I had never before been to Northern Ireland. I had never before been to a Blues Festival. These two gaps in my CV have been closed by a visit to the Warrenpoint “Blues on the Bay” Festival.
Arriving Friday night, there was time for a bite to eat and a pint (or two) of something brewed at St James Gate in Dublin. Travel to different places always requires advance local knowledge. Thankfully some of my fellow travellers had ordered and eaten before we arrived, so I could be warned off the bacon and banana pizza. Not that I needed much warning. And then, guided by a one-time local, we found ourselves in a function room of some local hostelry and immediately in the midst of a Roddy Doyle tale.
Now I know that this reference is culturally and geographically a little bit out of place. But as Pat McManus took to the stage it was the only thought in my mind. I absolutely guarantee the man standing next to me once knew Wilson Pickett. I have no doubt that the man next to him ran a chip van. And Pat McManus himself was a three volume set of riotous stories.
You could tell his life story from his hair. With him, none of that “women want him and men want to be him”. Everyone would just want his hair, particularly the advertising executive in charge of L’Oreal’s creative output. It was full on, RockGod, shoulder length black hair with a Dickie Davies grey streak. But with sheen. And body.
He had the taut, wiry forearms of a GuitarGod too. Which were undoubtedly the result of his twenty minute long guitar solos, two in every number he performed.
What do you want? Guitar solo played with the guitar behind his head? Yep, Pat delivered that, with a flourish of his hair as he finished. This was Blues with a progrock self absorption. And just at the point in his set when I expected him to produce a double necked guitar he produced….. a violin.
In an instant we went from Jimi Hendrix to Michael Flatley. And the audience lapped it up, with a heaving sea of bouncing, foot skipping devotees worshipping his hair and and his fiddle playing. With Mrs VFTN lost amongst the throng.
The end of the night was a bit of a haze. There was dancing. There was a man with a CBE in the midst of the dancing (the Commander of the British Empire of the Dance, being one removed from the Lord of the Dance). There was a bottle of Buckfast Tonic Wine (empty and abandoned by someone else). There was the return to the fantastic house we were staying in and the sight of a drunk man falling over whilst already lying down (which was an impressive feat). To bed we went, with our feet still tapping.
After an Ulster fried breakfast (a slice of black pudding and a slice of white pudding, no vegetables allowed) we were taken to the Magic Road. I am not going to spoil the magic, but if you ever do find yourself in Warrenpoint then ask a local for directions to the Magic Road. There are no road signs, there may be a queue and there is definitely magic at work.
Saturday was an afternoon of gentle drinking, sharing plates and background music in a local bar, Fusion. Sufficiently fed and watered, we headed off to the Forresters for the Shawn Jones trio. He was advertised as being accompanied by an Italian rhythm section, which called to mind a papal sanctioned form of birth control.
What the festival blurb neglected to tell us was that Shawn himself was absolutely the real deal. His hair was the obligatory length but had not seen conditioner for a while. He clearly lived every single note that came from his guitar. No gimmicks, no tricks, just the sort of Blues favoured by Eric Clapton or Robert Cray.
Everyone in the room felt the love Jones had for his guitar. It was a feeling of love that was infectious. It was probably the infectious feeling of love that inspired a local to repeatedly ask Mrs VFTN to dance. It was the same feeling of love that caused our host (who will remain nameless because Kevin didn’t want mentioning by name) to admire the chap next to him at the bar in the mirror behind the optics. And the same love that caused his companion at the bar to ask Kevin if he liked what he had done with his hair.
I was beginning to think this was no country for bald men.
There is something quite louche about emerging from your second gig of the day, stomach awash with a pint or six, to find it is still daylight outside. We admired the prone figure of Finn McCool the other side of the lough (he is a giant having a lie down on a hill, seriously). We enjoyed the tour of the hotspots of Kevin’s youth (which amounted to the arcade). And we enjoyed one more drink, a bit of a band and the sight of the youth of today managing a lot more fun than achieving the High Score on Galaxian.
Once you have discovered a recipe for success, repeat it. So the brave explorers of Saturday trod a familiar path on the Sunday. First port of call was Fusion for lunch alongside the deep and soulful tones of the Courtnay Magee duo.
And then, once more, we found ourselves at the Forresters watching the ponytailed Jones and his Italian pals (introduced to the audience with the line “they do good red wine, they do good pasta and they do great rhythm”, which I am not sure the Italian Tourist Board will adopt anytime soon).
The music was even better than they day before. The audience was on even finer form. A couple took to the dance floor. The gentleman had the look of a darts player from Stoke. And yet he guided his wife around the floor with the grace and accuracy of a handmade watch. The contrast of his pirouette and the other local gentleman attempting to do “the worm” across the dance floor could not have been greater.
To our left was a man of menacing appearance. Not that I am obsessed by hair, but his was the mane of a biker. He was resplendent in denim waistcoat and cut off sleeve t-shirt. This foregoing of sleeves allowed us to see his tattooed bicep. The bicep and the tattoo were generous. The arm was a canvas for a detailed sketch of a female’s face. Some said she looked like Katherine Deneuve, others observed she looked like Mick Hucknall. Neither were true. She looked exactly like the woman who brought her and his drinks from the bar. Which was a good job, but also a little disconcerting to recognise someone from a tattoo. His arm was better than any identikit Crimewatch picture could hope to be.
Then entered a man with a guitar. Not on the stage. In the audience. He took his seat. He embarked upon an extensive ritual of guitar tuning. I should point out this was an electric guitar. So the tuning was purely electric. We were fascinated. Was this the music version of bringing your boots to the game in the hope the star striker would pull out just before kick off? Was it the most professional air guitar preparation ever?
The answer, it seems, was that Shawn Jones was going to play one song on this audience member’s guitar. Why? I have no idea. Shawn had a perfectly serviceable guitar that he played both before and after. Both guitars sounded like, well, electric guitars. I guess it meant something to the guy who had gone to the trouble of bringing his guitar to a gig. Maybe it is like getting Bradman to score a run with your bat.
We left the Forresters and, in the vicinity of a lone man from Dublin who had a sideline in dancing only with his shoulders, we made our way to the Whistledown Hotel Ballroom. Now fans of Jack Nicholson’s Joker will recall that he said: “I have given a name to my pain, and it is Batman.” Well I have now given a name to my joy, and it is Mirenda Rosenberg.
As an aside, I was beginning to notice that the artistes all went for less usual spellings of their names. Shawn, Courtnay, Mirenda – maybe these were my kind of people.
Mirenda has a great voice and she sings great songs. She was with a great band and they played a great set. What sets her apart, however, is her stage presence. Stage presence which, more often than not, takes her off the stage and into the audience where she will fix an audience member with a look and then sing only to them.
Oh what a joy. She danced with the fleet-footed darts player from Stoke. She glowered and grinned in equal measure. She was alluring and intimidating, foreboding and intimate. Most of all she was fun. And we were all having fun. I am not sure whether it was the general giddiness of the whole weekend or the infectious walkabout nature of Mirenda or the ten pints of Guinness but I found myself in middle of the dance floor, sunglasses on my face (indoors at ten o’clock at night) and with sufficient joie de vivre abounding that I was able to kid myself I did not look entirely out of place.
I obviously looked a total plonker.
As I said at the start, I had never been to Northern Ireland before. I will definitely be back. And hope that the Blues on the Bay Festival welcomes me as warmly as it did this time. I promise not to bring the sunglasses.
What’s that you say? What about the girl in the green skirt? Like the Magic Road and Pat McManus’s fiddle, she was just a part of the mystery and the joy of Warrenpoint. You will have to come along next year and see for yourself.