Showcase festivals such as HWCH can be tough on artists, especially those playing the early slots and facing empty rooms. Best foot forward and all that, indeed some of the best performances we’ve seen so far have come at the beginning of evenings one and two. Much as we love Katie Laffan’s music, though, we have to say that she doesn’t make the most of her opportunity. Her original songs are great, so it feels like a bit of a cop out to play her Pussycat Dolls cover second number in, and the set descends into such rag order that we need to move on and hope that she pulls it together next time out. There are no such problems for Sinéad White, who – despite playing solo – makes the Academy feel wonderfully intimate.
Much of your time here is spent looking for that moment that catches you off guard, that provides that unidentifiable thrill. Tonight it comes in the Academy Green Room when AikJ strolls onto the stage. A bit of rapping follows before he unleashes the most amazing soul voice. Based on the gorgeous electro rap of ‘In My Soul’, this isn’t quite what we expected. His band (who we’ve seen in various guises over the weekend) rock it up alongside the R&B beats, which is also a surprise. While so much of this kind of stuff is over produced and under inspired, AikJ feels like the real deal and a world away from the auto-tuned buffoons clogging up the charts.
Derry’s Strength are also the genuine article, albeit a very, very different one. They’re shouting and snarling at the Mercantile audience as we walk in, a strangely minimalist mixture of bass, hand held percussion, synth and screaming vocals. It’s confrontational, difficult and pretty bloody great.
Hanger has largely been the home of rock at HWCH and they don’t come much rockier than Johnny Stewart. Backed by a furious rhythm section, he is a man possessed by the power of music. OK, there’s nothing hugely original going on but Stewart & co go about their task with such vigour and belief that it really doesn’t matter. Another excellent find.
The way that discopunks, who follow Stewart, managed their entrance this year was so smartly done that to find them playing a fairly straight gig such as this seems at odds with their esthetic and, for all their strutting and funky tunes, it’s a rather lacklustre end to the evening. Over at the Academy Green Room, however, Plutonic Dust are making the most of the more intimate surroundings and are absolutely killing it. The Dublin based band almost defy description. If you don’t know them they blend disco, funk, electro-pop, breezy vocals and an irrefutable ability to make you move. If you do know them that’s exactly what we got at their HWCH performance. More of this, please.
State favourites Third Smoke are like supremely knowing and intelligent version of your favourite band. They don’t need gimmicks or markers to set them apart from most of their peers, they have the songs and the playing ability to do that for them. Indie music rarely gets any more interesting and compelling than this. An assured performance from the band here just reaffirmed what we’ve known for months, that Irish music is in safe hands with the Dundalk band doing the rounds.
Upstairs in the Academy, there’s a sizeable crowd – including a lot of obvious industry types – for the Dublin debut of Belfast’s Pleasure Beach. It’s not hard to see why they’ve been deemed one of the weekend’s buzz bands, they already look like proper rock stars and have a couple of big tunes to match. They’re good and will undoubtedly get better, but it’s a shame that those with the cheque books are missing the real event just one floor below – where Rusangano Family are in flying form. This was the year when the new hip-hop community belatedly stormed HWCH and the Limerick trio could rightly stake a claim as the movement’s flag bearers. The most important band to come out of this country in recent times? You never know.
And that’s almost about it. Suddenly the room starts to fill as the hordes who have been queueing outside for the late night club pour in, probably unaware that a hundred acts have been been playing at seven venues for the past three nights. There’s still one more to come, as the familiar figures of Le Galaxie appear on stage and the place erupts in a manner that we haven’t really seen during the weekend. While it’s fantastic to see a band break through and make that connection on a bigger level, it’s also frustrating that so many of those that have come before are still operating under the radar. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that this was perhaps the best HWCH we can remember in terms of music, with some genuinely fantastic moments, but you have to wonder if there’s enough of an interested audience to go round on this scale. The talent is out there, it’s just a question of finding the best platform to showcase it. Hard Working Class Heroes might not be the perfect answer, but at least it’s trying to come up with one.
Reporting: Steven Dunne & Phil Udell. Pleasure Beach photographed for State by Kieran Frost.