GOOD TIMES & GOOD TUNES
Dolores Vischer is a professional Green Badge Tour Guide based in Belfast, whose knowledge of the area extends from 1950s showbands to punk, to modern day pop and everything in between. She also knows where to see the best gigs, making her a good person to know in a town that's been newly anointed a UNESCO City of Music.
“In the punk days, there wasn’t the security there is now. You could jump on stage and dance alongside the band,” she says. During a The Stranglers gig in 1979, teenage Dolores did just that, hopping over to drummer Jet Black and announcing she could play. No sooner had the words left her lips, than she was left holding the sticks as he ran to the loo. “I think I did OK.”
Ulster Hall this morning, at the start of our three hour walking tour, is more quilting society meet-up than punk rock dive (the Ulster Orchestra is performing here tonight). But if the walls of this Victorian music hall could talk, they might ring with the melodic pop-punk of The Buzzcocks, the headbanging rock of AC/DC or dark pop of The Pixies. It’s not who has played Ulster Hall, but rather, who hasn’t.
During the Troubles, the city lay in darkness, cordoned off at night. Ulster Hall was the music-goer’s equivalent of a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Sitting just outside the no-go zone, it played host to local and (the occasional) international artist.
Led Zeppelin famously debuted Stairway to Heaven here in 1971. As the story goes, punters were more invested in getting a Guinness at the bar than listening to a song they didn’t know. A decade later, Dexys Midnight Runners rocked out their singalong, clomp-a-lot hit Come on Eileen when the floor caved in. “Nobody stopped dancing, they just moved further back from the big hole,” says Dolores.
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Belfast has had many incarnations since becoming a city in 1888. Shipbuilding, linen, whiskey, tobacco and rope were its lifeblood. Filming of the big budget US fantasy drama television series, Game of Thrones helped its reinvention. But it’s music that helped raise it up and out of its darkest times and which continues to unify it today.
“Music is woven into the DNA of Belfast,” says Snow Patrol frontman Gary Lightbody, who along with Emmy-nominated composer Hannah Peel is one of the Belfast Music patrons. “We have so many incredible bands and artists — and more every single year. I’ve watched in these last 25 years of relative peace the music scene grow and then thrive and now burst at the seams with fearless and limitless talent.”
Belfast City Hall was built in 1906 to commemorate the city, and it’s here the Belfast City Council conceived its UNESCO bid. We come to it via streets slick with rain, its copper dome bright green against grey mushroom skies. Inside the Neo-Baroque building, chequerboard floors and marble staircases lead to decorative arches, frescoes and a dome inlaid with stained glass.
All that remains of the Maritime Hotel is a brick wall and blue plaque announcing it as ‘the birthplace of the rhythm and blues in Belfast in 1964'. That’s when a young Van Morrison stepped onto the stage, launching his global career and putting Belfast on the musical map. “Before the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, we had American swing music and jazz,” says Dolores. “The Maritime Hotel changed that.”
For five years leading up to the Troubles, it was the place to be. Van Morrison wrote the raunchy rock song Gloria on its stage. Local artists The Aztecs, The Loving Kind, and even Rory Gallagher, a Donegal lad who turned down a spot in the Rolling Stones to pursue a solo career, performed here with his band Taste.
We swing past the Presbyterian Church where the HARP congregation organised the first Belfast Musical Festival, music store Starr Records and around the corner to Kelly’s Cellars, a traditional pub claiming to be Belfast’s oldest (one of several jostling for the title). It’s closed but later, I find a cosy tavern and beer garden where a young brother-sister duo playing violin and acoustic guitar perform a rousing traditional set.
On a Saturday afternoon, the maze of graffiti-splashed lanes and warehouses of the Cathedral Quarter is packed with good craic, free flowing beer and a remarkable number of cover artists toting a guitar.
It’s spitting distance from where legendary punk hangout Harp Bar once stood. Good Vibrations record label founder Terri Hooley held gigs late at night in this once-bombed, heavily fortified bar in the heart of the no-go zone at the height of the conflict. Under the cloak of darkness, young punks from both sides of the divide would come together to pogo and share good craic.
Around the corner at the Oh Yeah Music Centre, a not-for-profit studio and performance space where our tour ends, the DIY sentiment continues with a performance from local indie pop artist Sasha Samara. The theatrette is a music-lovers cornucopia stuffed with memorabilia from local and international artists including the guitar used in Snow Patrol’s song Chasing Cars and a vintage street sign of Cyprus Avenue.
“Terry Hooley said ‘New York has the haircuts, London has the trousers, but Belfast has the reason,” recalls Dolores. “We were desperate to get good music.” Turns out necessity is the mother of all invention. We fall quiet as Sasha Samara takes the stage.
From Australia, Qatar Airlines fly to Belfast via Hamad Airport in Doha.
There are 62 rooms and suites at the swanky Malmaison, which, for its size, still feels cosy and intimate. It’s located around the corner from the Cathedral Quarter, as well as other sights including Titanic Belfast and City Hall. Each room features a safe, tea- and coffee-making facilities, flat-screen TV, minibar, free wi-fi and 24-hour room service. Standard doubles start from about AUD$200 a night.
The city’s motto is ‘Pro tanto quid retribuamus’ — What can we give back in return for so much?
The Belfast UNESCO City of Music Walking Tour takes place every second Saturday, beginning with a tour of Ulster Hall at 1pm and ending three hours later at the Oh Yeah Music Centre, with a performance by a local musician. Tickets £22 ($39).
There’s also the Van Morrison Coney island Tour, tracing the local lad’s 1989 album Avalon Sunset, and the Belfast Trad Music Trail, where you can expect a guided walk and rousing renditions of old-school Irish tunes.