Having been lucky enough to see Little Bear play The Belfast Barge as part of the Open House Festival’s fantastic ‘15 Free Fridays’ series, it was with an excitement but also a knowing expectation of what I was going to witness in Limelight 2 that Friday night. What I wasn’t prepared for was the support act, the incredible Hozier, aka Andrew Hozier-Byrne. He shuffled onto the stage unassumingly, to a small gathering of people. When he started playing though, they were instantly captivated by the six-foot-something, denim-clad, singer-songwriter. A man whose deep, luscious, soulful voice didn’t seem to match up with his appearance, I found myself regularly checking to make sure this wasn’t some strange trick of the eyes. The acoustic guitar-only renditions of the beautifully delicate Cherry Wine, bouncing Angel of Small Death and the Codeine Scene, and a performance of Take Me To Church so powerful his voice sent resonations through my pint glass, were particular highlights. His announcement that they could all be downloaded for free from his Bandcamp brought an even greater level of happiness to the now-sizeable, visibly moved audience. He displayed brilliant crowd interaction throughout, introducing each new song, and even sharing some of their backgrounds – one was about “love at its most vapid, vacuous and superficial”, supposedly co-written by an ex.
With the crowd increasing by the minute, the associated din meant that when Little Bear took to the stage to start with an atmospheric, shimmering build-up, most seemed oblivious. Managing to just about catch the attention of the assembling, noisy hordes, lead singer Steven McCool introduced the first from a set featuring a lot of new material. ‘Second in Line’ showcased a new, perhaps more commercial sound, a Mumford-and-Sons-with-harmonica tale of unrequited love. Afterwards, they moved onto the brilliant ‘I’d Let You Win’. The delicate introduction was this time briefly interrupted by an ambulance driving past, but the audience were now giving their full attention and when the whirring guitar solo cut through the air, it almost mimicked the previous intrusive noise. The audience gave it a rousing reception, at which point McCool thanked the support acts, particularly Hozier. “You’re in for a treat so you are. I mean, erm, you were”. The evidence of slight nerves was strangely refreshing, and the audience were warming to him with every word.
A sequence of new material followed, each showcasing the glorious vocal harmonies that fans have come to expect, and one built around a flourish of piano chords, throwing the supremely talented keyboardist Conor Mason into the spotlight. “We were sh*tting ourselves!” admitted McCool afterwards, but you’d never have guessed from the music. A slight groan followed the announcement of more new material, but he justified it by saying they were just, “getting all the new stuff out of the way so we can let our hair down”. Another masterpiece of vocal harmonies followed, before “a really quiet number”- ‘The Devil’s a Songbird’. The resonating whistle left everyone captivated and for the first time nobody dared even whisper, eyes were transfixed on the stage. We were pins set up to be blown away by a softly spoken bowling ball of delicate, mesmerising vocals. Afterwards, upon being asked if they were having a good time, the audience roared a resounding “yes” once they’d snapped out of their trances.
Another new song followed. On the theme of heartache, it captured the very essence of Little Bear, and was the perfect means of segueing into current single, ‘Night Dries Like Ink’. Sad and moving, the repeated mention of the devil tying it in with ‘The Devil’s A Songbird’, and it garnered a similar reaction. Another new song followed, but by now the audience are in the palm of Little Bear’s paw, and girls swayed enthusiastically to the slow number that built towards a heavy climax juxtaposed with light, twinkling Mason keys.
‘Letters’, off the band’s first EP, is announced with noticeable relief from McCool, and he fires out the main line of, “Letters from the great beyond!” with the enthusiasm and confidence of a man who’s finally come to grips with his audience. This transferred into the next new song, ‘Dissonance’, and the audience enthusiastically clapped along. A noticeable, shocked gasp went up when the last song, ‘Few and Far Between’ was announced, in spite the sizeable setlist, and in a last ditch attempt to show their appreciation, the crowd sang along to every “wow” and the chorus word-for-word. It was a stunning end to a brilliant night, and the crowd begged for more. “We don’t have anymore songs!” pleaded McCool, before bowing to pressure and unleashing a second, more confident rendition of new track, Second in Line.
As they left the stage I knew, and the crowd knew, that this is a band channeling a buzz that Northern Irish music hasn’t seen in recent years. Tragically, and with prematurely whetted appetites, we must now play the cruel waiting game for their debut album. We’re in for a treat, so we are.
Little Bear – Night Dries Like Ink – Other Voices Live (February 2013)Tags: gig review, little bear, video