Tuesday evening sees The Humble Reviewer standing at the front of a VERY young Brudenell audience, pondering on the fact that I’m old enough to be their dad (no, NOT their grandad, thank you very much – at least not yet) and wondering if maybe I should be handing the twin batons of gig reviewing and being a tog (how we gig photographers refer to ourselves, dahling…) to somebody younger. Tonight, I’m here to catch up with Meryl Streek to see where he’s taking his next steps a mere six months after the release of his critically received debut album “796”, and also to see what all the fuss is about around Belfast rappers Kneecap, whose generosity has made it possible for me to be at the gig (thank you guys). The audience mill around and there is a sense of expectation in the air that tonight is going to be special.
Ultimately, with anything connected with the music industry, a massive amount rests on belief. Meryl Streek believes in what he’s saying about the state of the Irish Government and the Catholic church. Kneecap believe in what they’re saying about living in post-Conflict Belfast and about their desire for a unified Ireland, free from outside interference. Musicians as a whole have to believe that folk will turn up for gigs and that they’ll come to the merch stand afterwards (and preferably buy stuff) to keep the whole musical Circle of Life revolving. And maybe I have to try to believe that, (in addition to trying to believe that I remembered to charge my camera batteries before I came out) that age does not maketh the man / woman / person / tog / reviewer. Let’s see how that works out.
With 6 months having passed since the release of 796, Meryl Streek is certainly not one for letting the grass grow under his feet – with sets from a few months ago already featuring the track “Paddy”, work on 796’s successor is already underway and tonight’s set features both Paddy and new track “If This Is Life”, due to be unleashed to an expectant world not too far in the future, hopefully. I’m pleased to see that Meryl’s rage has not diminished since the last time I saw him – the laptop containing Planet Meryl is activated and we are treated to the news broadcast samples of 796’s anti-Catholic church opener “The Start”, underpinned by a sinister but insistent loop. Like a wraith appearing out of the darkness, Meryl leaps onto the stage with a simple, “What’s up, Leeds?” before letting out his trademark gut-wrenching yell and launching into the angry “Full of Grace”.
Lights and other effects are minimal to the point of non-existent, which whilst frustrating me as a tog, suits the music and the messages perfectly. Meryl paces from one end of the stage to the other in the smaller of tonight’s rooms (the big room tonight being occupied by the mighty Yard Act as part of their 5-night Brudenell residency). The only illumination is provided by a small but powerful torch which he occasionally uses to light up his face with chilling effect. Because there’s nothing else to watch apart from him, you’re compelled to LISTEN to the anger, the frustration and the often-downright hatred in his lyrics. “Lads, get the fcuk over here”, he demands, spotting the gap between the front rows of the audience (some of whom clearly don’t know what to make of him yet) and himself. We all shuffle forward obligingly, heads switching from left to right every twenty seconds, like spectators at some demonic tennis match.
“We’ve got something else for you now that is going to blow your mind”, announces another sample from the laptop – “Urgent, avant-garde punk to the fore”. “Gah”, utters Meryl scornfully, launching into “Yesterday” – “My days are dark as shit but I can’t let it win – 24/7 mind going round the bend” is angry and melancholy at the same time. “You left-when I needed you most you, said I thought you meant it – and you took it back for the craic – just like that”. You suspect that this song means a lot on a personal level and the sad strings that underpin the lyrics only serve to the reinforce that sentiment, but there’s no time for self-pity in this 34-minute burst of outrage before we launch into the bile-filled “Death to The Landlord”, a solid uppercut to those who contribute to the misery of so many. I swear I can hear a slowed down version of Joy Division’s “Shadowplay” lurking somewhere in this song’s DNA, as the Irish government, who are equally complicit in Ireland’s housing crisis, also drift into his crosshairs.
