belfast boy himself, Gary Moore, smiling with appreciation and approval.
The main set headed to its finale with an off-the-chart rendition of the always pleasing ‘Whiskey In The Jar’ (although, to me, nobody but nobody will ever emulate Lynott’s vocal delivery – and, thankfully, Warwick didn’t even try), a brilliant ‘Cowboy Song’ and a ballsy ‘Boys Are Back In Town’, while the encore of the triple whammy of ‘Don’t Believe A Word’, ‘Black Rose’ and ‘Rosalie’ was simply storming and left the entire arena hoarse and happy.
I think Mr Lynott would be having a sly little chuckle, tipping a wink in their direction and joining his former guitar slinger in raising a glass to the boys carrying on their legacy…
Photographs by Heather Fitsell