Exciting Scene Let Down by Stagnant Staging
A single spotlight illuminates a lone figure on stage. ‘They…’, FeliSpeaks says, allowing the word to ring out, spelling out the image step by step as though discovering it for the first time: ‘They tried to / they tried to bury us / they tried to bury us but they didn’t know we were seeds’. They and us; a division in language often weaponised, now reclaimed. This is a celebration of difference as much as unity.
The poet, performer and playwright is a fitting curator of Extraterrestrial, an evening of music and spoken-word poetry celebrating Black Irish identity at the National Concert Hall on 20 May. Previously, she performed at Notes from a Quiet Land at the NCH, a celebration of diverse voices for International Women’s Day, and was commissioned by RTÉ in 2020 to write ‘Still’ about Ireland’s response to the pandemic.
FeliSpeak’s opening monologue is delivered with the kind of projection and precision that suggests she probably doesn’t need the mic in front of her to be heard. She is rhythmic, suave and confident as she oscillates between pain and joy, celebration and lamentations, oppression and survival.
Though FeliSpeaks opens proceedings with poetry, this is a night of music, and we won’t hear from her again for the rest of the set. More’s the pity – what an opportunity there is to utilise her grounding presence during silent interludes that feel increasingly unmoored.
The talent is, of course, undeniable. Ireland’s flourishing hip hop, R&B and pop scenes owe a debt to their Black artists who are moving increasingly into the mainstream. Absent this evening are the voices of God Knows, Murli and Denise Chaila – arguably the forerunners of the new Irish sound – but the calibre of the line-up alone is proof that we should never again fail to see Black voices on festival line-ups in this country.
Alicia Raye, a singer and rapper whose collaborative mixtape Alphabet brought together over 40 Irish artists in a project that celebrated unity, moves graciously between R&B vocals and rap. She’s let down, unfortunately, by a thin sound in the backing tracks – a pervading issue throughout the evening. The addition of electric guitar and live drums might have brought more depth to the sound (we see how well this can work later), especially for the lengthy guitar solo on ‘Long Run’ – a gorgeous slice of pop R&B that would have shone with the right set-up.
Celaviedmai, a rising star in the Irish scene, suffers similar issues. Nonetheless, her drill freestyle ‘Known Better’ (performed this evening) is a fast-paced, quick-witted stamp on the scene, all heavy beats and star quality.
The addition of live instruments serves Kildare hip hop duo Tebi Rex — who, if there’s any justice, will break into the mainstream any day now – well. Max Zanga’s flow is calm and collected, with Matt O’Baoill’s charming, sweet vocals providing the hooks. ‘Lotus Eaters’ is a mellow, pensive meditation on ‘warm summer nights’ in Dublin City over a smooth boom-bap beat and bright lustrous guitar; nostalgic and dreamy.
Live percussion from Aaron Kelly is welcome as the group move into their second track, a jolt of energy into proceedings that so far has relied on deck-mixing and backing tracks that struggled to fill the space in the room. O’Baoill takes over the bars on the unreleased track, and there’s a spoken interlude that is unfortunately drowned out, but when Zanga returns in the second half, competing with decks and drums, and supported by O’Baoill, there’s a real sense of what these guys could do with a crowd.
Another highlight is Erica Cody whose vocals ring through with warmth and soul; again, she thrives with the addition of keys, drums and guitar. She makes upper register melismas look easy, and single ‘Calculated’, an ode to 90s R&B, is polished, culminating in a joyous instrumental of smooth guitar riffs and expressive drums. There’s a trick missed in the lack of backing vocals, but this is the fullest the set has sounded all evening.
JYellowL, whose album 2020 Division was a highlight in the Irish scene last year, excels as usual in the live space; his flow impressively dexterous, poetically delivered with a playful allure over a deep, heavy beat. His vocals barely let up for a second, so he doesn’t suffer the same issue of negative space in the sound as some other acts this evening. ‘I personally don’t subscribe to group identity,’ he tells us in the intro to ‘Home’, a love letter to his family and community.
Dundalk’s Reggie (Reggie B) is similarly magnetic (but there are those pesky sound issues again), bringing Ireland’s emerging drill scene to the stage of the National Concert Hall – no mean feat.
It’s a shame that so much of the production fell flat; static camera angles and inert blue lighting brought little to no personality to the individual performances. The National Concert Hall could be any other stage in any other venue – but there are such rich opportunities to use this space well. The artists are often lost in a vacuum of negative space, the lighting better suited to a performance for a crowd, not so much for a live-stream on our television and computer screens.
Moments of silence while switching between performers may have been better served by returning to Felispeaks in an MC role, or video clips from the rich collection of music videos in these artists’ repertoire. Instead, the artists drop off to silence, shuffling from one activity to the next with short audio snippets of backstage interviews (overlayed on the empty stage), which don’t flow as well as they could have. A pity.
It is not easy to reflect the live experience in online streams, less so with hip hop acts who excel when interacting with crowds, but we have seen it done well elsewhere in Ireland over the past year. Perhaps the focus should be less on replicating a live show and instead on embracing the audio/visual opportunities that come with online streaming; video clips, creative lighting, dynamic camera angles, backstage interviews – all unfortunately underused. On this occasion, the talent, poise and courage of this engaging scene won out over stagnant production, but only just.
Watch Extraterrestrial in full below (available until 27 May).
Published on 27 May 2021
Andrea Cleary is a freelance music and culture writer based in Dublin.