“This one goes out to anyone working in the music business, because you’re all a bunch of cu*ts” is the message that drags us kicking and screaming into “Matter of Fact”. My 80s head goes into overdrive as I hear the keyboard motif of The Cure’s “A Forest” sitting at the back of this one, as Meryl bids us to come even closer. By this time, we’re pressed up against the stage and can’t really GET any closer, but there’s a feeling of camaraderie and community building up in this crowd as more folk start to drift in from outside, clearly intrigued by the sounds that are coming from the man and his mic, so we all shuffle a little bit closer. Before we know it, we’re stamping our feet with our hands in the air. “That’s more fcuking like it”, Meryl nods approvingly as a haunting penny whistle sits beneath the beats and the anger.
Sadly, we have to make do with samples of Molly Vulpyne rather than the real thing tonight for the rendition of “Hell”, but she still makes a powerful contribution to the track all the same, just as she did on “796”. “We are each our own devil, and we make this world our own hell” is a chilling thought, as is the image of, “And he died in a hospital bed. Surrounded by the ones that loved him most – a half a can of Heineken on his bedside table with yesterday’s newspaper with tomorrow’s odds circled, wondering where all his time went”. Whilst we owe it to ourselves to grab every minute of life we can, this always assumes that life gives us the leg up to do the grabbing in the first place. “Educated Mates” pumps up the tempo up to “Breakneck”, with another swipe at government housing policies “And I’ve got educated mates sleeping on floors, sharing bedrooms with people but it’s all OK lads it’s all OK, for you”. If you haven’t listened to 796 in all its majesty, I strongly recommend that you do so – preferably with the lyric sheet in hand, so you can really take in what it is that you’re listening to.
Suicide is the final 796 track to make an appearance as Meryl leaps into the crowd parting them down the centre (Moses imagery, anyone?) and creating a channel from front to back of the room down which he pounds furiously, replacing the left to right of the stage. “Paddy” is a track from the next album, and looks at the life of Meryl’s uncle, someone who he clearly admired for living life on his own terms – “One of the smartest I ever knew – I respect him, because he played by his own rules”. The backing track is peaceful and dreamy compared with what has gone before and it’s altogether a more introspective and personal piece.
May the 16th will see the release of set closer “If This Is Life”, another swipe at landlords, unaffordable rents and the challenges facing those wanting to make a tentative step onto the property ladder “I do feel blessed with what I got – a shed out the back and that says a lot” – we don’t always need much – just a chance to live a semblance ort a normal life – whatever THAT might be – “I wanna never drink again, like so many around me failed to do, I wanna live a life over 50, like so many around me failed to do”. He whips us up into one last frenzy of indignation with “Let’s do this again – every single one of ya, clap ya fcukin’ hands!” And we do, wholeheartedly – he cares and so must we.
Meryl Streek is a voice for the downtrodden, the oppressed, the forgotten and the abused, those who have slipped between the craics (yes, I KNOW) of society’s pavement and can’t quite claw their way back. Seek him out, listen to his words, his pain and his frustration – you might find a lot more resonating with you than you might have first imagined.
Meryl Streek played: The Start, Full of Grace, Yesterday, Death to the Landlord, Matter of Fact, Demon, Educated Mates, Suicide, Paddy and If This is Life
It’s currently a time of much excitement for Belfast trio Kneecap, comprising Mo Chara, Móglaí Bap and DJ Próvaí (all aliases for the sake of anonymity and probably no bad thing) who are soon to extend their particular brand of musical mayhem onto the big screen, with a semi-fictional depiction of their story due to premier at the Cannes Film Market (which sets out to connect filmmakers with those working in film financing and distribution, so no bad thing) later this month. The feature-length Irish and English film only wrapped up production in the last few weeks – set in West Belfast in 2019, it sets out to depict post-Conflict society through music, politics, language, identity and culture as seen through the eyes, ears and mics of Kneecap themselves.
