It was the opening night of the EastSide Arts Festival and what better way to welcome us in with the wonderful line up of Kaz Hawkins, Ryan McMullan and Edelle McMahon. While waiting for Edelle, I took in my surroundings of the Strand Arts Centre and admired the sweet smell of popcorn, classic decoration and appreciated the fact that the floor wasn’t sticky as is the case with many cinemas. Everyone was now settled and ready for the show to begin.

Kicking off proceedings was folk songwriter Edelle McMahon, admitting that she isn’t originally from the city but the country where her upbringing was, quoting her, the “spuds behind the ear” way. ‘Demeanour’ was performed as though it was through heartbreak and reflection with her sombre guitar picking. Definitely a moment for the hairs to stand on the back of your neck. Counteracting this, ‘Dispatches’ was a happier affair visualised by Edelle’s gleeful bounce on the stage. Even the crowd gave a wee head bop to her tune. ‘The Bell Curve Song’ really showed off her smooth, clean vocals before she left the stage leaving a lasting impression in the room. Her simple setup of a guitar, her voice and a lot of charm proves enough to connect with the audience, keeping all ears on her.

Next was Ryan McMullan who began by innocently explaining his use of loop pedals. I’m envious of those who can use loop pedals so I was already hooked before he got into it. ‘Holding Me Down’ was a roaring showcase of his soulful voice and oozed intensity. Ryan performed a song he wrote about “our wee country” provoking an empathetic response from the audience. As probably expected, the lyrics were poignant with lines like “could we be friends when blood runs through our rivers” suggesting great maturity and experience from him. This was an example of Ryan’s character on stage. Speaking with thought and singing with attitude. He explained that he is glad to see Northern Ireland moving forward after which the person I was sitting next to told me how they used to organise local gigs in the grim and divided 70s.

It was now time for Kaz Hawkins complete with “Her Band of Men” in tow. As someone who had heard her on record but had never seen her live until now, I could already tell she was going to rule the room with her confident walk to the microphone. Throughout her set, there was a clear sense of devotion in her sound. ‘Believe With Me’ connoted hope and faith with a backdrop of visuals displaying various languages. During the spirited ‘Hallelujah Happy People’, the audience sang at her command while the big screen showed black and white footage of swing dancers. Another highlight was ‘Soul Superstar’ which Kaz dedicated to those who have needed help to achieve their dreams while thanking us for helping her to reach her goals. A heartfelt chorus of “you’re a soul superstar and you know who you are. You keep on going” made it feel like she was inspiring us. Before she performed ‘I Saw A Man’, she explained how the man featured in the video sadly passed away so the song was renamed to ‘Norman’s Song’ in his honour. It was obvious that this was a moving story but also a touching tribute to Norman.

There is no doubt that Kaz Hawkins is a powerful force on the stage. At one point, she sang a note for an extended period of time and gave a cheeky look at her watch, humouring us. While she is dominating when she sings, I found her very relatable as a woman who wears her heart on her sleeve and clearly has enthusiasm for what she does. Common decency is stopping me from using profanity to describe how fabulous she was but I would very strongly encourage you to check her out when you get the chance!

Overall, a very relaxed evening and it has to be said that the audience were one of the most appreciative audiences I have ever seen. There was so much warmth and support for the musicians who had us from their every word.

Photos © 2014 Gerry McNally Photography.