I’ve run a lot of arts events in my time but I can honestly say, with a few notable exceptions, (the day three people turned up for Leontia Flynn springs to mind, and also that time the noise police turned off our electricity mid-gig and some kids shoved a whole pan loaf down the gents’ toilets), I don’t think I’ve ever been as stressed as I was last night.
Way back in March when an actual physical Malcolm Orange was still a twinkle in my publisher’s eye and I was making promises I’d never be able to keep, Keith Acheson and I met up to brainstorm ideas for this year’s Belfast Book Festival. Flush from the ease with which our Ulster Hall programme had come together I became somewhat cocky. “Sure, put Hannah McPhillimy and I down for a wee music and spoken word event,” I said and promptly forgot all about it until Keith called me mere days before the Book Festival Brochure went to print to see where we’d like to hold our epic operatic reading. There was, in our humble opinions, no Belfast venue small enough to host this yet-to-be-written, who-knows-if-anyone-will-want-to-see-it, exercise in winging it with a keyboard and a paperback novel. The Crescent broom cupboard wasn’t an option and when two days later Keith emailed to say we’d been upgraded from the Barge to the Black Box, (a cavernous space with capacity to hold the absent presence of 150 or more people who would most certainly not turn up to see the show), we started to panic a little.
We are not proud of what transpired. We just have confessed all, covered some Bon Iver tunes and called it quits. Instead, in the run up to the Book Festival Hannah and I talked at length to local press and media, with heaving superlatives and vague detail, about how wonderful the event was going to be. We were not exactly lying though I’m pretty sure we weren’t peddling gospel truth either. We drank a lot of coffee and talked around the project and didn’t actually get the blessed thing finished until around midnight on Monday with the event due to begin at 9pm on Tuesday. Not our most professional hour but we were convinced that the addition of the lovely Lizzy with her very sophisticated cello would distract from the harsh reality that neither of us had a baldy clue what we’d be doing on stage between the hours of 9:15 and 10:30.
Within five minutes of arriving at the Black Box I began to realise that performing with musicians was nothing like delivering a literary reading. Used to rocking up ten minutes before start time with a photocopied story and a bottle of Ballygowan I was hideously ill-dressed for hauling keyboards around the Cathedral Quarter and sweltering beneath the nuclear-strength stage lights. I was a puddle within seconds and more like a pond by the evening’s end. There were also, I quickly learnt, many microphones which had to be checked, individually and then with painstaking deliberation, collectively. There was a blinding light and a black space where I usually anticipated an audience and I would ahve no way of telling whether our listeners were indeed listening, playing Candy Crush on their mobiles or buggered off home to watch Holby, which, given the circumstances, would have been my Tuesday night practice of choice.
It is testament to the wonder that is Hannah McPhillimy that last night was not a car crash, and was in fact, something of a small town success. Her songs were gorgeous, her cover of Dylan’s “I’m Not There,” epic. The whole thing, we were later told, by a stranger who was by his own admission, more than a little stoned, “made you feel like you could fly.” (I am hoping to high heaven he did not put this theory to the test on the way home). Granted, it was not the so-this-is-how-it-feels-to-be-in-the-Arcade-Fire sensation that I’d been anticipating but, as a first stab at collaboration it wasn’t the worst thing I’ve ever been responsible for, (Dance, Dance, Resurrection anyone? Hamster sleepover?). Hannah and I have plans for our next performance, big plans involving an 80s supergroup, but for now, I’m just thankful that I am a writer and not a rock and roll star. The stress of it would kill me and I’m not comfortable with sweating this much in full view of the general public. Besides, I’d never ever get used to being out, and vocal, after ten on a weeknight.
(Nb. There are relatively few photos of last night as I was too nervous to Instagram. This will give you all some indication of how stressed I got after being in a “band” albeit a rather tiny band, for just one evening).