I couldn’t get tickets for the Urban Hymns concert in May Street Presbyterian Church last year, though really enjoyed the fabulous film of the evening that was shown later during Belfast Film Festival.
The idea for Urban Hymns was simple: ask well known singers to sing one of their own songs followed by a cover of a gospel song, both backed by wonderful Inishowen Gospel Choir. The film was spine tingling, and the original concert, with performers in the pulpit and people crammed into the pews must have been an amazing experience.
Monday night’s concert - The Unforgettable Choir - was the reprise as part of the 2009 Belfast Festival at Queen's. Away from the cramped setting of an inner city church, it promised a similar musical format in a larger and more luxurious venue. Belfast City Hall has just reopened after 18 months of renovation, and it has flung open its doors and rooms for Belfast Festival events.
But the Great Hall lacked the intimacy and character of the church. Lots of credit to Stuart Bailie for pulling together a strong line-up. The performances were good, but the audience were distant from the stage, the sound was a bit muddy and the atmosphere was restrained. Last year the guest artists were stuck in the pulpit above and behind the choir. This year the band were tucked in behind the tiered staging creating a strange visual dynamic.
Bronagh Gallagher - the only female artist last year - was back, throwing her heart and soul into a set that didn’t get the audience reaction it deserved. To be honest I didn’t recognise all that many of the names of the performers - I’m obviously not enough of a music nerd to appreciate what I heard. But Bap Kennedy and Henry McCullough (the latter achieving a two-person standing ovation that beat the rest!) were amongst the on-stage talent. Leave me a comment below and I’ll fill in the rest of the names!
As a long time Moya Brennan fan - my claim to fame could be that I once ate a Chinese takeaway in the same kitchen as her - I expected great things from her as she performed the penultimate two songs of the night. Amazing Grace was good, but the song before dragged.
I hope Stuart does it again. The choir are a treasure. Enthusiastic, adventurous and not afraid to sway and dance, given the right material they really lift the performances. But the venue needs rethought. Even the slightly rounded Assembly Buildings with its balcony might work better if numbers are essential to pay for the artists.