Horslips live at Dunluce Castle
The voice of Charles O’Connor rolls out towards the ocean. He’s thanking us for spending an evening with a decrepit, crumbling ruin that’s a shadow of its former self. He thanks us also for visiting Dunluce Castle. The self deprecation is appreciated and with wry grins, guitars are distorted into fantastic aural shapes and drums thunder across the bay like a call to prog-folk war.
The Solstice sun has been beating down on Northern Ireland’s north coast all afternoon. Belfast’s Kevin Bartlett and John Tracey are collectively known as Fretwear and take the early arrivals on a journey of acoustic rock and blues before their fellow city dweller Gareth Dunlop takes the stage.
Dunlop’s always been a hit locally, on record and stage alike but the last couple of years have seen song placements with the Northern Irish Tourist Board, with Kim Richey on the hugely successful ABC show Nashville and the soundtrack of Safe Haven. More than just a songwriter though, Dunlop’s voice is beautifully gravelly like the beach hundreds of feet below us. ‘Lover’s Den’ is soulful in the early evening sun, ‘Wrap Your Arms Around Me’ is the perfect tune to enjoy along the coastal road and ‘How Far This Road Goes’ is an appropriate inclusion to the set as it’s been the marketing tune for the tourist board’s most recent campaign featuring scenic panoramas from the very coast where we’re gathered. The addition of a cover of ‘Bette Davis Eyes’, which owes more to the Sexton Blake cover than the Kim Carnes original, is a lighter moment in the repertoire and it feels like a summer of festivals and great outdoor shows is finally just around the corner.
Bap Kennedy is no stranger to the stage and has perfected the summer festival feel with quick wit and Elvis swagger. ‘Heart Trouble’ from his most recent record has toes tapping throughout the crowd and a few songs into the set, there’s boogie-woogie piano and bluesy guitar licks aplenty and the dancing has begun. Kennedy tackles the sublime and the ridiculous with his work from the heart breaking tale of ‘Jimmy Sanchez’, the Chilean miner who claimed God had trapped him underground until he changed his ways to the Sun Records feel of ‘Cold War Country Blues’. While it sounds like Sun, the clouds roll in from the Atlantic Ocean and covers of ‘Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down’ and a moody rendition of Van Morrison’s ‘Madame George’ bring an end to the dancing. We’re on a journey somewhere else now; into the mist, into the mystic and while the gulls over chip vans are less romantic in form than the swans of Tír na nÓg there’s a definite feel of something a little bit magical in the air.
Horslips bound on stage with a verve and energy of a band many years their junior. Having reformed a few years ago after a break of just over thirty years, the vigour is renewed and the songs have retained their timelessness. ‘King of the Faeries’ showcases the musicianship on stage with pipes and flute sounding traditional and homely in the rolling green countryside. There’s a wind whipping up and O’Connor urges us to “drink like fishes or dance like dervishes” in the face of it. A frantic paced stomp through ‘Power and the Glory’, ‘Mad Pat’ and one the oldest Horslips singles ‘Furniture’ leaves the audience beaming and breathless.
It feels like the Gods themselves have been won over by three part harmonies, malojian and pipes. There are jigs and reels and big rock riffs offered up and in return the clouds part and the sun settles on the horizon bathing the cliff top in a cool orange glow. The castle hidden from view is something of a battleground tonight. The medieval warfare of ‘Maeve’s Court’ and ‘Charolais’ give way to the singalong hooks and choruses of ‘Sideways to the Sun’ in a blistering duel between guitar and electric mandolin.
The mandolin is the eight string victor as the set draws to a close with back to back hits. Every track louder, more frenetic and thundering than the last. The old ruins crumbling around us are in danger of tumbling to the sea as we race headlong into the night with ‘Man Who Built America’ and ‘Trouble’ before the otherworldliness and instantly recognisable opening riff of ‘Dearg Doom’ bring it all back home to a coastline of black marble by the sea. The night draws to a close with a rendition of the old rock and roll classic ‘Shakin’ All Over’.
Much like the craggy coastline and the castle in the distance, the music of Horslips has stood the test of time. On the longest day of the year the daylight wanes an hour before midnight but those songs will echo out over the waves for eternity.
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