Take back this city: The music of Belfast past, present and future

Belfast is a city looking to push its musical heritage and promote the music of the now. We went to see how the city compares to Liverpool and Manchester.
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Belfast is a city looking to push its musical heritage and promote the music of the now. We went to see how the city compares to Liverpool and Manchester.

I've never been to Belfast before. Possibly because they don't have a football team Bradford City have played or are likely to, bar a pre-season friendly, and possibly because there's lots of other cities I've not been to that have always been higher up the 'must visit' list. My knowledge of this particular corner of the UK, therefore, is limited to what I learnt about the capital at school, tellingly in politics lessons rather than geography, and from various stories on the 9 o'clock news over the last 30 odd years.

So, on driving in to the city, it's a pleasant surprise to see it's surrounded by the similar rolling hills to those of my native Yorkshire, and green fields of the South around Dublin, where I have been many a time. The taxi driver assures me there's plenty of pubs too. I'm already feeling at home.

It's not the pubs I'm here for I'm quick to remember (though I do assure you, and purely with you, the reader in mind, I went out of my way in the name of  research to bring you some recommendations later on) it's the music.

Belfast is home to the Oh Yeah Music Centre. A converted warehouse in the Cathedral Quarter, that was designed to be a hub for the city's music making, with the mission statement of 'open doors to music potential' and it's my first port of call. Since the project was launched in 2007, it's gained charity status as well as the backing of notable Belfast music acts like Snow Patrol and Ash. Indeed Snow Patrol were chief instigators to the inception of Oh Yeah, and the rehearsal rooms are crammed with equipment donated by the band, or as Oh Yeah CEO Stuart Bailie says: "They filled a transit van with all their equipment and sent it over to us."

Walking round the vast building, it's clear to see the potential of the place. The ground floor is home to the Northern Ireland Music exhibition, which traces the story of music in the country from the blues, Ruby Murray - yes that's where the rhyming slang comes from - and the showbands, through the Undertones and Stiff Little Fingers to the aforementioned Ash and Snow Patrol, with memorabilia such as Tim Wheeler's flying V and the silk suit worn by one of Them that wasn't Van Morrison.

The exhibition is also an introduction for the uninitiated to Belfast's  answer to Anthony H Wilson and 'Godfather of Punk'  Terri Hooley. The man who brought the Undertones to the world, founded Belfast's legendary Good Vibrations record store, once punched John Lennon over his alleged financial backing of the IRA, and has had, one would hope, far less rambunctious meetings with just about anyone who's anyone in the music world.

The other three floors of the former whiskey  warehouse contain the Strummerville Rehearsal Rooms - two rooms financed by The Joe Strummer Foundation for New Music, and decorated with images and writings of the rock and roll legend -  a venue space, a private recording studio (Start Together) and music business offices. All in all a  striking conversion that has an atmosphere thick with the optimism of a Belfast eagerly breaking free from its past and looking to focus its unique energy into something positive.

The exhibition is also an introduction for the uninitiated to Belfast's  answer to Anthony H Wilson and 'Godfather of Punk' Terri Hooley. The man who brought the Undertones to the world, founded Belfast's legendary Good Vibrations record store, once punched John Lennon

Oh Yeah also runs the Belfast Music Bus Tour, which launched in 2009. As you might guess it's a bus tour taking in the places that shaped and influenced the city's musicians. It turns out that's a lot of places. An hour and a half's worth of coach trip's worth.

Once on board, and with Stuart Baille as our guide, the first stop is The Ulster Hall, where Led Zepplin debuted 'Stairway to Heaven' and Jimmy Page first played his double neck guitar in public, notably impressive musical landmarks. Stuart adds: "There was a mini-riot here in 1977 when a Clash gig was cancelled. It gave the punk scene a sense of community and inspired a Belfast act called Stiff Little Fingers to put together a rousing anthem called Alternative Ulster." And with this song blasting over the coach speakers, we wind our way through the streets of Belfast, taking in other sites from the home of Van Morrison and Cypress Avenue - the rather swanky street he made famous - through East and West Belfast, the site of the studio where Teenage Kicks was recorded, the birthplace of Ruby Murray, and venues that helped shape Thin Lizzy, Snow Patrol and Ash. All accompanied by the appropriate songs.

