"Northern Ireland is one of the few places you can go across the sea and still be in Britain. On the surface everything is the same: the road signs, the roundabouts, the stores. The weather? Yes, it’s raining. But there are subtle differences. A fry-up is called an Ulster fry and fuelling up in a breakfast cafe; the expectation for musical excitement is difficult to shake. Which can only be good thing."
First up is the conference side of things. It’s held in the Metropolitan Arts Centre in the city’s Cathedral Quarter. The taxi driver kindly regards the area as “up-and-coming” and on the walk down there, there’s a clichéd hipster coffee shop and plenty of craft beards that you’d find in any archetypal place that’s experienced the wrath of gentrification such as Nørrebro, Copenhagen or Clapton, London – or if you’re a South Park fan, Sodosopa. But somehow the rising presence of young “arty types” in this previously impoverished area doesn’t seem at all crass – and importantly the cost of beer here isn’t life threatening. Perhaps this sense of fairness and polite way of being helps it come across so likeable.
The conference is held in one of the modern buildings that boldly contrast to the quaint narrow cobbled streets and old terraced town buildings. Output ensure that there’s no excuse not to miss the talks conducted by top professionals with in the industry as band’s don’t begin until well past sunset. The MAC has a bustling atmosphere and feels somewhat like a university with many of its attendees studiously scribbling away writing notes on topics that suit a range of professionals on the performing side and behind the scenes.
It’s possible to go for co-writing and Ableton masterclasses, learn about syncing, developing a career in TV composition, and learn some music production tricks from some of the world’s very best engineers. Moreover, there’s topical debates such as: 5 things music PR's do wrong, and a discussion about music mental health - all great brain food.
After a solid day of a Utopian day of free education, it’s off to take in some of the free music showcases. Given that all the venues are so close to each other the decision is made not to look too heavily into the bands beforehand (most of them we’ve never heard of) and judge them by their recordings but instead wonder around, go with the flow, and see what we stumble across.
Fortunately, our first punt pays off. In the only gig held inside the MAC we’re invited to sit down in a cinema-like setting and within moments a slender young gentleman from Belfast named Ryan Vail takes centre stage. Surrounded by hoards of synth gear he sets about igniting the room with Krautrock tinged deep house. Surprisingly, he takes a neo-classical direction quite early on in the set but then brings thing back up a notch with a fascinating wall of sound that should have Sonar festival begging him to play this year. He’s a sublime talent and is set to be at SXSW this month.
Leaving the crowd at the MAC, it’s a hop, skip and a jump over to The Black Box Café . We’re greeted with wafts of hand made pizza and bitter hops as this café turned live venue is suitably furnished with a sofa at the side of th stage that provides an ample viewing spot to take in the whole set of the Dublin band, Carriages. Their vocalist has a stunning tone and the brittle vulnerability in there that puts him in the league with Villagers’ Cono O’Brien even if the songs aren’t as memorable. Their style is to mix this folk-y vocal with colourful synth driven soundscapes, and they deliver this unlikely combination in impressive style.
Our time at the nearby (everything is nearby) Duke Of York pub is spent with mouths slightly ajar just taking in the atmosphere. It’s easily one pf the most impressive interior of any boozer in the UK. It’s one of those places that you imagine American’s dream of when they fantasise visiting Belfast. Musically, we aren’t as lucky and nothing we see here seems to hold our attention in the few occasions we frequent it.
But over at 39 Gordon Street it’s a different story. Touts (Irish for snitch) are playing to a packed venue. So far the teenage 3-piece have no music out (apart from the above live session) but there’s excitement in the air that you only find when a band is about to get huge. Indie kids cram in next to folded arm industry veterans and Touts play 77-esque punk seriously loud, and lightning quick. They have that quality that makes seeing any true punk band live exciting: they're playing more off adrenaline and a sense of rebellion than technical shine; and it's a hell of a lot of fun to witness. Touts are this generation Stiff Little Fingers and deserve every success they can get.
Rounding off the weekend involved a wonder down to The Spaniard pub – a friendly intimate place. It’s somewhere to reflect on the fact that the ease of wondering between venues and the quality of bands on show has made Output Belfast 2017 a massive success. The potential this event has to grow is amazing. It would be fantastic to see it turned into a multi-day event and invite some bigger names down and bolster the Cathedral Quarter’s reputation as one of the best locations in the world for a new music festival and conference. We’ll be back for sure.