R&B heaven at Woodstock 09

review by Mark Rainey
East Belfast Herald

Henry McCullough on the first night of the festivalFOR the benifit of those under a certain age, it might be appropriate to begin with a brief history lesson. There was a time in the not too distant past, before reality TV and text message voting made heroes out of hairbrush singers, when getting to the top in the music business meant practising guitar chords until your fingers bled.

East Belfast produced more than its fair share of such dedicated masters of their art who would go on to be household names all over the world in an age when only the strong survived. It was fitting then, that the East should rise again and celebrate the birth of the Belfast blues with the ultimate in R&B events; a collection of true legends coming back to their roots and playing alongside the best of the new crop of exciting talent at the Woodstock 40th Anniversary Rhythm and Blues Festival.

The line up was a who's who of home-produced greats packing out intimate venues in the general Woodstock Road area, 40 years to the very weekend since the original Woodstock Festival at Bethel, New York in 1969. Running from Thursday evening (13th) at The Edge until the final jam session at My Lady's Inn on Monday (17th), the festival brought together: Henry McCullough, the only Irishman to play the original Woodstock Festival where he backed Joe Cocker; iconic guitarist and founder member of Thin Lizzy, blues godfather Eric Bell; and John Wilson who famously played alongside Rory Gallagher for many years and still performs his blend of magic on drums in the reformed R&B band, Taste.

The term legend might be an over-used cliché but it's hard to think of a more appropriate description when referring to Henry McCullough. Henry has starred with Paul McCartney and Wings, as well as a host of other music royalty, and performed a brillant set to a knowledgeable and appreciative audience at The Edge on the opening night.

On Friday night it was the turn of the Ronnie Greer Band to keep the crowds happy at the Longfellow with their very own unmistakeable high-octane set including punchy horn section. The brilliant Pontiax completed Friday's line up with another well-received set. Things really began to heat up on Saturday with a stunning triple-header of Spoonful of Blues at the Longfellow followed by Willie Byrne in the Cosy Bar and then back at the Longfellow for Grainné Duffy that night. Willie and Grainné kept the festival buzzing and anyone new to their sounds felt privileged to have had the musical education.

Festival co-ordinator, Hary Lamb, was both happy and relieved in equal measure that the events were creating the kind of buzz not seen in the East in a long time: "For me it's all about the music. I feel absolutely blessed to have secured a world class line up of top performers and got them all in east Belfast for the same event."
He was too enthused on Saturday to be showing the effects of the work involved but acknowledged the scale of the operation: "We do want to make Woodstock grow each year so that we can keep up the demand for tickets but it takes an unbelievable amount of organising. We will develop the event gradually but try to keep the intimate atmosphere because that goes a long way to making the gigs so special."

Many R&B fans had thought ahead and snapped up tickets for most of the gigs almost as soon as they went on sale. Some of the most sought after tickets were for Sunday's line up starting with Kenny McDowell in the Longfellow, perhaps most famous as the replacement for a certain Van Morrison when the Belfast Cowboy parted company with Them, but also instantly recognisable to anyone who ever used to watch Sk'boo in the Errigle. Spoonful of Blues then rocked the Parkview Bar before arguably the highlight of the Festival kicked off in the Longfellow; the stellar line up of Eric Bell, Taste and Rab McCullough.

The brand new local band, Turpentine Moan, made their stunning debut on a night that will live long in the memory. It was standing room only in the Longfellow and every artist, old and new, received a heroes' welcome and left to a standing ovation in an electric atmosphere. Exhausted event organiser Harry Lamb was getting new life breathed into him by the music as the night wore on and although too modest to say himself, he must have been mighty proud to have been associated with another piece of music history.

"It makes me so happy to see such a diverse crowd coming to the events. If you look around you there are 18 year-olds right up to quite a few pensioners and I know they come from all walks of life and religion certainly doesn't feature in any way. The music is wonderful in itself but when you see the people of east Belfast and beyond coming together at gigs like this it does make you feel good."

Harry wouldn't single any of the wonderful artists out for special praise, and rightly so, but my own highlight was possibly Eric Bell reliving the glory days with a quite brilliant rendition of the Thin Lizzy classic, Whiskey in the Jar. Sometimes the original really is the best.
Woodstock 2010 promises even more big names and lots more available tickets which should please the large numbers of disapointed R&B fans who missed out on a truly magical experience this time around.

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