There's something rather surreal about the experience as we sit listening to Days of Pearly Spencer and Whiskey in the Jar passing through places familiar from the news with their painted curbstones and frayed flags hanging from lampposts. However it's a tour about love not war. A contrast to the tours that prefer to take in the murals celebrating violence and areas that bore witness to heartbreak that tore communities apart. Whilst these kind of trips undoubtedly attract tourists and bring money in, it does seem to have the voyeuristic traits of going round to your next-door neighbours and asking them for an indepth account of a particularly turbulent  breakup or loss. The Belfast Music Bus Tour doesn't hide away from this side of life in Belfast, nor does it chose to celebrate or profit from it. It's simply about the music not the politics.

There was a mini-riot here in 1977 when a Clash gig was cancelled. It gave the punk scene a sense of community and inspired a Belfast act called Stiff Little Fingers to put together a rousing anthem called Alternative Ulster

Back at Oh Yeah, it's time to see the next generation of musicians in action. The Lowly Knights are the kind of poppy folk rock that I love and currently packing out venues in Belfast - think The Beach Boys, Neil Young and a hint of Polyphonic Spree. The next and headlining band if you will is The Answer, who are quite some contrast. Proper old school rock and roll. They've just toured with AC/DC, which should tell you all you need to know. I imagine those that were there to see AC/DC on that tour were suitably entertained. Listening to some tracks from other bands like And So I Watch You From Afar, who've just toured with Them Crooked Vultures, LaFaro who've just put an album out and General Fiasco who are all over the radio and have been profiled on MTV, if this is just a sample of what's happening in the city at them moment, then the scene is as healthy as we're told it is.

With my musical stay in Belfast over, it's clear that  it's a music city up there with the best of them. OK, so there's no Beatles or Factory, but Belfast has been silently churning out musicians for the past 50 years and the city's finally found the voice to start shouting about it.

Stay

If you like stylish and contemporary I'd recommend Dukes at Queens which is sandwiched between the lovely Botanical Gardens and the lively student area. Don't be put off by the phrase 'lively student area' I don't mean youths running round with traffic cones on their heads, think small cafes and bars and a pleasant place to spend an afternoon.

Eat

Belfast has access to some of the finest seafood around, so you may as well eat it whilst you're there. Mourne Seafood in the heart of the city is superb and reasonably priced and gets the thumbs up from me

Drink

As I mentioned back at the start, I took the time out to investigate Belfast's watering holes just for you.

The Crown on Great Victoria Street is popular with the tourists on account of it's stunning Victorian tiling, stained glass, ornate bar and gas lighting. Whilst it's a great pub, the beer isn't.

John Hewitt on Donegal Street is another worth a visit, and although again I had a bad experience with the beer the fact it's owned by the Unemployed Resource Centre and all the profits go to fund it's work with the unemployed, makes it worthy of spending one's money there.

The Duke of Belfast in Commercial Court is a lively, friendly pub just round the corner from Oh Yeah. Popular with students, workers and the creative types from the cathedral quarter it's one to call into despite its lack of real ale.

McHugh's on Queens Square is my pick of the pubs in Belfast. It's home to Belfast's CAMRA branch, serves the beer - Whitewater's Belfast Ale and Clotworthy Dobbin on my visit - with a sparkler and at the right temperature, has a large screen for any sport, good food and has a great view from the window of the local landmarks.

Listen

Full details of the Belfast Music Tour can be found at Belfastmusic.org and you can get the free Belfast Music iPhone app here where you can find out all about the music of Belfast and where and when to find the best gigs.