live review ~ ni music prize 2014 ~ sullivan & gold, robyn g shiels, more than conquerors and therapy? ~ mandela hall, belfast

In a year in which the flame of local music was ignited brighter than ever, competition for this year’s NI Music Prize was, understandably fierce. Of the twelve nominated acts, the difference in style and presentation could not have been more eclectic, though one thing each nominee had in common was quality. From the doom laden sludge rock of Slomatics, to Sullivan & Gold’s soft acoustic numbers, it was a great mix. Walking into the exciting venue of the Mandela Hall, Encore NI realised that our own hesitance to predict a winner was one shared by all; it really was that tight and a tribute to the quality of albums on show. Before the Oh Yeah Centre’s Stuart Bailie could announce the winner however, there were time for some performances from the acts, as well as a headline slot for legends ‘Therapy?’. Taylor Johnson was on hand to give his thoughts…

Proving they are so much more than a band to fill the New Ancestors shaped hole left in Belfast, Sullivan & Gold opened the evening in a confident and assured manner. Minimalist arrangements allow their songs to flourish on the big stage, an appreciative audience falling quiet enough to allow tracks like ‘Jigsaws’ to be embraced the way the band intended. Crisp, Fleetfoxes inspired harmonies remain key components to the ex ‘Good Fight’ two piece’s sound, though when required they have no problems in kicking things up a gear. They've clearly not forgotten how to work an audience.

Sadly, the solemn sound of Robyn G Shiels was rather drowned out by the time he took to the stage. Perhaps suffering for his lack of backing band (instead braving the stage with only an acoustic guitar in hand), Shiels has to be admired for his commitment to his art. Never once phased, he continued to press on with a collection of soft, pain ridden anthems - often tinged with regret, but delivered with purpose. The banjo led backing provided a Springsteen-esque touch to his maudlin tales, unfortunately the running order derailed a potentially pivotal performance in the evening. Shiels, however, simply proved his professionalism (at one point mockingly declaring he was ready to ‘get this party started’). Knowing all that mattered where those who did listen, for them he produced a subtly beautiful performance.

What this night badly needed was a band to shake it's foundations, a specialty of final performing nominee's More Than Conquerors. Completely at home on the Mandela's huge stage, Belfast’s hardest rocking sons have been slightly more absent from the gigging scene here than many would like; a fact underlined by the vibrancy of this storming set. Opener ‘Pits Of Old’ now sounds like a bona fide classic, effortless and exhilarating in equal measure. Ending on the brand new ‘Red’ was a brave move, but one that ultimately paid off, the band displaying a more anthemic side to their hard rock. With front man Kris Platt on top form throughout, this was the perfect way for More Than Conqueror’s to remind you why they’re amongst our top talents.

More Than Conqueror's produced a blistering performance...

Finally it was time for the triumphant return of Therapy, though not before the nights winner was announced. For his last album ‘Blood Of The Innocents’, the honour went to Robyn G Shiels, a gracious and worthy winner. Those who perhaps didn't give the man their full attention during his earlier set were surely wishing they had of now!

Hyped to perfection by Across The Line's Rigsy, the legends powerful rock was always guaranteed a strong reaction, (in many ways the quality of their performance was almost secondary to their actual presence) but in a truly special homage to their 1994 release "Troublegum", the Ballyclare natives played their hearts out. Sounding tighter and more invigorated than in years gone by, tributes to punk hero’s The Ramones acted as a reminder, if one was needed, that the band in front of us deserve equal high praise. Angular riffs and sing along chorus' propel ‘Therapy?'s sound, but more importantly the punk spirit which forced them into the nations consciousness has clearly not deserted them. Introing tracks with reworkings of John Lennons 'Nowhere Boy' show the band are clearly not short of inspiration either, peppering their set full of unexpected trick shots. Cameos from Snow Patrols Nathan Connelly & a passionate performance from Tony Wright of Verse Chorus Verse were only overshadowed by a brief (and awesome) cover of Joy Divisions "Control".

It was a truly special night for Belfast and the climax to another great year of music. Encore NI would like to congratulate the Oh Yeah Centre and Volume Control teams for their work over the year and all those who contributed to such a great evening. We can’t wait for next year.

Taylor Johnson

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