By Conor O’Neill
Hothouse Flowers photography courtesy of Neal Campbell
Sasha Samara photography courtesy of Richard McShane
Eastside Arts Festival is celebrating its 10th birthday and the Banana Block is the perfect location for a night of upbeat music and enthralling performances.
Hard to think way back in 1985 a band formed in Dublin would somehow play the Newtownards Road, but here we are and Hallelujah Jordan for that.
It is, of course the Flowers we’re here to see, but a few sentences must be dedicated to the support act, Sasha Samara. This petite little ball of fun and fury entertains the crowd for just over 30 minutes. Armed with nothing more than a ukulele, a sensitive side and a strong, soulful voice, Samara is quickly a crowd favourite. Tunes such as Sobering Up and Under My Skin are deft little numbers that hit all the right notes.
She’s only on for a while but with every tune the excitement builds; just five songs sung yet Samara is as chatty as can be, each song is introduced with an endearing backstory. Not that they need such introductions, the ukulele playing, melodies and powerful voice are notable enough.
Perhaps her best tune of the five is Still Letting Go where she enthuses, ‘the boys and the girls within my hands are all God’s Children’. A positive start to an increasingly buoyant crowd waiting on the main event.
My knowledge of the Hothouse Flowers has increased by about 2000% in the last two days. I knew their name, was vaguely aware of their sound but apart from I Can See Clearly Now they were a mere footnote in my knowledge of good Irish bands. Seeing them at the Banana Block pushes them up from mere footnotes to the topper-most-of-the-popper-most.
I was astounded by the amount of the tunes I was aware of, and their sheer live brilliance and musical talent.
Led by the beyond charismatic Liam O’ Maonlai, the five piece shake the Banana Block to its core. The audience, and I’m not being rude here, mostly in its 40s – 50s, immediately connect with this shamanic figure and his troop of merry pipers. We’re led this way and that, from out and out rock n roll of Give It Up to the gospel like You Can Love Me Now and we love every second.
Five on stage feels like a thousand or more. Whether it be O’ Maonlai’s thumping of the keys to his Hussein Bolt shape throwing to the mastery of the musicians as they plough their trades on their respective instruments.
From what looks like a mandolin to an ornately craved upright bass to the guitarist playing what appears to be a Gibson Dot, everything is pitch and metronome perfect. ‘We’re 39-years-old you know’ O’ Maonlai announces and that’s shown in their sheer professionalism.
There are some more sombre moments, a tune, one which I don’t know the name of, is dedicated to Paul. A founding member who passed away that very day. The Hothouse Flowers have the sweat dripping off the walls. The wah-wah of Love Don’t Work This Way teamed with two bass guitars in unison is arguably the funkiest tune of the set. I’ve never seen such an approach, but believe me it worked.
The Flowers end with their all-time classic Don’t Go, and it saddens me to say they made a bit of a mess of it. They only went and messed with beauty. Instead of the all out pleading, soulful observatory cracker of the tune they went all Paul Simon Graceland on us and went a bit too far from the mould and spoilt a touch of pop brilliance.
But never mind, one stinker didn’t wreck our night.
If you see a ticket for this monster of a band, grab it as quick as you can. You’ll not be disappointed.
The Eastside Arts Festival programme can be found here: https://visitbelfast.com/article/eastside-arts-festival-2022/#:~:text=EastSide%20Arts%20Festival%202022%20EastSide%20Arts%20Festival%20celebrations,and%20bring%20us%20all%20closer%20together.%20Last%20Updated
There’s something here to fit all tastes.