Out To Lunch Festival: The Black Box, Belfast
7th January 2017

Belfast’s Black Box is a rather luxurious yet cosy venue. Black walls, black floor, black bar, black stage. It’s black as far as the eye can see, which ain’t too far as you can imagine.

A million miles from Memphis. Far from the spit ‘n’ sawdust bars of Appalachia. It’s that dark lack of surrounding distraction that helps draw eyes and ears to the stage. An autumnal Saturday afternoon sees the Out To Lunch festival grace that stage with the talents of Tony Villers and the Villians and headliners The Dodge Brothers.

Tony Villiers and The VilliansTony Villers and The Villians live in The Black Box, Belfast. (c) Bernie McAllister.

Villiers opens up the show with Doc Doherty providing bluesy licks. A high and lonesome harp wails like the ghost of Hank Williams has returned 64 years and a week after his untimely death.

‘Mexico’ is a surefire Tony Villiers hit, sounding familiar even to those new to the Northern Irish man’s music. The Villians are recording a new record and from the sounds of ‘Montpellier Hill’ and ‘Bubble Bursts’, it’s a stormer.

At times Villers conjures up the frantic, dirty blues, sounds of the 60s Reeperbahn. Other more tender moments drip with an ‘Astral Weeks’ like sweet cherry wine.

The Dodge Brothers have been watching intently from the shadows; looking and listening. You’d expect a level of such research from renowned film critic and upright bass player Mark Kermode. But in truth, Kermode, frontman Mike Hammond and guitarist Aly Hirji are all well-schooled in the greats. From Guthrie to Cash and further back to when the best were ‘Blind’, ‘Slim’, ‘Sister’ or ‘Brother’.

The sound isn’t too different to Johnny Cash’s Tennessee Three with the added harmonies of an old-time string band. That trainlike chugging rhythm rises and falls as we roll through the country stations of the mid-West, the Bible belt and beyond.

Dodge Brothers live in BelfastMike Hammond and Mark Kermode of the Dodge Brothers live in Belfast’s Black Box. (c) Bernie McAllister.

In the least evangelical of manners, Mike Hammond is preaching to the converted in Belfast. We’re a city well-accustomed to God-fearin’ and hard liquor. We’re country music fans and The Dodge Brothers spin old country tales of “transport and homicide”. It’s a perfect fit.

From the opening track, Tarheel Slim’s ‘No. 9 Train’, through ‘Churchouse Blues’, down highways and byways, it’s a blistering education in the ways of the blues.

The Dodge Brothers Aly Hirji and Alex HammondAly Hirji and Alex Hammond of The Dodge Brothers at Out To Lunch in Belfast. (c) Bernie McAllister.

Hirji plays a mean mandolin before the band drops a gear to take on an almost acapella foot stompin’ rendition of Dock Boggs’ ‘O Death’. With the morbid on their mind, it’s onto ‘Died And Gone To Hell’. Mike Hammond’s son Alex is now a full-time band member and exemplary percussionist. Ever wondered how to play washboard and wine bottle? This is a skiffle lesson and boy we’ve been schooled!

There’s a lot to learn about The Dodge Brothers. ‘Wildflower’ has seen use accompanying silent movies. ‘Singled Out’ from their latest record ‘The Sun Set’ was recorded in the legendary Sam Phillips’ studio in Memphis. That last fact sure as hell better get the whoops and hollers it deserves or Kermode will strike down with wrath and furious anger.

‘The ATF Blues’ and ‘You Can’t Walk Like A Man (When You’re Too Drunk To Stand)’ are classic country cautionary tales from either side of the bar room. But for every drunken old-timer suppin’ on midday bourbon, there’s redemption in music. An encore of ‘Wabash Cannonball / The Promised Land’ takes us all home with a hell yeah and a hallelujah.

Aptly, beams of sunlight spill into the darkness as the crowd filters out, feet still tapping to the backbeat. We cast our minds back to that ‘O Death’ cover, which owed much to the stylings of the Primitive Baptist Universalist. Like them, I’m no believer in hell but heaven might just be a rockabilly Saturday afternoon in Belfast.