Starting out in 2017 with C.E.A.R.T.A. (“Rights”) off the back of an unfortunate incident involving some spray paint, a bus stop and the police, right through to the 2021 single MAM (a tribute to their mothers), Kneecap target a wide range of social issues, from what’s going outside their own front door, through to support for Palestine, clearly showing their dislike for oppression in whatever form it may manifest itself. As Kneecap and I haven’t crossed paths previously, I’ve been doing my research and I like what I hear already, so, I’m keen to see how this mix of humour, social and political awareness translates itself to the live environment. There’s an almighty roar from the crowd around me as the three take to the stage with a cry of, “What’s happening, Leeds?”
As you can quickly detect from DJ Próvaí’s vaguely frightening green white and orange balaclava (which never leaves his head throughout the entire set – how this is achieved without him dying of dehydration, I have NO idea as it looks to be boiling up there). To my old tinnitus-raddled ears, it’s easy to draw a line from the likes of The Beastie Boys and Eminem, but also from the 40+ years of punk which Belfast has gifted us and in keeping with all of these, Kneecap have managed to ruffle more feathers, political and otherwise, than a fox in a hen coop.
Mo Chara and Móglaí Bap prowl across the stage chanting “It’s been ages, since we made the front pages”, which comes as a bit of a surprise, given their track record for courting controversy. The wordplay is clear and precise, never missing a beat and though it might appear menacing to some, it’s also very much tongue in cheek. They pay tribute to Meryl Streek, and whilst instructing us to “Go buy his merch”, with the stipulation that we, “Buy OUR merch first!” We’re also informed that yesterday’s gig in Cardiff was their first for eight months, so they’re “Pure fcukin’ rusty”, but as they launch into “Fenian Cu*ts”, you’d never guess. The crowd chant back the chorus in delight as the song weaves effortlessly between English and Irish. For some reason, an image of P.J. and Duncan (but if they’d found the key to their Nan’s drug cupboard) springs to mind – ask your parents, younglings. There’s a call to the soundman “I know we’ve got neighbours, just turn it up”, though whether this refers to Yard Act next door of the residents across the road is unclear. It doesn’t really matter though, as EVERYONE is going to hear Kneecap tonight, whether they like it or not.
Thart Agus Thart dates back to lockdown and the endless monotony of staring at your phone because there was nothing else to do. It also covers another solitary activity which I can only leave to your imagination, dear reader, but Kneecap have no such reservations, discussing said activity in GREAT detail, and with no small amount of glee. It’s the humour that radiates from these three that sets them apart from angry rappers with little to say – despite the often-serious nature of the subject matter, you can’t help but smile, and I find myself enjoying this gig more by the minute. Maybe there’s life in the old dog yet.
A very passable upper class English accent is adopted to ask us, “What would happen if we hadn’t civilized you savages?” which results in a cheer – everyone in this audience is on the same page, thankfully. We are advised that some of the new songs played tonight will appear on an album that will come out at some stage soon, but “Don’t ask us – we’re the LAST people to know!” Sick In the Head is introduced with “If you’re going to be mentally unwell, you have to be RICH and mentally unwell”. The thing that strikes me as someone who grew up with the likes of Cypress Hill, Public Enemy and the aforementioned Beastie Boys is the authenticity of the wordplay and the delivery, as well as the way in which the words are received by this audience. To come back to my earlier theme of belief, there is absolutely NO doubt that these guys believe in what they’re saying, and as I look stage left, I see the legendary Liam Norton (who has driven and “done” for so many bands from the Island of Ireland that it’s hard to keep track, and whose driving skills have made THIS tour possible too) standing at the side of the stage watching tonight’s acts intently and with a great deal of pride. He believes absolutely in the bands who he helps out and Kneecap are no exception – you can see it in his face and the way he speaks about them. Strong, The Belief is in this one, young Jedi.
