One day of the finest acoustic sets from two dozen of the best musicians and artists from in and around Belfast – Langanfest showcased the length, breadth and width of the accomplished and the talented.

All in one day – Saturday 7th September, all under one roof – The Sunflower, Belfast. It was a much needed fundraiser for the Samaritans – mainly run by volunteers.

Congratulations to Laganfest, and to those behind the Lagan Sessions – all volunteers too, for doing something sound and solid to tackle our mental health crisis – every little helps! So hats off to all those who gave of their time and their talents to make Laganfest a special day – and hopefully become a date on the calendar for future years.

Kicking off at 1pm and running until 11pm, here is the Roll of Honour for Lagafest 2019 with some new names and some well known stalwarts of the local music scene including:

Steve Amos, Mandy Bingham, Garvin Crawford, Dolbro Dan, Steve Dunwoody, Benny Fyfe, Wendy Jack, Bruce Joseph, Kippysmuse, Rory Lavelle, Stevie Mac, Sean McAuley, David McCann, Matt McGinn, Anastasia Tuti McIlroy, Edelle McMahon, Rory Nellis, Jonny Nixon, Brigid O’Neill, Ciara O’Neill, Alan Patterson, Suzanne Savage, Bobby Spiers and Tony Villiers (without his Villains).

Every hour, three artists took to the stage. Each has four songs to sing, in the round so to speak. Unfortunately, circumstances were such that I didn’t get there until late afternoon. Apologies to those acts I missed. I’m told it was packed from the word go.

The upstairs of the Sunflower was the perfect location. Latterly home to the Lagan Sessions (originally in the Pavillion). The sessions were set up in 2011, the brainchild of Steve Amos and David McCann (The Sandrunners).
Over the years, the Lagan Sessions have given around 150 acoustic artists a chance to play to small, but appreciative audiences. There’s only one rule – they ask politely that the audience listen to each artist respectfully, and leave the chit chat at the door.

Upstairs at the Sunflower has undergone something of a makeover since I was last there. The bar is where the old stage used to be, and the stage where the old bar once was. It’s a massive improvement – the stage now faces the door. It’s bigger and opens the room to a better sound and view. It’s still intimate. There is a beautiful vibe in the room. “Chuck it in the bucket” is the phrase of the night – a reminder that it’s a fundraiser for the Samaritans.

I’m on time to hear two artists familiar to me – Matt McGinn and Brigid O’Neill, on stage with Kris Marsden aka Kippysmuse. McGinn kicks off with ‘Darkest Before the Day’, a suitable theme for the day that’s in it. Brigid O’Neill is just one of the artists who first came to the fore via the Lagan Sessions. A gifted songwriter, I first heard her supporting Mary Coughlan a few years before, where the legendary Coughlan told the audience that she was blown away by O’Neill’s songs. Brigid tells us how she was shaking with nerves when she first played the Lagan Sessions. This is a chance to say thanks for the opportunity.

Here, Brigid plays ‘Window Seat’ – a song about the old Austin’s in Derry, where the lift gets stuck between the floors. There is a sense of stepping back in time, to an era long gone. Her next song ‘Light Over Here, Dark Over There’ describes the mixed feelings of being away from family and home, yet knowing that singing and recording Nashville is the chance of a lifetime.

Kris Marsden (Kippysmuse) is new to my ears. I particularly liked the song about his OCD, ‘Scaffolds’, and a new song about the destruction of the rainforests. Together, Matt and Brigid sing ‘Refugees’ so beautifully it would bring you to your knees. Shout out to the floor from Matt to choose his next song. ‘Woman’ shouts one person. ‘Marianne’ shouts another. A coin is tossed. We have the good fortune to get to hear both.

Many of the songs are about mental health – but many are not.

The next trio to take to the stage are the originators of the Lagan Sessions. David McCann, Steve Amos, and Edele McMahon, who’s been part of it all from the start – providing encouragement and support to numerous new artists. Edele has recently given up her day job to dedicate herself to being a full time musician, and here’s hoping that support and encouragement she’s given freely to others will come back full karma.

David McCann and Steve Amos may be known for their comedy songs, but considering that they’re the men behind The Sandrunners, I am reminded of their beautiful concept album ‘George M’Boy’ that commemorated the centenary of the end of The Great War.

This evening though, it’s light relief – humorous, if a little bit un-PC songs about girls names, prison life, growing old. The clever rhymes of Steve Amos has the audience in stitches. Thankfully he reminds us that they are not autobiographical songs. The uncanny impersonation of Neil Young means that a chord called F Major 7 will never be the same again!

The flip side of hilarity is a reminder of our mortality. Edele’s set opens with the first track from her album ‘Adventures in Narcissism’‘A-Haunting’, followed by ‘Circus’. It is a further reminder how good that album was – and a nudge to listen again.

The next set welcomes Mandy Bingham on stage accompanied by Graham Bingham on lap steel guitar. It’s the perfect accompaniment for Mandy’s clear, soft voice. ‘The Human Touch’ is a beautiful song from her first album, followed by a new song, which must take the prize for song title of the night – ‘What I Am/Isn’t The Menopause A Bitch?’ And finally, a love song for her husband. Another spine-tingling set.

Sean McAuley has been doing the sound all day but now’s his turn to shine. First off with ‘There’s Gold in Them There Hills’, the first song he ever wrote, aged 21, ‘Can’t Ignore What’s Mine’ and finally a bluesy tune to round it off.

Speakingof bluesy tunes – Bobby Spiers has arrived and we are treated to three in a row from that deep, rich voice: ‘Woman on the Hill’, ‘Backyard Blues’ and an old song, ‘Simple Working Man’.

It’s getting near the end of the night now – one more set to go with Stevie Mac, Chris Nixon and the sublime voice of Suzanne Savage. One of only a few covers of the day, is her exceptional interpretation from the Mis-Education of Lauren Hill. A hard act to follow, for Stevie Mac and Chris Nixon but we are not disappointed. From Stevie a political song about seeing the other point of view, and from Chris, a somewhat surreal song about his adventures in a time machine in Holland, no less.

But the final, traditional song of the night, is the one that blows us all away. A capella, Suzanne Savage sings Tommy Sands ‘Home to the County Down’. It reminds us that this world is full of beautiful things.

Congratulations to Laganfest for raising much needed funds for the Samaritans. The Samaritans was founded in 1953, one of the first telephone support systems. The work of the Samaritans is largely carried out by tireless volunteers.

Consider that well over 4,500 people have died by suicide since the signing of the Good Friday agreement – over a thousand more than died in “The Troubles”, yet mental health services remain overstretched and under-funded. It’s being described in the Northern Ireland media as an epidemic, at crisis point.

The Samaritans provide free, round the clock talking and listening services for people in crisis. World Mental Health Day is on 10th October – look after your own, and look out for others!