LIVE: Belfast Vital 2019 @ Boucher Fields

By Fiachra Johnston

Belfast Vital, Tennents Vital, Vital Festival. Call it what you will, but this 17 year old Northern Irish festival – when it’s not suffering from an unfortunate hiatus or year long break – always delivers a surprisingly strong lineup. This year, the show returned to its roots of splitting the festivities into two days, with one day focused on presenting an indie and alternative rock showing, and another giving us an electronic and house-oriented line-up. While Timmy Trumpet took centre stage for day two, day one saw the return of rock icons Foo Fighters to the island, having last played Ireland at Slane Castle in 2015, and in Belfast at Vital 2012.

Before they take to the stage at Boucher Fields, however, the fans still filing into the festival are greeted by the King Nun, a slight surprise as none of the promotional material announced they were joining the day. Their presence is hardly unwanted though, as the burgeoning burgundy-clad Londoners bring a welcome liveliness to the afternoon. While they have yet to release a full LP, front man Theo Polyzoides eagerly leads the troupe through a discography that has enraptured fans, with jovial post punk tracks like ‘Family Portrait’ and ‘Chinese Medicine’ mixing well with the sheer joy King Nun express during their performances. Finishing with a tried and true closing statement of instrument destruction during ‘Speakerface’ (an 8/10 guitar smash from Polyzoides’, as his low grasp of the neck means it can only go a few rounds before it separates from the body, a good effort but could use tightening up), King Nun get the blood pumping for the day.

After the rubble is cleared from the stage, the first of the advertised acts, Hot Milk, head up. Much like King Nun, there’s a sense the Manchester-born pop-punk group, fronted by Hannah Mee and Jim Shaw, get as much of a rush from their own performance as the crowd do. The electrically-charged four-piece similarly have yet to release an album, but again, what’s there is engaging and energetic, with modern twists on old school pop-punk through subtle piano backing and electronic-inspired production. Mee and Shaw command the stage and take every opportunity to engage with the crowd, and their music is as infectious from when they come on to when they depart, particularly ‘Awful Ever After’, featuring some impressive live vocals from the pair.

Frank Carter & The Rattlesnakes follow and, as ever, Gallows alumni Frank insists on being the most explosive artist on the line-up if it kills him. From crowd walking (or in this case, simply leaping into the rain-slicked crowd and performing their opening salvo inside the pit with Rattlesnake guitarist Dean Richardson), to threatening to beat unruly concert-goers should they fail to look after crowd-surfing women during ‘Wild Flowers’, to getting lost in thought while regaling stories of his newborn daughter, Carter is a character like no other. Drawing mainly from their newest release ‘End Of Suffering’, The Rattlesnake’s set is giddy melodrama, but the quintet exude venomous charisma without ever feeling disingenuous or fake. While their short setlist doesn’t allow the group to fully explore the softer side of their latest album, the sheer energy on display from the get go of ‘Tyrant Lizard King’ to the end of their now infamous show-closing track ‘I Hate You’ is contagious, and a perfect way to build anticipation for the main event. 

It’s clear at this point Dave Grohl has picked his supports in line with his own mantra that the love of music and the performance comes before anything else, as so far each band has delivered their own expression of what it means to them to perform on stage. So when the Foo Fighters step up to the plate, there is already the expectation that a similar passion will come through. Once the hurdle of dealing with some unruly festival goers is cleared, as several members of the pit are thrown out for getting violent, that passion is clear. Whether it’s newer work, or golden oldies, one thing is very clear: Dave Grohl loves to play.

Highlights of the show include Taylor Hawkins and his Tower of Terror platform, which rises and lowers during his drum solo following ‘Times Like These’, Hawkins and Grohl swapping roles for a rendition of Bowie and Queen classic ‘Under Pressure’ – demonstrating that Grohl, for all his showmanship, was and is one of the most fluid drummers of the nineties – and a five-year old from the crowd, who Dave insists comes on stage to dance with him during ‘All My Life’. All this precedes Grohl introducing the backup singers for the tour, one of whom is his daughter Violet. Jokingly lamenting that he “isn’t even the best singer in his family anymore”, they break into some of the best tracks of the night, including newer features such as ‘The Sky Is A Neighbourhood’ and ‘Dirty Water’, as well as slow dance versions of ‘Wheels’ and ‘Big Me’.

It’s all these little touches during the performance, from guitarist Nate Mendel teasing ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’ and ‘Hocus Pocus’, to Dave Grohl detailing nearly moving to Lisburn, Co. Antrim during ‘Sunday Rain’ and ‘My Hero’ that make the whole show feel vastly more personal than many big-name rock bands make their festival shows feel. Grohl very clearly has the goal of making a show feel like just that: a show. Like Frank Carter, it’s grandiose, it’s energetic, and as the opening riff of ‘Everlong’ starts up, it feels like for that one moment, the glory days of hard rock are alive and present. In Grohls’ own words, “We are The Foo Fighters, we play fucking Rock n’ Roll!”

While featuring fewer ‘main event’ bands than previously, Vital still delivers an entertaining day, no doubt in part due to the sheer energy and positivity of the bands already present. Discounting the weather – as expected, if you’re not prepared for a sudden harrowing burst of rain after a twenty minute heatwave, you’re not prepared for an Irish concert at all – this was about as smooth a concert as you could have asked for, and the focus on smaller acts allowed for a big finish without any performance overshadowing another. If Vital decide to continue on another year longer, they’re on to a winning formula.

FIACHRA JOHNSTON