As the gig takes place a mere three days after the coronation, it was inevitable that it would feature at some time in tonight’s proceedings and the boys don’t disappoint. We are advised that we can stick our coronation somewhere that would at best be challenging, at worst, downright impossible and it’s clear that THIS is a sentiment shared by the audience too. Oh, and the cast of Coronation Street can go the same way too. All of them. Eye-watering. Dogs with jobs (Police dogs, specifically) are the next target – how can you NOT love a song with a chorus of “Your sniffer dogs are sh*te”? There’s a rousing chorus of “Free, free, Palestine” before “I Bhfiacha Linne” kicks off with a glorious sample from 808 State’s “Cubik” – ah, the memories!
Oh, and if you want to see belief one last time, picture the scene as friend of the band Daithí Ó Flaibhin (not a short fella either) decked in a green tee declaring “26+6=1 Tiochfaidh ár lá“ (“Our Day Will Come”) takes a running jump from the stage and launches himself full pelt into the crowd, who take up the challenging task of passing him to and fro above their heads with great enthusiasm. I’m beginning to believe that I’m capable of ANYTHING, by this point. The biggest mosh pit, nigh on the width of the entire room opens up as DJ Próvaí and Mo Chara wade in on the shoulders of a couple of willing audience members, before the whole thing smashes together in a scene of absolute pandemonium, from which both emerge amazingly unscathed.
By this point, the crowd are frantic, bouncing up and down furiously, punching the air and thoroughly enjoying every minute. Especially those who are the recipients of a bottle of Buckfast which is poured by the band into any open mouth in the front row. Political and social concerns aside, I can cheerfully say that this is one of the happiest, friendliest and most animated gigs I have ever attended and I’m gutted that I won’t be able to make the Manchester gig two days later, as I’m double booked.
Next up is the wonderfully titled “Get Your Brits Out” that I’m pretty sure channels some of 808 State’s “Pacific State”, as well as the 60 beeps from BBC News (possibly the most British “Establishment” sample you could hope to find). The interplay in “Remix” between English and Irish continues unabated, but the weird thing is, it doesn’t seem to matter if we don’t understand every word as long as we get SOME of it. The set draws to its close (well, the first one at least) with a trip back to Kneecap’s roots and first single C.E.A.R.T.A (“Rights”), which is where all the bus stop-related troubles (with a small ‘t’”) started ““Young man we caught you damaging public property – and you are coming to the station so we can talk properly”, EVERYONE knows the chant for this one and shout it back joyfully. DJ Próvaí’s balaclava remains firmly attached – his head must be the size of a walnut in there by now, it’s that hot, but his eyes still poke manically through the holes. Do NOT approach.
The trio disappear triumphantly, but as the now-familiar chant of “One More Song” rings out, we know that this won’t be the last we see of them and sure enough, they return to the stage for the two-hander of Guilty Conscience with insistent beats that must have Meryl Streek pricking up his ears, along with some well-aimed vitriol aimed at landlords and Margaret Thatcher. Hood concludes the evening’s 56 insane minutes of entertainment, most of which I didn’t understand, but I’m honestly not bothered. What I DID observe tonight was the power of belief – belief in a cause, belief in your mates, belief in yourself and belief in music in general – thankfully, belief in something doesn’t need to preclude being entertaining either.
Finally, I decide to believe in myself a bit – where music is involved, age doesn’t really matter – if you get it, you get it and that’s all there is to it, really. I’ll be at the front of the queue to see Kneecap again and will be seeing Meryl Streek (supported by the intriguingly-named Dead Sheeran) in Manchester on the 29th of May But pre-Kneecap, I’ll be swotting up on my Irish or at least running the lyrics through Google Translate before I do so – I suspect there’ll be a few surprises in store, for sure, but I suspect there’ll be a few laughs in there too. All information about Keecap can be found HERE
Kneecap played: Intro, It’s Been Ages, Fenian Cu*ts, Thart Agus Thart, Sick in The Head, Fine Art, Sniffer Dogs, I Bhfiacha Linne, Get Your Brits Out, Remix, C.E.A.R.T.A (Rights) + Guilty Conscience and Hood (encore)